The Power of Responsibility

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

“Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, We don’t serve colored people here. I said, That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.

“Then these three white boys came up to me and said, Boy, we’re givin’ you fair warnin’. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you. So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, Line up, Boys!

Dick Gregory, Author of Nigger, An Autobiography by Dick Gregory

I starting cracking up the first time I read that. It’s amazing, the power our responses have to change the nature of our outcomes. Think of Viktor Frankl in the concentration camps. Yourself when you get pulled over by the cops, how do you respond? How does it affect the outcome?

I remember my first time reading Stephen Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and having a huge paradigm shift.In the first habit he talks about being proactive and that between stimulus and response we have a choice to choose how we respond and that response changes the nature of the outcome. He deepened my understanding of responsibility: response-ability, the ability to choose your response.

I used to think of responsibility as just handling your business and as an obligation. You had a baby, take care of it. You got bills, get a job.You got a job, make sure you keep it. You got homework do it. If you didn’t do something, you were irresponsible. Responsibility was just a lot of obligations to me.  Things that had to be done or else.

Of course, this probably wasn’t new to most people and I often operated like this on a subconscious level; however, what this book did for me was bring it to my mind on a more conscious level and make sure that I pick the most optimal response whenever faced with a decision. Since then I’ve been really conscious about observing this principle at work throughout life. So I included a couple of  great examples of the power of responsibility.

The RZA

Below is an excerpt from author Supreme Understanding’s instant classic How to Hustle and Win:

The RZA, one of the most influential music producers in hip hop history, was born into a poor family of 11 children in Brooklyn, New York in 1969. While crack was taking over New York in the 80s, RZA began developing his craft in hip hop. In 1987, he used money he’d made from selling weed to purchase a 4-track so he could produce as well as rap.

Teaching himself how to loop samples and make beats, RZA eventually came upon the signature sound that would define Wu-Tang. Using only $10,000, RZA and the eight other members of the Wu-Tang Clan recorded 1993’s Enter the 36 Chambers.

This album would redefine hip hop and lay the path for a slew of imitators and crews copying the Wu’s formula. But RZA almost didn’t make it. A few months before they had even recorded the album’s first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” RZA was on trial for murder. With no money for a big time lawyer, RZA depended on himself. He researched on his own, and aided in his defense, which successfully convinced the jury that the shooting death of RZA’s victim had been in self-defense.

As Wu-tang took off, RZA researched other aspects of the music industry beyond beats and rhymes. He proposed an ingenious way to get all the members strong record deals and budgets, while maintaining the Wu-Tang as a group. With RZA doing the negotiations, each member was signed to a different record label in a move the industry had never seen before.

In 1994, his group Gravediggaz was offered their first recording contract. Instead of having his lawyer review it, RZA read the entire document himself, clarified the meaning of a few clauses, made a few changes, and handed it back.

In the late 90s, RZA began teaching himself how to play instruments by watching instructional videos with titles like “Play Piano by Ear” and transitioned to producing cinematic scores for films like Kill Bill and Blade.

Steve Pavlina on 100% Responsibility

Blogger, author and speaker Steve Pavlina had talked about the power of responsibility in an interview with Leo of Zenhabits.net:

The way I see it, success isn’t about money or reputation or possessions or anything like that. Success is a decision. That’s all. Success is deciding what you really, truly want and committing yourself to getting it. If you’re making progress toward your desires, you’re successful.

Most people never get clear about what they want. Even if they set goals, the goals are often socially conditioned, not consciously chosen. Obviously you’re not going to succeed if you don’t listen to and accept your own desires, especially the desires that run afoul of social conventions. So not connecting with your true desires is mistake #1.

The second mistake is when people hold the mindset that they can achieve only the first half of this process, but the second half is beyond their direct control. They may identify what they want, but then they “hope” they’ll achieve it. Meanwhile, any halfway logical person can predict it’s never going to happen because there’s no motion or momentum in the right direction. An example is the guy who says he’s going to start his own business, but he keeps going to work at a unfulfilling job. Weeks pass, and there are no visible signs of progress. If there are no visible signs of progress, it’s fair to say that no progress is being made.

In order to succeed in life, you have to make two decisions. First, you must decide what you really want. You have to get in touch with your truest, deepest desires, reaching the point where you’re able to tune out anyone who would reject you for wanting what you want. Desire must be all the reason you need. Secondly, you must decide that you and you alone will make it happen no matter what.

The second decision is critically important, but it’s one that a lot of people miss. It’s not enough just to set a goal. You have to actually decide that you’re going to be the one to create it – yes, you personally.

