Have you ever thought about what the word Responsibility means?
When you were a kid and your parents told you to be responsible, most of us just took it in as “don’t be stupid”.
But when we dissect the word we can see that being responsible is having the ability to choose your response when receiving stimuli.
For example, we all have dealt with people that really got in our nerves. Someone who is trying to make us mad, get in our heads, or simply just angry at us. Their attitude and words are stimuli that our brain receives. Someone highly responsible is able to respond to that stimuli based on his/her values, and not based on the other person’s weaknesses.
Stephen R. Covey tells us a story about Victor Frankl, who was a Jew that survived the death camps in Nazi Germany. There, Frankl experienced the most unimaginable atrocities a human being could potentially go through. He saw his parents, wife, and brothers die. Him and his sister were the only ones from his family who survived.
One day, when Victor was left naked and alone in a small room he began to become aware of what he calls “the last of the human freedoms”. The Nazi captors could take away his physical freedom, but they could not take away his freedom of identity. Frankl was the only one capable to decide how all of those atrocities were going to affect him. He walked into the land found in between the stimuli and the response.
And so, through mental, emotional and moral discipline Victor was able to grow his interior freedom larger and larger, until it was larger than his Nazi captors. In other words, his captors had more options to chose from their physical environment, but Victor had more freedom to exercise his options.
Therefore, within our freedom to pick our options we have:
- self-awareness: seeing ourselves from an outside perspective
- imagination: ability to create things in our minds
- conscience: know what is right or wrong
- independent will: ability to act based on our self-awareness
When Stephen R. Covey talks about the first habit of being Proactive he is talking about staying away from being a Reactive person. In other words, choosing our response based on our self-awareness, imagination, conscience, and independent will; and not on external factors.
Covey talks about the essence of proactive people: the ability to subordinate an impulse to a value. While reactive people are highly affected by their social environment (when someone treats them bad or good, on their circumstances, and feelings), proactive people act based on their well-thought out set of values.
When most married couples go into couple’s therapy and talk about how they are not feeling “love” anymore, they end up learning that love isn’t a feeling, but an action. You can choose to love someone – making sacrifices, doing things without expecting anything in return, truly caring about someone else. Reactive people approach love as something that just happens based on the stimuli they receive.
Owning up to your circumstances and accepting that you are the only one responsible for where you are today is a tough pill to swallow. Most of us will blame our bosses for not being promoted, our teachers for getting a bad grade, or our weather for not going out and getting stuff done. But in reality, we are the only ones able to control our Circle of Influence.
Stephen R. Covey describes the Circle of Influence as the things we can do something about. The rest of the things we have no control over are found in the bigger Circle of Concern.
In a Proactive Approach, people focus their energy in their Circle of Influence. They exhale positive energy, work on being instead of having, and act upon. This makes their Circle of Influence bigger with time.
In a Reactive Approach, people focus their energy in their Circle of Concern. They victimize themselves, focus on other people’s weakness, and use reactive language (such as I can’t, I must, If only). They get acted upon, what makes their Circle of Influence smaller.
Consequences and Mistakes
However, we also have the other side of the stick when we pick one up. We call that side the consequences. We cannot control the consequences of our actions, only our actions themselves.
For example, as a college student one will present many projects in front of a class. The student can put in all his effort into his assignment and still get a B. The grade is a mere consequence of his presentation. It is something that is out of his/her control. It is in the Circle of Concern.
With that, if the student spends most of his/her time worrying about the potential grade of the project, he/she will most likely do a poor job on the project. However, if the student focuses most of his/her energy on the project itself, the consequence will most likely be a successful one.
There are times that we make wrong decisions, we pick up the wrong stick. If we could go back in time and pick another stick that would be our choice. We call these “wrong sticks” our mistakes. Those are also in our Circle of Concern and there is nothing we can do about them but learn from them.
Finally, one can work on being a proactive individual by making promises or commitments. These hold us accountable and will remind us of what we stand for. When we feel like reacting we will remember of our promises of not to react based on feelings, for example, and be more proactive as a consequence.