Excerpted from The Responsibility Process by Christopher Avery.
One of my colleagues uses a sign-off at the end of his emails—”Control the sail, not the wind”—which is a great summary for the concept of personal responsibility. Those six words raise the challenge that we don’t always get to determine the many forces that affect our experiences; however, we do individually choose whether and how to navigate those forces.
History leaves us with hundreds, maybe thousands, of maxims, principles, and pithy quotes on performance, success, leadership, and happiness. Take the “control the sails, not the wind” quip. It is a shortened and more direct version of no fewer than three other quotes. Inspirational author William Arthur Ward wrote, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” Country-music singer turned breakfast sausage entrepreneur Jimmy Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” And entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Jim Rohn gave us this: “It is the set of the sail, not the direction of the wind that determines which way we will go.”
We can trace these sailing metaphors back nearly two millennia to the first century Greek-speaking Stoic philosopher Epictetus who is widely quoted as saying, “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar and a host of others changed Epictetus’ react to respond as in “it’s how you respond that matters.” Many are fond of saying responsibility is the ability to respond, response-ability. We may not always be in charge of what happens to us, but we can always choose our response.
Consider how much you and those around you focus on what is happening to you (i.e., the direction of the wind) as opposed to your ability to respond (i.e., setting the sails). For some fun and insight around this idea, consider changing the common greeting “How’s the world treating you?” to “How are you treating the world?”
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.
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