Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Who, me? Taking responsibility, for better and for worse.


I always had an awareness of the concept of "taking responsibility" but it wasn't until just about two years ago that I realized how powerful it really could be.  We're conditioned to believe that anything that is wrong with our lives is not our fault.  It starts with our parents, afraid of their adorable little kids being perceived as anything but perfect, who are quick to believe that it was the other kid that started the fight.  This misappropriation of blame in a little schoolyard squabble quickly evolves into knowingly deceiving our parents that the only reason we didn't get an A was because the teacher hated us, or that it totally wasn't my bottle of rum that you found in the trunk.  Then it becomes internalized and we start to genuinely believe that the only reason we didn't get that job was because the interviewer was jealous of our outfit, or that our friend is mad because she's just completely crazy, or that we can't keep a boyfriend because we're just too good for all the men out there.  It's just too easy to think that all the bad things in our lives are happening to us and not because of us.

The funny thing is that this mindset plays itself out with both the bad and the good.  In the aftermath of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg's modern manifesto for the ambitious female, there's been a lot of talk of something called the Impostor Syndrome.  Impostor syndrome is, "when one does not believe that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people’s impressions."  This is basically a symptom of the same disease -- not taking responsibility or, when it comes to the positive stuff, taking credit for what happens to you. I have also been guilty of this, and I don't think it's just because I'm a woman.  

When I was packing up my childhood room when my parents moved house, I found a copy of our high school newspaper.  Someone had interviewed me about getting into Harvard and my quote was something like, "I'm sure everyone that applied deserved to get in!  There are a lot of factors in the admissions process we don't understand..."  I remember quite clearly the feeling of "I tricked them somehow" or "Clearly, someone was having an emotional day, and something I said mattered to them."  I felt the same way about getting a job at Goldman Sachs -- it might have had a little to do with me, but c'mon, not that much.  

As a side note, there's also a large chance that my response to that question, and my subsequent lack of taking credit, that has to do with wanting people to like me.  Part of this is the fact that I wasn't exactly awarded the "Coolest in school" award for getting A's and loving homework, it was generally a detractor from my social capital.  I hid the fact that I was on the math team in high school, but still won the "Brainiest" award at my Senior Prom.  Additionally, I don't think I am the one that hates people that walk around parading their accomplishments like they're the only ones that have ever done something great.  In reality, nobody does anything completely on their own.  We are constantly subjected to external forces beyond our control, it's just what we do with them and how we work with other people that determines our success in the long run.

Anyway, back to this concept of taking responsibility (getting people to like you is a whole different story, something I have talked about before and will certainly address again in another post).  As for the bad stuff, it wasn't until a few years into finance, a series of eerily repetitive relationship patterns, and the feeling that everyone was out to get me that I started to think about what role I could possibly be playing in these various factors contributing to my own misery.  Well, that's not true - I have always been a pretty self reflective person, which has caused me to incessantly and relentlessly question myself, my intentions, and my capabilities.  But, ironically, it was also the fact that I identified myself as "self aware" that made it even more difficult to really see how much I was contributing to my suboptimal state of being.

After you get over feeling like shit, the cool thing about realizing that you're an active participant in your own failure is that it's completely within your control to turn things around.  If you spent years complaining that people don't talk to you in bars, and you just realized that your dismissive attitude and constantly crossed arms might have a little something to do with it... chances are that you can just start wearing a friendlier facial expression and before you know it, people will start talking to you.  That's the empowering part.

But for me, particularly in the context of entrepreneurship, empowerment can quickly turn to exhaustion.  When you're in a big corporate environment or you're working with a big team of people, it's easy to see that there really are things that are out of your control.  However, if you're a one person team and something does not get done, there is literally no other reason than you did not do it.  The proverbial buck really stops with you.  If you don't reach your goals or hit your targets, there's nobody else to blame but yourself.  So then isn't it inevitable to constantly arrive at the conclusion that if you're not successful, it's because you didn't try hard enough, or worse... you just suck at what you're doing?

That seems awfully sad, depressing, and disempowering.  There must be more to the story.  Or maybe there isn't.  Maybe we just need to really look at ourselves and separate ourselves from any preconceived notions and judgements about our own capabilities so we can find that line between what we deserve and what we've fallen into.  One person can't do everything.  If you can't move mountains, it may be because you're not strong enough, but nobody is.  It's physically impossible.  So then, the empowerment comes from reconnecting to reality, accepting what is and is not possible and instead of sitting around beating yourself up because you're not Superman (or beating your chest because you think you are Superman), knowing when and where you need to ask for help.  Conversely, recognizing, accepting, and embracing your strengths can allow you to understand what you deserve credit for and where you have responded positively to the benefits of working with other talented people and within certain positive circumstances, and adjust accordingly.  Then, once you know when and where you need reinforcement, you can go out and find other people to move the mountains with you.  Or you can just hire a construction crew that can go get some dynamite and blow up that fucking mountain.