October 9

Personal Responsibility: The Buck Stops With You

If you are keen on personal growth, you need to take unqualified personal responsibility for your behavior and actions AND adopt an internal locus of control.

I understand I’m stepping into the dare-zone with this talk of personal responsibility. I hope you will too by the end of this article.

First things first, though. Personal growth? Really???

Why bother with personal growth

I know what you’re thinking.

You feel like you’ve already worked hard or you’re currently working enough. You don’t see the point in doing more. You’d rather chill and take it easy.

Your rationalization resembles this: ‘I’m not doing so bad. Life is great already. Further growth sounds too hard. Why even bother with it’?

I hear you. It’s totally cool to just sit back and simply enjoy what you already are. After all, YOLO (for the uninitiated: YOLO = you only live once).

But... (unwritten rule of life: there’s always a but where you don’t want one).

Here’s the but: personal growth isn’t just about one area in your life, such as financial growth. It’s easy to set a target $$ value for retirement and then stop working your day job when you hit that goal. Piece of cake.

Then, what? Mindless TV and mindless chatter? Simply existing? C’mon. You can do better than that.

How about growth in areas of life other than wealth - mental, social, civic, spiritual, emotional, relationships, parenting, etc.?

Again, why bother? Right?

Because we are born to grow and to become. Let me explain...

Growth and choices

Nature subjects all living beings to one undisputable law – the law of physical growth over time.

This is why no matter how hard you might try to remain an eight-month-old baby, you can’t. At least, not physically.

Of course, how much you grow or how well you grow are all determined by a combination of your genes and the environment. But grow you will until you reach a set-point of maturity.

In addition to the common ability across all animate objects to grow, we humans are distinctly bestowed with a thinking brain, giving us an inherent capacity to choose.

While the degree of choices we can make varies across the spectrum and could be dictated by circumstances, we are nevertheless choice-making machines.

For instance,

  • This very minute, I have the choice to write this sentence or watch TV.
  • I can choose to either wake up when my alarm goes off or stay in bed on a weekday. The fact that I choose to get out of bed, even though I’d rather stay in, is because missing work has rather adverse consequences. So, I choose to not invite those adverse consequences.

Consciously or unconsciously, we keep making choices. Every. Single. Minute.

It’s not surprising then that given the overwhelming number of choices that need to be made, we’ve trained our brains, over time, to ‘automate’ some of the decision-making.

Fair enough.

However, in doing so, we’ve become extraordinarily efficient at making some poor choices. We’ve become adept at reinforcing our self-limiting beliefs.

How choice influences growth

A planted tree will grow as tall as it possibly can and expand its roots as wide as it possibly can.  On the other hand, humans, because we have a thinking brain, can choose to limit ourselves from all non-physical forms of growing; even when such growth is beneficial.

The plant fulfills its potential because it has no choice in the matter. 

Humans (mis)use the power of choice to waste potential.

The thing with personal growth is, it is easy. You just have to break it down into tiny manageable habits. One step at a time. However, that same reason makes it hard to achieve – because,

Whatever is easy to do is also easy not to do.

My ask of you today is this:

You NEED to make your fleeting existence on this earth matter. Remember Emma Morano's story? In 100 years, it’s going to be almost all new people. 

We all have enormous latent capabilities within ourselves. So, make your time here count. In whatever positive way you can.

If a tree can do it, surely you can.

I'm not a prophet or a stone aged man, just a mortal with potential of a superman. I'm living on: David Bowie

Ready? I hope so.

The first step to your personal growth journey starts when you adopt the philosophy of personal responsibility.

Understanding the concept of personal responsibility

This essay is a prequel to my earlier article on how to let go. Why a prequel, you ask? A couple of reasons:

  • It’s easier to consider giving up something (letting go) than it is to take ownership. Therefore, let’s say I eased you in with the soft-hearted ‘let go’ philosophy before diving now into the rather unforgiving idea of personal responsibility
  • Calling something a prequel makes me feel like I have a well-thought-out plan for everything. Spoiler alert: not true.

Let’s dive in, starting with some definitions:

Defining personal responsibility

In plain-speak personal responsibility means all of the following:

  • You choose your behavior, actions, and reactions
  • You do not make excuses for unsatisfactory results caused directly or indirectly as a result of your actions (or inactions)
  • The buck stops with you i.e. you acknowledge complete ownership of your actions and are accountable for all consequences

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is not.

Simple can be harder than complex – Steve Jobs

Take a moment to reflect on the enormity of the definition above. In fact, owning up to something is just about the hardest thing to do, especially when we have the option to play the blame game. Our willingness to take ownership is in turn influenced by how we define our locus of control.

What is ‘locus of control’?

Locus of control is your belief on how much of your life you feel you control. 

