ARTICLE: “Taking Personal Responsibility” by Laura M. Stack, MBA

When you hear the word “responsibility,” what do you think of first? Many people think of the word BLAME, as in, “Whose responsibility is this?” I’d like to instead suggest that you think of responsibility as seizing what’s in front of you, exerting choice, and taking control. The real meaning of responsibility is the ability to respond. It’s going out and creating what you want through personal choices. 

The fundamental responsibility that each of us has is that we are completely, 100% responsible for how our lives turn out. This is tough! When we like how things are turning out, it’s quite easy to say that we are responsible for our success. But when things aren’t so good, we’re so quick to point fingers at other people and place the blame on them. Have you ever known someone who will accept no responsibility? Some people are perpetual victims of what other people do!

It’s really easy to do. But remember this—when you point your finger outside, you have just now accepted the victim status. You have ultimate control over your life. You have control over your friends, your love relationships, and your career. You decide for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong, whether you should stay in this weekend or go out, whether to vote Democrat or Republican. You decide whom to see, what to wear, and what to eat.

However, you have very little control over the government, international affairs, economic policy, the rise and fall of the stock market, Mother Nature, and your company direction. But changes like these can often disrupt your life and force you to change your plans. Often there is very little you can do about it, and yet you are overwhelmingly affected by it. Taking personal responsibility means realizing you can’t control certain things and to stop trying. You can sit around and wonder, “Oh, my gosh, how is this going to affect me? What if I’m next to go? How will I pay the bills?” People stew and worry and literally make themselves sick.

These things will happen. They just will. You will get no warning and nobody will prepare you. And that’s frustrating. Because people will tell you to “reach for the stars—you can achieve whatever you want!” But they don’t mention that in the process, a comet might smack you upside the head. And few people talk about the possibility of outside circumstances adversely affecting your ambitions. And yet, how many of you can say that your ambitions and dreams have been left intact despite the events of the last couple years?

So don’t try to change the uncontrollable, attempt to figure out what’s going to happen, or try to control circumstances. Remember the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

It is never circumstances that make you happy. If it were, then people with great circumstances would never be unhappy, and that’s hardly the situation. Rich people can have more problems than most people. If circumstances were what made you happy, people with horrible circumstances would never feel happy, and that isn’t true either. Look at individuals with disabilities—some compete in Special Olympics and are happy. Other individuals with the same disabilities sit around and are miserable for their entire lives. Two people with the same circumstances are in two totally different states of mind. We have the ability to choose our attitudes given a certain set of circumstances, but we don’t always practice or acknowledge this. Why? It’s scary.

Serious change takes serious courage. It’s so scary that most of us don’t even know how to approach it realistically. When people think of changing their lives, they often think in terms of huge, dramatic gestures. Ever dream of moving to the mountains and becoming a hermit? Extreme thinking like this can effectively destroy your ability to make constructive changes in your life. If you are a responsible, albeit burned-out, thirty-nine year old professional with a spouse and two kids, you may occasionally have thoughts about heading for Hawaii, but it isn’t likely that you’re going to abandon your family, your career, your tennis partner, and your Dalmatian named Spot. The good news is that you don’t have to head off to the islands with a paintbrush in hand in order to have a better life. You only have to accept what is and take personal responsibility for what you can change. 

Ever think that you’d be happy if you had more money? Ever think that if you’d only find the perfect mate, you would be happy? Ever think that if your significant other or a family member would change somehow, then you’d be happy? Ever think that if you’d lose some weight, you’d be happy? Well, here’s some big news for you. If you’re not happy without a relationship, you’re not going to be happy with one. If you’re not happy without the money, you’re not going to be happy with it. If you’re not happy with the weight, you’re not going to be happy without it. And that’s good news—it means you can stop waiting for your circumstances to change to make you happy. Accept what you cannot change, change the things you can, and take personal responsibility for making yourself happy. Happiness is an attitude, not an occasion.

© 1999 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at