One of the major turning points in my life occurred when I finally grasped these two elements of success. It was late 1998, and I’d been running my computer games business for several years. I’d taken $20K cash and turned it into $150K in a little over four years. Not bad, eh? The only problem was that it was $150K of debt. Whoops.

I thought I knew what I wanted, but I was wrong. I used to visualize my new game on the shelves of the local software store. I imagined that it would be a hit and get great reviews. That didn’t work at all. The truth was I didn’t really care about any of those things, not really. Those were the goals society said that someone in my position should want, but they didn’t represent what I truly wanted. What I really wanted was to create something fresh and new that people would enjoy. I just wanted to express my creativity and share it with people. I didn’t care how well the game sold, whether it was on the shelves in a nice box, or what the game reviewers thought about it. So the first step was that I had to rid myself of all the false desires and get in touch with my true feelings.

My second problem is that I was looking to some external entity to give me what I wanted. Specifically I was looking for a publisher to provide the funding and support I thought I needed to make a decent game and get it released to the public. I assumed that was just how that games business worked. Everyone else seemed to be doing it that way. But every deal I attempted kept falling apart. That was incredibly frustrating.

Eventually I realized that by looking to someone else to give me what I wanted, I was denying responsibility for creating it myself. I thought I was committed, but I really wasn’t. I was using third parties as an excuse to hold back. That way I didn’t really have to put myself on the line 100%.

So I stopped looking to publishers to give me what I wanted, and I declined to renew my contract with the agent who was lining up those deals. I had a major epiphany and said to myself, “I’m just going to make a game. I don’t care if it sells. I’m just going to create something new and unique. Screw everything else. If I go broke doing this, so be it. But I’m going to finish this one game no matter what.”

I had virtually no income at the time, and shortly after making this commitment, Erin and I got kicked out of our apartment because we fell behind in our rent. I had to do C++ tutoring on the side while Erin did some web consulting. We’d often end each month with less than $100 total. We cut our expenses to the bone and lived very frugally. We barely scraped by, but somehow we managed.

By taking total 100% responsibility for the outcome, I was able to create a game I was proud of within six months. The game’s budget was nearly zero. A local musician agreed to compose the game music in exchange for credit, and an artist worked for royalties only. I handled the design, programming, and sound effects. Fortunately I designed the game so it didn’t require a lot of assets. I released the game as shareware and started selling it online in 1999. It sold well and eventually led to a financial turnaround, and my game business finally became profitable. But during the time I was developing that game, I still had to declare bankruptcy because my creditors were unwilling to wait. Almost of all my debt was from unsecured credit cards, and none of those companies cared that I was on a path that might turn things around. I was just a number to them.

Because I assumed total responsibility for completing that game, it didn’t matter that I had no money, few resources, and a mountain of debt. I focused all my energy on my goal, a goal that I truly desired. I stopped making excuses. I finally understood the difference between wanting success and choosing success. Wanting it wasn’t enough. If I only wanted to succeed, I’d have failed.

That was a very powerful lesson for me. Financially it may have been a low point, but creatively it was a high point. I applied this same strategy when I started blogging in October 2004. I was brand new to blogging and didn’t know how I could turn a blog into a successful business. But I just decided that I was going to succeed. I got in touch with my true desires and did my best to shed the false ones. I just wanted to create a website that would help people grow and that would help support my own path of growth. That was the seed of my true desire, so that’s what I focused on.

I don’t look to the world to tell me what I can do. I don’t ask permission. I just decide what I want, and I commit myself to making it happen. I don’t wait for a clear path to appear in front of me. I just start moving forward, and I create a path as I go along. I had to learn all of this the hard way.

The irony is that people will offer to help you when they can see that you’re 100% committed, when they can see that you’re going to succeed whether they help you or not. But they’ll often decline to help you when you seem too needy and uncertain.

I’ve experienced this from the other side too. When people ask me for help, and I can see they aren’t fully 100% committed to succeeding with or without my help, I have to turn them down. It’s not a good investment of my time and energy to assist the uncommitted. But when I can see that the other person is eventually going to find a way to succeed whether I help out or not, that’s when I’m inclined to offer assistance. I know my efforts will likely do some good and won’t be wasted.

