It could be simpler than you think.
There was once a young man whose life was not going smoothly. He was beset by numerous physical and psychological ailments. He was a failed painter. He had dropped out of Harvard Medical School. He was left behind by an anthropological expedition in the Amazon rain forest when he contracted smallpox — he nearly died.
This young man had tried and failed at so many things he began to believe that life was hopeless. When he finally returned home from the ill-fated expedition, he contemplated suicide.
Then, he made a deal with himself.
He decided he would spend the next year acting as though he had responsibility for everything in his life. If nothing changed during that time, if he hadn’t grown, if his life hadn’t improved, he would take his own life.
What happened to this young man?
Today, he’s considered by many to be one of the leading thinkers and philosophers of the late 19th century, as well as the father of American psychology. His name is William James.
James’ struggles are not so different from our own. So, what was it about the experiment that caused him to change his perspective toward life? And can we use this same perspective to help ourselves?
What does it mean to “take responsibility” for something?
If you take responsibility for a friend’s birthday it might mean creating the invite list and deciding on an activity. It might mean sending out invitations far enough in advance so people can make arrangements to attend. It might mean booking a venue, like a restaurant, and then selecting a menu.
In other words, “to take responsibility” means something like solving all the problems associated with the event to (at least) a satisfactory degree. Of course, we can’t solve every problem perfectly, and some we just have to live with, so we need to be satisfied with satisfactory.
But things get tricky because we often confuse responsibility with fault. We typically believe they go hand-in-hand. For example, if you cause a car accident, you are both at fault and responsible for the consequences.