The world we all want is only possible if we have first taken complete responsibility for ourselves.
What important truth do very few people agree with you on? This is the one interview question the famed investor Peter Thiel believes is most important. I love this question. It is designed to reveal whether a person thinks differently and has the courage to take a stand for something that may be unpopular. While I like to think there are no absolute truths, there is one “truth” that I believe in and with which very few people actually agree. Here it is. I am 100% responsible for how I experience the world. Whenever I am angry, frustrated, anxious, fearful, or sad, the proximate cause may seem to be an external event. But it is always true — one hundred percent of the time — that my experience is a function of my interpretation of circumstances, not the circumstances themselves. What’s more, there is always something I can do to change my experience and it is my responsibility to do so if I want to lead and live a fulfilling life.
Now here’s why this is unpopular. Virtually everyone, if challenged, will argue that circumstances have some role to play in how one feels. An offensive remark. Unreasonable behavior. A societal injustice. Moreover, almost everyone will insist that denying the role of circumstance is equivalent to surrendering or worse yet accepting the situation. This reveals a deep misunderstanding of the nature of this important truth. Let me explain with a very recent example.
Last week, I found myself quite frustrated and angry in response to a colleague’s behavior. Every part of me attempted to justify how I felt by pointing to the “offending” conduct. Any reasonable person would have agreed that I had a right to feel the way I did. I myself felt justified. And yet, I knew that any action emanating from my state of frustration and anger, while satisfying, would ultimately be ineffective and most likely highly counterproductive. Rather than lash out, which a part of me desperately wanted to do, I paused and asked myself the following questions.
What unhealed and unexamined part of me had I allowed to be triggered? Rather than impulsively reacting, what would happen if I were curious and compassionate toward the other person?
Within minutes, I had access to an entirely different interpretation of the situation. Importantly, I did not excuse or dismiss the other person’s behavior. But the whole situation transformed as a consequence of this inquiry. My focus shifted from retribution to having a clear and kind conversation with a person I care for and deeply respect. It became less about my needs and more about his. And ultimately, it became more about right and effective action, which is the only path to desired results. The conversation we ended up having was magical. It was calm and clear. It ended up bringing us closer together. I was able to see things I had missed. And he was able to do the same. None of this would have been possible had I not had the maturity to recognize that I have a responsibility to manage myself first. I realized that how I showed up would make all the difference and took complete responsibility for doing so. That is real leadership.
Most people might nod their heads in agreement with this. But if you look at the actions people consistently take, it suggests that people don’t really agree with it. Taking one hundred percent responsibility for your experience and for managing yourself means just that. It is a complete and radical responsibility. It is hard. And it’s certainly not popular in a world of trigger warnings and cancel culture. And to be very clear, this doesn’t mean we accept the world as it is. On the contrary, we must do everything we can to make it more loving and peaceful. But doing so without first taking responsibility for yourself is a recipe for continued failure. Just take a look at the world around you. Thus, my answer to Thiel’s question is this: the world we all want is only possible if we have first taken complete responsibility for ourselves. Until then, we will continue to complain and take refuge in the popular and convenient myth that the world first needs to be fixed before we can feel right.
I loved this article in The Atlantic by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is a letter to the Russian people exposing the misinformation they have been subjected to. It is also an example of good writing, particularly the author’s care to not bury the lede — he states the central thesis of the letter in the first paragraph.
Arianna Huffington writes a compelling piece in Thrive about redemption and forgiveness, two qualities in short supply in our culture right now.
A quote I revisited this week: “Instead of bothering with how the whole world may live in the right manner, we should think how we ourselves may do so. If one lives in the right manner, we shall feel that others may do the same, or we shall discover a way of persuading them to do so by example." – Mahatma Gandhi