External locus of control

People with an external locus of control believe most of the actions are caused by external factors and that they have very little influence on either the actions or the results. Some examples of this are:

  • Not bothering with strict handwashing guidelines because you may get the flu anyway if you are destined to
  • Believing that your promotion at work or admission into a program is primarily dependent on the size of the pool you are competing against instead of how hard you work
  • Or even crediting your successes (not out of gratitude or big-heartedness) to a case of getting lucky instead of belief in your effort.

Internal locus of control

On the other side of the spectrum are folks who define their locus of control with self-facing broad-brush strokes. These are ones that tend to either credit or blame themselves when things go right or wrong

Personal responsibility and control

To take personal responsibility, therefore, means to believe you have more agency in dealing with situations and outcomes than external factors.

In other words, a greater internal locus of control allows you to assume greater responsibility.

Theories influencing personal responsibility

Two theories influence personal responsibility.

Theory 1: The concept of free will

No discussion of personal responsibility is complete without acknowledging whether our actions are borne out of ‘free will’ or are pre-destined, guided by an invisible force.

A debate that has raged on since humans have been on the planet has been over how much ‘free will’ we possibly have? This is an ongoing debate. My guess is this will continue to be debated until humans roam the face of the planet.

Free willers believe everything is controllable. The other camp believes it’s all controlled by destiny and to think anything else is just inflated egoism.

All I can say is there are legitimate (and equally preposterous) theories on both sides of the debate.

But, one thing is for sure. While humans may not have agency over outcomes, they certainly have agency over their actions. Enough said.

Theory 2: Nature v. nurture

Scientists, especially the behavioral ones, love identical twins.

If you want to make a scientist happy, give them access to twin databases and twin test subjects. It’s like providing a state-of-the-art professional, fully stocked, appliance-heavy kitchen to an amateur chef. Your scientist-friend will never stop loving you back.

That’s because identical twins carry the exact genetic material thus making them ideal subjects for lots of studies especially nature v nurture ones.

The story of John and William

The short anecdotal account below is about a pair of twins.

Two identical twins – let’s call them John and William were raised by the same parents and went through childhood with similar experiences. As it happens with identical twins, people would often confuse them for one another. The twins grew up, went to separate colleges, found jobs, and settled in different cities in their 20s.

By the time they were 50, they hardly bore a resemblance to one another. John was a fit triathlete with no underlying health issues while William was obese, on a whole slew of prescription medicines, and a litany of heart conditions.

Now, given that they were genetically exact, and pretty much were raised with the same socio-cultural values, what factors were responsible for such disparate outcomes in their 50s?

As it turns out, it was their divergent attitudes to lifestyle factors.

Although grateful to be blessed with good genes, John believed he needed to keep tabs on his exercise and nutrition regimen since his job and environment were very different from the ones his parents had.

In contrast, William, led a rather sedentary life, trusting the power of genetics to keep him healthy.

Clearly, John took more personal responsibility for his actions while William was content to let external factors guide his.

You’ll find tons of similar twin studies throughout scientific literature all confirming one hypothesis:

While nature provides the canvas for our lives, how we use the canvas (in terms of our actions) plays a far more important role in whether we end up with a painting similar to Van Gogh’s or one that looks like your dog drew on.

That’s about all you need to know about why personal responsibility matters.

Now, let’s look at how you apply this philosophy to your life.

Getting started on taking personal responsibility

The 8 tips below can guide you on how to embrace personal responsibility.

1. Carry an umbrella in the rain

Human babies are among the most helpless in the animal kingdom. They take a long time to develop self-reliance. Unfortunately, some never do. Even into their 50s. These are adult babies who spend an entire lifetime being reliant on others to do things for them and throw baby-like tantrums when things don’t go their way. They were never taught to self-soothe.

Prevent adult-baby syndrome. Take responsibility for yourself. Be self-reliant. Try to minimize dependence on others to keep you comfortable. Where possible, foresee problems, step up, and do what you can.

Start with the simplest of things. Don’t be caught in the rain without an umbrella. If you’re out shopping in winter, make sure you carry your jacket instead of expecting the store to have adequate heating.

These little things will naturally transform into bigger things. Self-reliance will lead to more self-confidence and consequently help you take more responsibility.

2. Don’t end up on a Dilbert comic strip

You can delegate tasks. Absolutely. Everyone has just 24 hours in the day, so it’s impossible to (nor should you) do it all.

But when you delegate, take time to explain the tasks and set expectations. And, stay in the picture until your trainee learns the ropes. Check-in at consistent intervals to offer assistance and get status updates.

Simply delegating tasks and hoping for the best is an easy way to end up on the front page of a national newspaper or a Dilbert comic strip. At the same time, constant nagging and micro-managing aren’t cool either.

Find the right balance. That’s what good leaders do. And remember, you still have accountability for the task even if someone else is doing the work. If it fails, it’s on you.

Of course, this doesn’t apply just to corporate settings. The same principles hold when you’re trying to get your spaced-out teenager (or partners) to do chores around the house.

