The First Principle of Success

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Excerpted from
The Responsibility Process by Christopher Avery.

For millennia advisors have told us that taking 100 percent personal responsibility is the first principle of success. These advisors include

  • philosophers such as Socrates;
  • success experts like Napoleon Hill, Jack Canfield, and Tony Robbins;
  • spiritual leaders Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller; and
  • management experts like Steven Covey and Marshall Goldsmith.

Why is taking 100 percent responsibility the first principle of success? All your skills and abilities—your thinking tools, decision formulas, problem-solving approaches, and other frameworks—depend on your point of view about cause and effect in your life. From the viewpoint of taking 100 percent responsibility, you see yourself as agent, source, or first cause for your success or failure, happiness or sadness, results or lack thereof. Until we are willing to own it, the gurus say, we are easily stopped by problems and challenges that we perceive as insurmountable.

Popular TED presenter Derek Sivers founded CD Baby in 1998, turning it into the largest seller of independent music online with $100 million in sales for 150,000 musicians. He sold CD Baby in 2008 for $22 million, giving the proceeds to a charitable trust for music education. Speaking on his blog about his book Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur Sivers confesses:

I cut two chapters out of my book because they were too nasty.

They vented all the awful details about how my terrible employees staged a mutiny to try to get rid of me, and corrupted the culture of the company into a festering pool of entitlement, focused only on their benefits instead of our clients.

Afterwards, I spent a few years still mad at those evil brats for what they did. So, like anyone feeling victimized and wronged, I needed to vent—to tell my side of the story. Or so I thought.

So do you want to know the real reason I cut those chapters?

I realized it was all my fault.

I let the culture of the company get corrupted.

I ignored problems instead of nipping them in the bud.

I was aloof and away instead of managing or training managers.

I confused everyone by sharing my daily thoughts before they had cemented into decisions.

I announced decisions, then assumed they were being done, without following-up to ensure.

I whimsically delegated to the wrong people, avoiding the mental work of choosing wisely.

(I could list another 20 of these, but you get the idea.)

It felt so SO good to realize it was my fault!

Because words matter, I might encourage Sivers to claim “it was all my responsibility” as opposed to “it was all my fault”; however, he does it for emphasis so I’ll let him slide. Why? Because the more telling phrase is “It felt SO good to realize . . .” That’s important. That’s why I identify with taking 100 percent responsibility. It is freeing. That’s personal power! That’s choice! And it comes from a point of view—a mental state of responsibility—that, as you will soon see, is available to each of us, all the time. It is the perfect mental state for solving any problem.

Sivers’ blog goes on to press this point:

But to decide it’s your fault feels amazing! Now you weren’t wronged. They were just playing their part in the situation you created. They’re just delivering the punch-line to the joke you set up.

What power! Now you’re like a new super-hero, just discovering your strength. Now you’re the powerful person that made things happen, made a mistake, and can learn from it. Now you’re in control and there’s nothing to complain about.

This philosophy feels so good that I’ve playfully decided to apply this “EVERYTHING IS MY FAULT” rule to the rest of my life.

It’s one of those base rules like “people mean well” that’s more fun to believe, and have a few exceptions, than to not believe at all.

The guy that stole $9000 from me? My fault. I should have verified his claims.

The love of my life that dumped me out of the blue (by email!) after 6 years? My fault. I let our relationship plateau.

Someone was rude to me today? My fault. I could have lightened their mood beforehand.

Don’t like my government? My fault. I could get involved and change the world.

See what power it is?

Notice Sivers’ reframing from a simplistic cause-and-effect reasoning to a systems view of how he put himself in the position for each of the bad things to happen, and what he could learn to do differently now or in the future.

This systems view is what The Responsibility Process (this book) is about. Taking responsibility—practicing 100 percent responsibility every day—is about seeing ourselves not as right or wrong, but as an agent, chooser, problem solver, and learner in the complex interrelationships of our lives so that we can better integrate with the people and world around us. When we do this, we enjoy a better and more productive way to live and lead.

Responsibility Practice

Think of an upsetting problem (we all have plenty) for which you’ve mentally assigned responsibility (i.e., cause) to others or to circumstances beyond your control. Then consider how freeing (and yes, perhaps humbling too) it might be to take a different viewpoint—a point of view from which you see your possible role in setting up that problem. Don’t jump to self-blame, or apply judgments of right or wrong, or good or bad. Simply see possible causes and effects of your action or inaction.

Were you successful with this application exercise?

If so, note the potential personal leadership power in reflecting on your past choices and on realizing different choices you might make in the future.

If you were not successful, it is okay. There is nothing wrong with you. Let go of this practice for now. We’ll return to this idea later and you can give it another try then.


Read The Responsibility Process in paperback, Kindle, or iBooks. Contact us to order in volume for your event, book club, or class. 


Christopher Avery headshot

Christopher Avery studies, speaks, and writes about the benefits and practices of personal and shared responsibility. He founded The Leadership Gift™ Program to make world-class personal leadership development accessible to individuals worldwide. His books include The Responsibility Process and Teamwork Is An Individual Skill.


Posted in Responsibility on 11/12/2016 01:15 am
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