 Me

While I was homeless with my family and staying in motels, I became extremely angry. Mostly out of ignorance. It was that type of anger where you just say fuck the world, because you’re going through a lot but feel entitled to a better life, but don’t know what to do about it. Then I said to myself: “Fuck everybody, and everything, I’ve got to do me!” So after months passed and we got back on our feet, I got myself a car and started looking into acting. I looked for a way to get started, no matter what, I was hungry and desperate. I found an ad in the Pennysaver magazine about a group called the Actor’s Creative Ensemble and called immediately. I thought it was a scam because it was for a free acting workshop and no one would pick up. A FREE ACTING WORKSHOP? Who does that? I called and I called and maybe after I was finally starting to give up, someone picked up. I got the directions and drove on over. The thing about this group was, it was free, and it was an acting workshop. Who would’ve thought!? Since it was free, a lot of members took advantage of it, I mean it’s pretty typical right?! When something is free, who thinks it’s any good? Who thinks there is any value there?

Well, I noticed a lot of the members taking advantage of Gordon, the director and guy in charge of the whole operation. They were constantly late. They didn’t take his advice, or direction. Many would come and leave with the quickness.

I decided I was going to give this my best response. I figured I’d get out of it what I put in. As Carlos Miceli of owlsparks.com has stated, “the thing about tools is, you can either build a house, or wound yourself.” So I decided to build a house. When I joined I didn’t have a whole lot to do, just doing stage work and little monologues here and there. But I took that little work very serious. After four months, the group ended,  and I had barely got a chance to do my monologue in front of an audience. A lot of the members either went on to continue their own projects or stopped all together. Thanks to the work ethic  and dedication I’d shown,Gordon tipped me onto a production of To Kill a Mockingbird that was being done at a theater in Redlands, Ca. Self doubt had me thinking that I wasn’t good enough so I missed auditions for the role of Tom Robinson. One day I decided to go down there anyway, but it was too late.

Well, I thought it was too late.

The role had already been filled and I was to be an understudy. Give or take a couple  random happenings and I was given the role-I didn’t have to audition like the other actors, I just gave one quick read.

Fast forward, a couple years, and I’m not on Broadway(yet), but I’m steadily, making my path through his industry, through obstacles and all.

What would you do in RZA’s situation being charged with murder and not having a lawyer?

What would you have done in Steve’s situation?

It’s often at these times of adversity where we can either grow or be crushed by our circumstances, but our response, our choice is key.

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2 responses to “The Power of Responsibility

  1. Hi,

    This is a fabulous post.

    Would you have any advice as to how we can shed those societal expectations, to discover what it is that we truly desire? I think that is where people struggle the most: figuring it all out. Not only are we clouded by expectations imposed on us by others, but we are also clouded by the other things we ENJOY as well. We enjoy certain comforts, and we enjoy other aspects of life that enrich us outside of our “desires”; how do we cut through all of that too?

    Hard questions. What do you think?

    • Hey Karen,

      Shedding societal expectations is like mental detoxing. You gotta sit down and take an active stance to decondition yourself. Realize when you are being conditioned and what sources are imposing those expectations on you and strive to shed them or limit your exposure to them. When you’re in a position where everyone is projecting their expectations on you, you gotta get away sometimes. Spend less time with those people. Try a media fast.

      As far as getting in touch with with your true desires and values there are many ways for doing so. I find keeping a journal is the best way. I’m sure you already know, writing helps you get in touch with your subconscious thoughts and deeepest desires and feelings. But I use my journal as a way to think every problem through thoroughly. I’ll write a question at the top like ” what are my true values? What is it I really want?What is it that will make me happy” Whatever my answers, I’ll question each one to see if they are my true values and if they’re truly mine I’ll find a reason for having them.

      I think most people never take the time to actually sit and think about it. At least this was the problem for me. I never would actually sit and think. I would think on the go. There is a big difference. When we take time to sit down alone and be silent, we can listen to ourselves for a change and start to really ask ourselves the important questions. How do I feel about my life right now? With my current lifestyle and habits, where do I predict that I’m headed? Do I like what I see?

      In regards to the certain comforts you were talking about I’m not sure what you were referring to so I can’t really suggest anything. But I think you were talking about were the material things that we enjoy. It’s nice to enjoy that too, just don’t overindulge or strive for those things. If you value your time and want to cut through it, it’s important to realize that it’s all temporary. Things like playstation, partying, comfort food, nice cars and etc. they’re all nice, and I enjoy them myself. When I’m overindulging in comforts it’s usually because I’m avoiding something, I’m trying to escape my reality, the truth. As soon as my “high” wears off, I’m back to face reality again. It’s best to face reality and the true issue at hand. What is it that you’re truly after?Stephen Covey said our time is divided into four quadrants: that of the urgent and unimportant(ex. phone calls), the urgent and important(ex. emergencies), the non-urgent and important(preventative maintenance, excercise, reading), and non-urgent and non-important(fun). It’s a good idea to find what quadrant your spending most your time in.

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