Oprah Winfrey seems to have done ok for herself over the years. She’s clawed her way from humble beginnings to the heights of fortune and fame. She’s provided value to millions for decades. She’s done so by both entertaining and comforting her fans. She is considered by many to be the most successful person in the history of US media. That’s quite something. She built her career and became one of the richest women in the world. This link is to a two hour podcast that takes a deep dive discussing Oprah’s career trajectory and success. It’s a heck of a story. From a tough start, she endured suffering of incredible lengths. After peak pain, her “father” helps her reframe an experience and things click. In an instant she makes a decision and sets the direction for her life. She acts consistently with it from that day forward. She leaned into the idea expressed in a quote from Psychologist Albert Ellis, “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the economy, or the president. You realize that you can control your own destiny.” Her approach can be viewed as an acronym for her name: OPRAH. Ownership, Personal Responsibility, and Accountability leads to Happiness.
As a young adult, Oprah took ownership of her life, determined that she was personally responsible for her decisions and direction. Oprah acknowledges that “the greatest lesson of my life, is to recognize that I am solely responsible for it.” She noted, “the message has always been the same. You are responsible for your life.” From this recognition, Oprah grew empowered. Her self-respect soared. Oprah’s efforts reflected US writer Joan Didion’s observation, “The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.” Moreover, Oprah began to exemplify what the late writer and film maker, Nora Ephron, encouraged, “Above all, be the hero of your life, not the victim.” Oprah refused to be a victim. She didn’t give-in or give-up. She didn’t allow others to have power over her. She worked to empower herself. She adopted Seneca’s phrase, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” She didn’t protest, she pursued. She sought accountability and acted consistent with her chosen direction daily. Oprah lived Jim Rohn’s words, “You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself.” These commitments drove her development and led her to happiness. Oprah accepted what Robert Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance that, “the place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” She knew where she wanted to go and she figured out how to get there. She played within the system as it was. She didn’t complain about the way things were. Oprah realized as Mark Caine suggests, that “The first step towards success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.” She didn’t try to tear down the system. A system which wasn’t set up advantageously for her. She worked within it. Painful though it was. Oprah shares Michael Jordan’s observation that “some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” Oprah did the Stoics proud. She focused on what she could control and took action while ignoring the things she couldn’t control.
We see where she’s ended up and long for what she has without giving thought to the struggles and strife she endured along the way. She went from radio to TV after participating in beauty contests to gain some “credibility” for the transition. Once in TV, she ascended quickly to a co-anchor position where she then struggled. She didn’t consider herself a victim of the Peter Principle, but dug in with personal responsibility learning how to adapt and expand her skill set. Oprah was accountable to herself and owned her dreams. Leadership strategist Warren Bennis observed a trait to high performers as internalizing the idea that, “You are the author of your life.” She wasn’t looking for an easy path. She knew she would have to work for each inch of advancement she could grasp. She knew she would have to hold herself to the highest standards as no one would be interested in her progress like she was. Even when demoted, she leaned in and worked to become the best she could be in the role in which she found herself. She embraced educating herself about what excellence was in her role and worked to build her capabilities. She held herself to a higher standard than others did.
In a separate, New York Times, article from 2009, David Carr writes about Oprah’s success. A key attribute Carr observed are some of the decisions Oprah made about what not to do. Carr writes, “Her longevity and success probably has more to do with what she did not do.” For example, not taking her company public allowed Oprah to maintain ownership and control of her operations. Moreover, neither did she try to put her name on merchandise associated with guests or license her “brand” to other products like the approaches of Martha Stewart or Donald Trump. Carr suggests that these were conscious decisions to maintain control and accountability. Her friend Gayle King is quoted in Carr’s article, “She (Oprah) told me that it was just like when she first left Nashville, I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds it.” Oprah’s approach has been consistent throughout her work life. She has held personal responsibility near and dear to her heart. She owned herself and her efforts. She accepted accountability for her actions and worked to maintain ownership. Oprah may have gotten along well with Winston Churchill likely sharing his view that “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” She probably also shares support of a separate quote attributed to Winston Churchill, “I like things to happen; and if they don’t happen, I like to make them happen.”