3. The word ‘No’ in the English language is a complete sentence of its own

If you say yes to a project or position, then the onus is on you to keep your commitment. Always.

On a related note, this is why it is supremely important to learn the art of saying ‘No’ when the situation demands it. If you’re doubtful about committing to something, feel free to say ‘no’. Justification optional.

A friend of mine took up a demanding project at her job without making room in her already full plate. Her motivation – she wanted to be known as a superwoman balancing all her different responsibilities well. A social media brag to say ‘I’m doing it all’!

Suffice to say, she made herself miserable, her employer unhappy and her kids mad within a few weeks.

4. Wear shoes

Have you wondered, why, when faced with the same external situation, one person comes out flying while another gets out crying?

It’s got to do with mindset and their attitude to the problem.

Here’s some Buddhist wisdom. When the world out there is rocky, you can try to do one of two things:

  • Try removing every rock or
  • Wear shoes

You cannot control external environmental factors or what others say or do. But you most certainly can control how you respond.

Take responsibility for your reactions. In the long run, it is always better to take the high road.

5. Stop passing the buck

The saying ‘The buck stops here’ is a complement to the term ‘Pass the buck’, which means to pass the problem on to the next person.

Personal responsibility dictates you take ownership of problems stemming from your actions, directly or indirectly.

President Harry Truman, even had a sign made that was displayed on his desk.

He famously emphasized this point in his final address to the nation as president,

The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job - Harry Truman

A Norwegian study on corporate Mergers and Acquisitions (M&As), found that CEOs tend to attribute failed M&As to the cultural values of the companies being merged or acquired. However, when the M&As were successful, the managers seemed to take all the credit.

If you sign up for a position of authority, you’re not just signing up for the credit when things go well. You need to show up when things turn sour.

If you want role-models on how NOT to take personal responsibility two groups outperform others in this area - politicians and corporate CEOs. Also, don’t worry if you haven’t kept up with their latest debacles. They are hard to miss as there’s new material added constantly.

6. Stay away from stones if you’re in a glass-house

Duty is what one expects from others, it is not what one does oneself.” – Oscar Wilde

Next time you complain about something, stop and ask yourself this question. 'Have you done everything you possibly can about this situation'?

When phrased that way, it is hard to ever answer in the affirmative. Because there’s always something more that could have been done.

You cannot fault the train for running 15 minutes late if you did not factor that lateness into your plan.

Also, remember, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Don’t hold others to standards that you can’t fulfill yourself.

7. Fess up when you mess up

We can rationalize just about anything with excuses. Don’t fall into the trap. Don’t use excuses to shirk responsibility.

It’s easier to confess or admit to a problem than weaving a web of excuses when things don’t go to plan. Also, use the missed opportunity as a lesson to learn what not to do next time.

Human progress is defined by people who defied excuses and stepped up.

8. Don’t play the blame game

This one is self-explanatory. When things don’t go as planned, simply take stock, breathe deeply, keep the lesson, and let go of the problem.

Don’t start the blame game, even if you genuinely feel with every fiber of your being that someone else or something else is to blame.

Blaming is simply wasted energy. Nothing good ever comes of it.

More importantly, stepping up your personal responsibility game means to not blame yourself when things go south. Hit reset and start again.

Increased accountability and responsibility do not mean increased self-loathing or self-flagellation.


“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” ― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

While the world may occasionally stop and notice your problems, most times it is too busy doing its own thing. It’s best, therefore to take matters into your own hands by adopting the philosophy of personal responsibility.

Being self-responsible does not just help you grow, it helps alleviate distress in difficult times.

Here are two brief examples of what to do and not to do:

Science hero

Pre-eminent theoretical physicist and author, Stephen Hawking, was diagnosed with a form of motor neuron disease starting at age 21. His condition deteriorated over the years, such that he was forced to communicate with the world through a single cheek muscle.

Hawking went on to publish some of the most memorable writings on popular science. Upon his death, his ashes were interred in the Westminster Abbey between the graves of Darwin and Newton – a testament to the quality of contributions he made in the world of science despite severe physical limitations.

Failed behemoth

Wells Fargo, one of America’s largest banks recently settled a $3billion lawsuit for widespread consumer abuses. At a testimony to Congress, the CEO (3rd CEO in 4 years) blamed poor corporate culture and its previous leadership for its problems. Hardly surprising, because that’s what the previous CEO had said too.

This is why personal responsibility matters

What can we learn from both these stories?

Stephen Hawking, despite the most challenging of circumstances, took personal responsibility, going on to become one of science’s most revered researcher and author.

On the contrary, a thriving big bank, consumed by greed, refused to take any responsibility or accountability in playing with poor consumers' hard-earned savings accounts.

Lesson: Circumstances matter, but only to an extent. What matters more is how you respond to them and how much ownership you take towards your welfare.

You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself. That is something you have charge of – Jim Rohn


personal growth, personal responsibility, selfimprovement


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