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Responsibility changes everything. The moment we decide that we are the ones who are capable of and responsible for changing things, everything shifts. Your marriage, your career, your life, your company, and our world gets better whenever one of us simply decides to step up and do what we can do in our sphere of influence.

Seeing ourselves as responsible and powerful enough to change things is a game changer in the deepest sense. The shift is akin to the childhood game of tag. When I was a child in New York City, we played endless hours of this game. One person was ‘it’ and had to run around trying to tag someone else. The moment you were tagged, the whole game changed.

Well, you are ‘it’! You are responsible for your own happiness, for the success of your relationships, for the morale of your workplace, for the success of the company where you work, and for your life. What’s more, you are responsible for poverty, for global warming, for your neighbourhood, for your school, and for homelessness. Better said, we are all ‘it’. That is, when each of us takes responsibility, stepping up to do what we can, everything gets better. Not only that, but when we step up and take responsibility, the game of life and work is more fun and more rewarding. We find more success.

This is not to say that there aren’t times when our lives, our happiness, and our success are significantly influenced by outside forces. Sometimes our manager is a tyrant, sometimes parents aren’t able to give us a good foundation, sometimes our spouse is more to blame than we are, and sometimes the problems we face [such as global warming] seem so intractable that it is easy to feel like we can’t make a difference. But when we choose to focus on what WE can do and how WE can act, we are suddenly powerful. Victims simply don’t create change.

I am not talking about “the burden of responsibility.” Many of us already feel too responsible, taking on the blame and feeling a need to fix everything. The responsibility I refer to is freeing. It is about choosing to do what you can in your sphere of influence without worrying about what anyone else is or is not doing.

Seeing ourselves as responsible and powerful enough to change things is a game changer in the deepest sense

The Five Rows of Responsibility

One of the simplest yet most profound experiences of my life happened to me on an airplane in January 2002. It was an icy, snowy day in Cleveland, and I arrived just in time to be the last one on the plane before they closed the door. I quickly realised that everyone around me was in a foul mood. No sooner had I sat down than the stranger next to me said, “My boss is such an idiot! He is sending me up here to this godforsaken place. The client never buys anything and never will buy anything.

My boss is such an idiot.” Having overheard her diatribe, the man across the aisle chimed in with his own commentary: “Not only is your boss an idiot, lady, but the people who run this airline are idiots too. We have no leg room, we are late as always and look at the ice on these wings—we’re probably going to die on this thing.”

Once we took off, the mood continued, and the negative virus spread. Soon everyone around me was complaining about the world, their companies, and their spouses, and it just kept getting worse. Even I was calling my boss an idiot, and I work for myself! It was a veritable feast of negativity and victim thinking. Like all feasts of junk food, the feast felt good going down but left all of us feeling worse.

About five rows in front of me at the bulkhead, a mother sat with her two-year-old son. All through the first half hour of the flight, the kid kept trying without success to get his head above the seat to look back. A few times I saw his head, another time his eyebrows, but it was not until about forty minutes into the flight that he finally got his head above the seat and rested his chin and hands on the seat. He looked something like a chipmunk.

When he saw all of the passengers behind him, he smiled the biggest, most natural smile you’ve ever seen. Within moments that child transformed the five rows behind him. The boss-is-an-idiot lady started talking to me about her kids. The airline-is-run-by-idiots guy stopped complaining and began making faces as he tried to get the boy to smile again. Someone said, “We should all be a little more positive like that kid,” and suggested I go borrow him. When I offered to take the child off the mother’s hands for a little bit, his mother gladly accepted the break and the boy’s visit to row six changed the mood within minutes.

Sitting there at 30,000 feet rattling across the Midwest, I had an epiphany that I have come to call The Five Rows Principle: most of us have tremendous power to influence about five rows around us, but we spend most of our time thinking and talking about what someone else should do in some other plane or row. What’s more, almost every problem we face—from global warming and terrorism to poor morale in a business and bullying in schools—is a five rows problem. That is, the problem is merely the aggregate of what each of us is doing in our five rows.

Let’s take an example of a seemingly intractable problem. Why is global warming and a deteriorating environment such a vexing problem? Because, the environment—like most problems—is a five rows problem. You could say the government needs to step up, but the problem is the aggregate result of decisions each one of us [and our companies] makes in our five rows—the cars we drive, the trips we take or don’t take, the food we eat, the choices we make in terms of what we buy, what we reuse or recycle, and so on. On one hand, our five rows don’t matter very much at all, but on the other hand the problem will be solved only when each of us does what we can in our five rows.

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Reproduced with permission of the publisher from Stepping Up: How taking responsibility changes everything by John Izzo PhD, copyright January 2, 2012 Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, CA. All rights reserved. www.bkconnection.com


A version of this article was first published in the December 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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