Friday, March 26, 2010

The Personal Strength of Responsibility - Three Principles

The other day a neighbor and I were talking about some conflicts that were troubling our property owners association. “You should run for office,” he said.

I let that thought sink in. No. I shouldn’t. I already have a full plate. I’ve served on association boards before, and if I volunteered for this now I wouldn’t be able to fulfill the responsibilities I already have. But for a moment I doubted myself. Was I avoiding a community responsibility?

When I reflect on the concept of responsibility, my thoughts go to three themes or “principles.”

The Principle of Huge and Humble. Often there’s a grand, romantic view of “duty,” that it’s about completing some heroic or exalted mission. Your duty to serve your country. To help save a life. To save an enterprise from failure. To “give back.”

But worthy responsibilities don’t have to be lofty undertakings. Some of the most important duties in life are the simple, practical ones right in front of you. Who will fix the fence? Who will move the neighbor’s trash can that the wind has blown into the street? Who will clean the mess in the kitchen? Who will replace the burned-out light bulb? It can be hard to see mundane tasks as significant responsibilities. If they’re small and uninteresting, it’s tempting to think, “It’s no big deal. Somebody else will take care of it.”

When my wife, Kathleen, and I lived in Vero Beach, our home was only a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. A frequent delight was to walk along the beach after work. More often than not, these walks turned into trash pick-up projects. Kathleen explained that inorganic waste is unsightly and dangerous to pelicans, gulls and other seabirds. Our arms would be full of debris by the time we found a trash receptacle.

Seemingly trivial acts can make a difference. You take care of them without being asked simply because you know they’ll contribute to the general betterment of things. You appreciate the importance of what you’ve done, even if no one else does. And your reward is the improvement you see in the world around you, and the good feeling you have about yourself because you “took care of business.”

In the end, you don’t have to be the one to take responsibility for everything, even if you care about it. You choose your tasks. You choose how you’ll contribute.

The Principle of Follow-through. This one’s simple. If it’s your job, then do it. Once you agree to do something, being responsible means that you actually do what you said you would do. And it means you do it to the best of your abilities. You don't do it half-way. You don’t “phone it in.” You don’t just give it lip-service.

In my youth, I loved playing golf. When I was captain of the high school golf team, I’d sometimes play two rounds of golf in a day. But my career as an Army officer made it difficult to play often enough to maintain my skills. When my scores steadily declined, golf was no longer fun. So I gave it up, and I haven’t played since.

But I still enjoy walking with friends on the golf course. Sometimes I’ll caddy for them. It’s an enjoyable way to get some exercise.

One day, I overheard one of the guys playing in our group say this into his cell phone: “Yeah, I’ll take care of it. I’m on my way there right now.” I wondered where “there” might be.

“Who was that? You gotta go somewhere?”

“Hey, no way. That was my boss. He thinks I’m in my truck doing deliveries. I love these cell phones,” he said as he grinned and walked towards the green.

I was surprised by his willingness to lie so that he could play golf rather than do the job he was being paid to do. Later I heard that he lost that job. And the next job after that.

The Principle of Self-responsibility. Adults take responsibility for their children and make most decisions for them. But children eventually grow into adults, when they’ll need the inner strength to take responsibility for their own lives and make their own choices.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve known people who grew up in wealthy families, had everything they wanted given to them and continued to expect their parents to provide for them well into middle-age. I’ve known people who were raised by parents who protected them from hardship and challenges. As adults, they didn’t know how or have the motivation to take responsibility for their own lives. When bad things happened, they blamed other people or external factors for their misfortune.

I’ve also known people who grew up believing that society or the government was supposed to take care of them. They had a hard time dealing with life. They underperformed at work. 

I'm reminded of this sobering thought from Nathaniel Branden, author of Taking Responsibility: "If you are an adult, you are responsible for your life and well being. No one owes you the fulfillment of your needs or wants; no one is here on earth to serve you. If you respect the principle of self-ownership, you understand that no one else owns you and that you do not own anyone else. Only on this understanding can there be peace on earth and good will among human beings."

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

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