What Oprah exemplifies is the power of personal responsibility. When you pursue the path of personal responsibility, your life becomes more get to than have to. Your choices are yours. Your decisions are of your doing. You are where you are as a result of your own choosing. This immediately becomes a more pleasant place to be than grudgingly being dragged through life on someone else’s terms. Oprah’s life is testament to Carl Jung’s observation that “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” Where there’s personal responsibility, there’s hope. It’s like a scene from a T.S. Eliot play called The Cocktail Party. In it a patient is on the couch at her therapist’s office. She’s just unloaded a litany of troubles which her therapist is frantically writing down. She then pauses for a moment and says to the therapist, “I sure hope you’ll tell me these are my fault.” The surprised therapist looks up from his notebook and asks the patient why she said this. The patient responds to the effect of, “Well, the way I see it, either the world is the way it is and my problems are just part and parcel of where I fit in the world, or I’m somehow responsible for my actions. If I’m responsible, then at least there’s a chance I can do something about them.” Our patient, like Oprah, recognizes that personal responsibility is the preferred path forward.
Taking this a step further, let’s consider what Gay Hendricks calls the 200% relationship which she writes about in her book, The Big Leap. The 200% relationship is about owning complete responsibility for a relationship. When we encounter difficulties in a relationship, all too often we rush into the blame game and complain about the other person. They’re the problem. They need to change. We pass power to something outside of our control. We can’t force change on others. The only thing we can change is ourselves. Hendricks suggests the 200% relationship is one where you accept 100% responsibility for what a relationship is presently as well as 100% responsibility for improving it. Only by accepting complete responsibility for both the present and future, will you take steps to make things better. Without responsibility, we’re left with negative emotions and excuses to not act. With complete responsibility, the way forward depends solely on us. No question this is easier said than done. It is the few amongst us that would lead with this approach. Most of us would spend at least some time complaining about our rocky relationship instead of embracing responsibility for where we are and where we’re headed. Nonetheless, the idea of a 200% relationship provides the most constructive course of action. It forces your focus on to what you can do instead of our default to bellyaching about others.
I saw a cartoon clip in a newspaper a long time ago that had a kid visiting their father at work. The kid asked their dad what it is that his company produced. The dad responded, “Around here, we make excuses.” The dad’s work environment wouldn’t be rated high on the responsibility scale. Erica Jong sums up the fear many of us have about responsibility noting, “You take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.” The extension of our excuses evaporating is, as Jack Canfield wrote in The Success Principles, “Taking one hundred percent responsibility means you acknowledge that you create everything that happens to you. It means you understand that you are the cause of all of your experience.” This can be a bitter pill to swallow. Canfield writes that responsibility for ourselves involves realizing that “Everything you experience today is the result of choices you have made in the past.” If we’re not happy where we are we should ask a question posed by Jerry Colonna, “How are you complicit in creating the conditions of your life that you say you don’t want?” Even if we’re not unhappy with where our life presently is, we can look forward and consider a questions suggested by author James Clear, “Can my current habits carry me to my desired future?” Past CEO of Ebay, John Donahoe, points out “The world will shape you if you let it. To live the life you desire, you must make conscious choices.” Bill George writes in True North, “Ultimately, our lives are an expression of the choices we make. What is most important in my life? Asking that question allows us to make conscious choices.” The reality is until you choose, you’re a pawn in someone else’s life. If you’re not your boss, your life is a loss. As Peter Thiel has said, “You are not a coin toss.”
None other than Arnold Schwarzenegger offered the quote, “You can have results or excuses. Not both.” Robert Anthony, former Harvard professor and author, put it slightly differently observing, “You can have only two things in life, reasons or results.” We can’t be a victor and a victim at the same time. High performers of all stripes recognize the wisdom of former US President Harry Truman’s well-worn phrase, “The buck stops here.” Whether you’re in charge of a nation or aspiring to great heights in your personal life, high performers don’t just accept, but relish the idea that everything is your responsibility. David Goggins is a former US Navy Seal and Army Ranger. Post his military service, he’s gone on to amaze many with his impressive physical feats of extreme endurance. He’s run many ultramarathons and performed feats of strength like the most pull ups in a 24-hour period. Goggins trains at a relentless pace and volume. He wasn’t born with this intensity and struggled for much of his early life. In his young adulthood he had let himself become overweight and cared little for exercise. Somehow, he got it in his head that he wanted to join the military. He learned that in order to have a chance he needed to drop a large amount of weight in short order. He would need to drop something like sixty pounds in six weeks. He didn’t have the luxury of finding a trainer and nutritionist to help. Nor, could he afford fancy food and supplements. He made the decision to change on his own and controlled what he could control. He moved more and ate less. There was nothing pretty or prescribed about his approach. He set his goals and took action. In a moment, a decision was made. Goggins went from lethargic to leader. On a dime, he deviated from apathy to aspiration. In his book, Can’t Hurt Me, Goggins writes, “The ritual was simple. I’d shave my face and scalp every night, get loud, and get real. I set goals, wrote them on Post-It notes, and tagged them to what I now call the Accountability Mirror, because each day I’d hold myself accountable to the goals I’d set.” Once Goggins decided that he, and he alone, was responsible for both where he was and where he was headed, he took action. He didn’t wait for a perfect program to be provided. Goggins realized what Jim Rohn observed, that “You can’t hire someone else to do your push-ups for you.” He had to do the work and own his efforts. He took action, watched what worked, and repeated or course corrected along the way.
