OWN IT!: Admit that you are responsible for everything that happens to you

(*Part 2 in a three-part series on Ownership)

Photo by George Prentzas on Unsplash

Taking Responsibility is a tough pill to swallow

“You are the product of every decision you ever make.”

“Whatever you do, you do to you.”

“A man’s life is the result of every choice he ever makes.”

“You are (mostly) responsible for everything that happens to you.”

I buy into all these narratives on cause-and-effect living. Some of them seem harsh in light of the fact that there are people really struggling with terrible hardship or physical challenges, but even in these cases a lot of inspiring people live beyond their limitations and manage to do massive things by keeping a strong mind.

For capable and aspiring top performers in sport (and in life), however, these laws are going to stick to you as if Isaac Newton himself invented them. The important choices and sacrifices that you make during your career as a professional are going to add up and weigh the value of your commitment to success.

Sometimes situations can turn on you even if your initial intentions were entirely innocent. The irony and tough reality is that the outcomes of these events are still of your own doing.

Our rugby academy used to operate out of Stellenbosch, a student town about 30km from our main senior team’s high performance centre. It was an unfortunate tradition for some male students to prove their equivalent testosterone worthiness by picking fights with our young academy players. To be able to better a professional athlete in a pub somewhere in town proved to be a right of passage of sorts.

Although not all of our youngsters could proclaim total innocence when it came to appointing blame for the cause of a fight, the outcomes for the guilty and innocent remained the same. Injuries and sizable legal claims for physical damages turn out to be a serious roadblock to any player’s career.8

When events turn against you as a player or professional, the bravest thing you can do is to still take ownership for its outcomes. You will find that almost every undesired event can be traced back to an initial decision that you made. If you can acknowledge this as a basic principle, you are already on a good path to performance as you will be fueling the attitude that you are the one controlling your decision-making and behaviour process.

The Proof of your Responsibility shows in your day-to-day living

“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (Former First-Lady of the USA)

As a professional, everything you do affects the successful attainment of your outcomes. You can’t wish for something and then expect to get it if you don’t act in a way that reflects the character required to achieve that outcome. What you put in is what you will get out.

James Clear delivered this truth so well in his book on building better habits, aptly titled Atomic Habits. He suggests that the starting point to achieving a desired outcome is to develop an identity that successfully portrays this outcome. 

An example of this could be: ‘I am a hard-working professional that does what is required of me to be successful (and avoids that which detracts me from it)’.

He further explains that every associated action you take or don’t take, is a single vote for or against this identity. All your decisions to take action (no matter how small) drive your process of becoming the type of person you want to become.

If you are the type of aspiring professional that goes out and drinks during the week and arrives half-inebriated at training or work, or consistently breaks team protocol, you are certainly not showing your management that you are the type of performer they can rely on or should invest in in the long term.

Less obvious, yet with similar effect, are the smaller votes you cast against your identity as a performer. When you don’t sleep enough because you watch Netflix until the early hours of the  morning, or if you don’t do your recovery work, prefer the high sugar snack over the healthy one, or decide to skip that last tedious injury rehab set because your girlfriend is waiting.

Big or small and regardless of how inconsequential you might deem them to be, your actions will drive the type of performer you will become. Your decision to take responsibility for every outcome in your life will also be one of your biggest steps to professional maturity.

Poor Harry

“The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That’s the day we truly grow up.”

John C. Maxwell (Author, Speaker and Pastor)

I was mixed with anger yet real sorrow for Harry because he completely butchered some great opportunities to realise his talent. He won’t believe this because of our numerous run-ins, but I really liked him (and still do). He is an incredibly warm and influential young man. His joy and strong personality has a very real ability to lead his group of peers and I even believe him to be a great potential captain.

Unfortunately, though, Harry could never openly take responsibility for the fact that he invariably has to own his circumstances, whether willingly or not. He never realised that his lack of progress wasn’t necessarily because he wasn’t doing what was required to move forward, but because he wasn’t avoiding the things that kept him from progressing.

I also believe that the systems he was part of failed to appoint decisive and effective punishment for his actions. He continued to sidestep the type of repercussions that would have conditioned him to realise, especially in high performance, that every action has an effect on your success.

In the end, if you want to be a top performer, you have to take ownership of every potential outcome in your life and do what needs to be done to achieve the outcomes you really want.

The master of Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink, perhaps states it best at TedX University of Nevada in 2017.

Think of how can apply this to your real life:

  • Motivation is a strong driver of Responsibility and progress drives motivation, so make sure you can measure your progress, even if it is very small. When I do core strength training, a great measure of progress is my ability to activate certain muscle groups (such as my glutes) when I am working or reading. If I can control the activation of a muscle group, I know I am getting stronger, even if activation is something that happens very quickly after you start exercising those muscles after a period of inactivity;
  • Be patient and take on small decisive actions. Success takes time so continue to steam along, don’t let setbacks turn you back to playing the blame game. Often the outcomes take longer than you’d hope, or you will achieve positive outcomes that weren’t even planned. Unplanned outcomes are often better than planned ones, because they are a more natural and organic result of your process, as opposed to something you tried to force;
  • Be the boss but be humble. You own your lifestyle but you don’t own your life. Anything can happen at any time so always be grateful that you have the ability to exercise free will, so use this freedom of choice to make a positive difference to your life and to those around you.

*My next post will focus on what we learnt about how to manage team members with a poor sense of ownership and discipline.

**Harry is mostly based on a single player who was in our academy a couple of years back, but he is also a representation of a couple of ill-disciplined players that we had to deal with over the years.

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