At one point during Stephen Covey’s landmark book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, he breaks down the word “responsible” into its two components: “response” and “able.”1 As basic and obvious as this seems, it really knocked my socks off. It never occurred to me that the true and best meaning of the word responsible is really response-able.

What matters, Covey argues, is not who is at fault. What matters is who is capable of doing something helpful.1 So rather than expending energy looking for people to blame, Covey asks us to look for ways that we can be useful. Instead of finding fault with the situation, fix it. Instead of criticizing someone, help them.

Covey points out that we have an obligation to do something positive whenever we are response-able, not matter who is truly responsible.1 For example, when a toddler spills milk, he is responsible for making the mess, but he isn’t response-able. He doesn’t know where the cleaning supplies are or how to properly use them. A nearby parent or older sibling, who isn’t responsible for the mess cleans it up because that more capable person is response-able.

Throughout life, we will all repeatedly be victims of other people’s mistakes, other people’s lack of consideration, other people’s incompetence, and bad luck. But we simply cannot suffer these difficulties as passive victims. We must always strive to be active agents.2 We must always do what we can to make things better, not because whatever went wrong is our fault, but because we are response-able.

“Things don’t always happen for the best, but we can always make the best of the things that happen.” –Tal Ben-Shahar2

A common complaint we hear from students is that they have a “bad teacher.” Now, it is often the case that the student is exaggerating the situation, cherry-picking negative traits while ignoring positive ones, or even just making excuses, but there is such thing as a bad teacher. I don’t mean that they’re bad people, just that they’re not very good at what they do. But that turns out to be irrelevant because you’re still response-able; you’re still in charge of your own success.

Good teachers just make life and learning easier for you. Bad teachers don’t ruin your life or your education; they just make it harder, and sometimes harder is good for you. If you believe that The Obstacle Is the Way,3 then you can use the experience of having a bad teacher as an opportunity to become better at independent learning. Likewise, if you have a bad textbook or–my favorite–no textbook, then you have a chance to become better at seeking out alternative resources.

The question to always come back to isn’t “Whose fault is this?” but rather “What am I going to do about it?”

A related concept from Covey’s book is the distinction between the circle of influence and the circle of concern. He explains that what we care about is far greater than what we can actually have an effect on, as shown in this diagram:1

Covey goes on to say that it is a waste of time and energy to try and change things that are outside of our circle of influence because we don’t have the power to make a difference there.1 But, he argues, if we focus our energy inside our circle of influence, our effectiveness increases, and our circle of influence expands:1

Becoming More Response-Able

The second diagram reflects the important truth that we can, over time, increase our ability to respond. Of course, this is something that naturally happens as we grow from children into adults, but it can also be approached deliberately at any age. Anyone can become more response-able.

One way to do so is to use strategies because strategies leverage our abilities, giving us greater power. One of the most important strategies is reducing your cognitive load. Taking unnecessary items off of your mental plate frees up brainpower that can be used to respond to life’s challenges in more dynamic, creative, and positive ways.

Learning new skills makes you more response-able. Learning how to learn makes you more response-able. Improving your brain health makes you more response-able. And because belief in free will is a self-fulfilling prophecy, believing you are response-able makes you more response-able.

1 Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Fireside, 1990.

2 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.

3 Holiday, Ryan. The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Portfolio, 2014. Note: This book is largely inspired by Stoicism.  The Stoics believed in taking responsibility for your life and your choices. For more Stoic wisdom, read about these 10 Essential Principles and Practices of Stoicism

Image Credit

Circle of Influence (both): Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Fireside, 1990.

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