I got a lot of questions and feedback from last week’s letter, many of them from people struggling to overcome their limiting beliefs. These preconceived notions of reality, often instilled from childhood, are probably the most dangerous enemy any of us will ever face. It’s especially dangerous when these beliefs aren’t even something we’re consciously aware of.
One person that I talked to, we’ll call him Frank, was so entrenched in his beliefs that he couldn’t be moved. He knew that his disempowering beliefs were the result of poor parenting. He knew that he was a product of his environment and that he didn’t have any control over what had happened to him.
Interestingly enough, I completely agreed with him. Frank was right.
The Past is Not Your Fault
When we’re born, we have no opinions. No religious beliefs, political affiliations, or favorite foods. We only have instincts—hunger, thirst, the needs to breathe and sleep, etcetera. To varying degrees, we are born a completely blank slate. However, even as babies, our brains are enormously powerful. They’re great at recognizing patterns, perceiving social cues, and discerning the emotions of others.
A huge amount of the person you are was determined in your first few years of life. The nuances of your more complex beliefs and opinions are rooted in the fundamental operating system your brain created for you during this time. This is likely the time you learned the basic reactions to common stimuli—things like hot stoves, sharp knives and angry cats cause you pain if you touch them.
The years from 3-10 are where you learned the more complex things, such as your beliefs about money, politics, religion and relationships. This happened automatically, just by you being awake and watching the environment around you. You learned how to talk to people on different levels of the social hierarchy—for instance, the way you can talk to your friends is not the same way you can talk to your parents or your teachers.
However, many of the lessons you learned as a child—whether useful or not—were likely not lessons your parents intended to instill in you.
All parents screw up their children to some degree or another. All of them. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing; that’s just how things are. Imagine an artificially intelligent robot that has to program the AI for a blank robot. Many of them have no real coding knowledge. Many others have coding knowledge, but they’re just not very good at it. Others go to great lengths to teach themselves to code well, but they end up over-engineering the blank robot and making it difficult to use. There can be no such thing as a perfect robot, and as such, there can be no such thing as a perfect person, or a perfect parent.
Even if you had a childhood free from physical, verbal or emotional abuse, you’re still subject to a lot of perspectives and beliefs that you did not consciously form, and I can guarantee you that not all of these beliefs are in your best interest.
Now, it’s true that you are not at fault for the behavior of your parents or the events of your childhood.
It is your job to take responsibility for the aftermath.
The reason why is simple: you’re in control of your body and your brain. You’re the captain of the ship, and as such, all responsibility ends with you.
Some people see this as a bad thing. Some people feel completely unprepared to take charge of their direction, and as such, they take their hands off the wheel and allow the wind to dictate their course. A person like this is akin to an empty ship adrift on the sea. It floats on the waves, gets buffeted by storms, and never makes port. Eventually it falls into disrepair, and after long enough, it sinks.
If this is you, you aren’t alone.
You’re not without hope, either.
The difference between you and the ship? You’ll never be without a helmsman. You have the power to take charge of yourself and dictate your own course. And regardless of the circumstances that led to you being adrift in an endless ocean with no sense of direction, the fact remains: You are the only one with the ability to take the wheel and save yourself.
No amount of blaming others—your parents, your boss, your teachers, your chain of command, your friends, or whomever else—will help you. It really doesn’t matter how right you are, or how wrong they were. The universe is indifferent to your struggle, and in reality, most other people are indifferent to your struggle as well.
What’s more, it’s not their job to care. Even if you get mugged in an alley and the criminal stabs you, it’s not his responsibility to get you to a hospital afterwards. It’s YOUR responsibility, because you are the one in charge. Nobody else outside of your brain has the authority or the ability to dictate your thoughts or actions. They can only control their own.
Likewise, you are the only person with the authority and ability to control yourself.
And if you embrace that authority, you will find yourself in a position where nothing that other people do can really bother you for long.
Take Responsibility For Everything
Even… no, especially the things that aren’t your fault.
Let’s think back to the mugger. I’ve had this conversation with others, and it’s a very divisive thought exercise. Here’s the scenario:
You’re in a bad part of town to pick up some money from a friend who lives nearby. On the way back to your car, you take a shortcut through an alley. A guy steps in front of you from behind a corner, pulls out a knife, and demands your wallet. You refuse, so he stabs you, then takes your money and runs away. You stumble out onto the street. You’re bleeding heavily and you need medical attention. There’s one other person on the street. They see you, see that you’re bleeding, and immediately run away, leaving you to die.
What do you do? Do you bemoan your bad luck—that a man stabs you, and the only other person nearby refuses to help? Or do you pull out your cell phone and call 911?
Honestly, you’re probably going to do both. Facts are facts—it’s not necessarily your job to call 911 if you see a stranger bleeding out in the street in the middle of the night. But it’s inarguably the right thing to do, and if you don’t do it, you’re probably not a very good person. If that happened to me, I would be furious, probably even more than I would be about the mugger. I would never forget about that person as long as I lived.
