Orr on Engineering: Take the Blame!

March 3, 2009
Here is a liberating revelation: When you assume some responsibility for every unpleasant situation that arises in your life, you can then do something about it.

“For example, no matter how terribly some other person has behaved, if I can determine why I stay in that person’s sphere of influence, or why I am letting what they do get to me, or why I choose to react as I do, then I can plan an exit strategy. I can “release” that person, both mentally and emotionally, and start seeing to what extent I am part of the problem.

Once I understand that, I can plan how to change what I say and do that feeds into the problem. Or think of a way to sidestep it. Or create a context in which to confront it head-on. Or find another friend, employer, employee, or colleague. Or think through how I got into the fix in the first place, so I can gain insight into how to get out with honor — and not get “in” again.

Taking blame gives you leverage. You’ll never see someone more shocked than when you say, “I’m sorry, it was my fault.” An example: “You were right, Barbara. I shouldn’t have rescheduled the meeting without personally making sure everyone was notified.” You’re only saying that you ordinarily rely on your assistant to do this, but in the case of such an important meeting, you should have personally checked that everyone was planning to attend.

Every time you place the blame elsewhere, you give up your power to change things. You declare yourself a victim of circumstance, of someone else’s actions. All your effort goes into explaining what should have happened, and why things are the way they are. An example is the increasing incidence of lawsuits in which people who have obviously done something foolish sue a company or government agency. Because these organizations are seen as having “deep pockets,” lawyers are willing to work “on contingency.”

In one case, two men ignored warning signs and walked into a subway tunnel. After they were electrocuted by the third rail, their families sued the city transit authority and won large settlements.

Think about situations in your life where you feel victimized by circumstances or by others: Someone else gets “your” promotion. You get laryngitis the night before the most important presentation of your career. Or you return to your parked car, find a big dent in the driver’s door, and a note under the windshield wiper: “I’m sorry to have backed into your door. The people who saw me do it are watching me write this note, and think I’m telling you where to reach me. I’m not.” And so on.

In each of these situations, you have a choice: You can bemoan your fate, or take responsibility for it. You can research the circumstances of the missed promotion to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You can start paying attention to your health, to keep up your immune system. You can rethink your carinsurance coverage, as well as your parking strategy.

Even in the most limiting conditions, we can choose. In the movie Braveheart, Mel Gibson portrays William of Wallace, a historical figure, who is in prison after having been betrayed by his so-called friends. While he awaited public torture the next morning, the woman who loves him offers him poison, so he can die quickly and avoid public humiliation.

A lesser man might have counted himself a victim, and taken this easy way out. But Wallace’s only concern was to die a good death, one that would not defile his integrity. He prays for strength to die in a way that will underscore all he has lived for. His prayer is granted, and his death is movingly portrayed as an example of human courage.

— Joel Orr

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary at Cyon Research Corp. in Bethesda, Md. Got a question or a comment? Reach Joel at [email protected]. Joel also helps people write books — Check out his new Web site: joeltrainsauthors.com.

Edited by Leslie Gordon

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