Movie producer, Guy Ritchie, on an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast, affirms the importance of ownership. Ritchie supports former US Navy Seal, Jocko Willink’s idea of Extreme Ownership. Ritchie states, “if you don’t own something, you’re not the boss. You have to take 100% ownership of everything that you do. Why be subservient? You must be the master of your own kingdom…. You have to take possession of your life.” Those that adopt the posture of personal responsibility, like Oprah, Schwarzenegger, Goggins, Christie, and more all embrace accountability. They see it as both the way to demonstrate their impact as well as control the outcome. . Being accountable isn’t a negative, it’s a positive. It’s incorporating a culture of improvement and caring. It helps us allocate attention towards things we can control.
The mark of mavens is that they believe their actions matter. They believe they can make an impact on the world through their efforts. Anders Ericsson has spent his career studying skill development amongst writers, artists, athletes, and others. His work supports the idea that it’s time that builds expertise which was written about by Malcolm Gladwell as the 10,000 hour rule. Ericsson is convinced that “experts are always made, not born.” This belief is embraced by those who welcome personal responsibility. Kevin Eikenberry, a leadership consultant, has observed that professionals distinguish themselves from amateurs by possessing “a mastery mentality—with the goal of becoming the best they can be.” Businessman Jamie Gilbert describes the process of performance as “Greatness isn’t for the chosen few. Greatness is for the few who choose.” Marva Collins echoes the idea noting, “Success doesn’t come to you. You go to it.” Finally, Dr. Florence Sabin who was one of the first female physicians devoted to research exemplified the type of belief in responsibility that drives high performers when she said, “If I didn’t believe the answer could be found, I wouldn’t be working on it.”
Author, Werner Erhard, penned a detailed definition of responsibility. Part of the definition includes, “Responsibility starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from and with the point of view, whether at the moment realized or not, that you are the source of what you are, what you do, and what you have. It is not ‘right,’ or even ‘true,’ to declare oneself as ‘cause’ in the matter. It’s just empowering.” The opposite of responsibility is reflected in what US Congressman Dan Crenshaw writes in his book Fortitude, “To be helpless to change your circumstances is to be totally disempowered, and to be disempowered is to be resentful, depressed, and unable to succeed. It’s akin to being a bystander in your own life…” We have two perspectives with which to approach the world. We can adopt responsibility or opt for blame. One affords us agency and power while the other robs us of trying. Winners accept personal responsibility. They don’t just accept it, they embrace it. They realize that responsibility is liberating. It is the path to freedom. Blame gives away power. It weakens, whereas, responsibility is taking the reins of life and riding. American scientist, John Burroughs, wrote, “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” Winners take action, whiners lose traction. No thanks to being a bystander. Better to take the advice of Morgan Freeman, as God, in Bruce Almighty where Freeman/God says to Bruce (Jim Carrey), “You want a miracle, Bruce? Be the miracle.” Freeman is trying to help Bruce appreciate what Jack Canfield writes, “To be powerful, you need to take the position that you create or allow everything that happens to you…. Realize that you are not the victim here.”
Oprah’s story and the acronym of Ownership, Personal Responsibility, and Accountability leading to Happiness is a way to get real about responsibility. There are many cliches that promote personal responsibility. A phrase like “if it is to be, it is up to me,” is attributed to the late American painter William H. Johnsen. It captures and affirms the idea that we’re in charge and nothing really happens until we act. We can’t lead anything without taking personal responsibility for the result. We can’t even make a real difference without owning our piece of the puzzle. Change isn’t possible without accountability. We won’t try where we don’t think we have responsibility. Personal responsibility is the only road to independence and freedom. Where we run from responsibility, we end up racing to dependence on someone or something. Responsibility is something that empowers us. If you’re looking to be recognized, find ways to increase your responsibility. Remember, Winners Want the Ball. Improvement implies responsibility. It has been said that improvement starts with “I.” Embracing responsibility helps us put the “me” in improvement and get going.