But I sure as shit wouldn’t let that anger and outrage stop me from getting myself to the hospital. And you wouldn’t either. You were just egregiously wronged by two people in the span of 60 seconds, but I strongly doubt that it would even occur to you to bemoan your bad luck before calling emergency services.
Now think about after the fact. You got to the hospital, got stitched up, and got sent home. Your life is no longer in immediate danger. What do you do next?
This is where most people screw up. After the danger has passed, most people allow themselves to slip into a funk while they think about how unfair life is, or how unlucky they are. This is the key moment where you can avoid falling into the same trap.
Here are three things to think about instead:
- What did I do that contributed to this awful thing happening?
- What could I have done differently to avoid it?
- How can I do things differently in the future to avoid it in the future?
Look at it this way. It’s not your fault you got stabbed. But it’s not about accepting blame. It’s about taking responsibility.
Here’s what you did that contributed to you getting stabbed:
- You were in a bad part of town in the middle of the night
- You were walking through a dark alley instead of a well-lit street
- You weren’t aware of your surroundings, watching and listening for threats
- You weren’t armed and didn’t know how to fight back
- You refused to give up your wallet
Here’s what you could have done differently to avoid it:
- Have your friend meet you in a safer part of town
- Go pick up your money during the day
- Bring a friend with you for safety
- Don’t take a shortcut through a dark alley
- Been more vigilant and prepared
- Carry pepper spray with you
- Given up your wallet
Now here’s what you can do in the future to make sure it doesn’t happen again:
- Avoid going to dangerous places at night
- Practice maintaining situational awareness every day
- Take some self defense classes and learn how to fight
- Carry concealable defensive weapons with you
- Carry a decoy wallet if you think you might get robbed
Again, it’s not about blaming yourself. It’s about taking responsibility. Consider the above as a metaphor and reflect on how it relates to your personal life. Your relationships, your career, etcetera. (NOTE: Therapy really is a wonderful thing. If some past trauma is messing with your head, go find a therapist. Personal responsibility is critically important, but no man is an island. It’s necessary AND acceptable to ask for help when you need it.)
Why Responsibility Is Better
I want to qualify the above mugging metaphor—if your friend gets stabbed and you say to him what I just said while you’re visiting him in the hospital, you’re kind of an asshole. It’s not going to help him in that moment.
I feel justified in saying it to you because I’m speaking as a writer. I don’t actually know you, and you don’t know me. So in this context, even if you just got stabbed, you’re probably not taking this as a personal attack. But ideally, you would be considering this idea from your own perspective.
Taking responsibility for things that you have little to no control over is a difficult thing to do. For many people, it goes against their nature to accept responsibility for things they didn’t really have a whole lot of opportunities to prevent. You can’t constantly be on the lookout for everything—every once in a while, something bad is going to happen, no matter what you did to prevent it.
Adopting this perspective requires adopting a double standard. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard than you would ever hold anybody else. However, you almost certainly do this already.
Think of some of the horrible things you’ve said to yourself after you made a mistake, failed to achieve a goal, or embarrassed yourself publicly. If a friend or relative went through the same thing, would you say any of that shit to them? No, of course not.
But you can hold yourself to whatever standards you want to. And in my opinion, holding yourself to a higher standard than anybody else would hold you to is the right way to go. Personally, when bad things happen to me, I get a lot of relief and solace from analyzing the situation and trying to better myself. I feel it’s just a better way to approach life. Here’s a concrete example:
One of the most impactful things I ever heard was when I was taking taekwondo lessons as a young teen. I was sparring with someone, and was trying to get them disqualified on a technicality. Fortunately, my instructor pulled me aside to have this conversation—it was a real weak-ass move on my part. He told me “Look, technically, you’re right. Your opponent violated the rules. But if he gets disqualified because you called him out on a minor rule infraction, is that really a victory? Did you win because you’re the better martial artist?”
“…no,” I conceded.
“Correct,” he responded. “Now… would you rather be right, or would you rather win?”
That was a big lesson that really stuck with me. I would rather win than be right.
If you’re reading this, I imagine you would too.
So yeah, you’ve been screwed over. Your parents gave you a bunch of baggage that’s weighing you down. Your high school sweetheart cheated on you, your father yelled at you a lot, you got fired from that job you really liked, a deer ran in front of you and you crashed your car. Whatever.
And guess what? You’re going to get screwed over again in the future. Probably a lot. Whatever.
Most of what happened in the past is not your fault, and most of what will happen in the future won’t be your fault either. None of it is your fault—you’re 100% right.
But would you rather be right? Or would you rather take responsibility for your misfortunes, even though they’re not your fault, and win?
The choice is yours.
Panama City, Panama