I recorded a version of this as a podcast episode released 28 October 2020 but I wanted to share the essay I based the podcast on. It’s written in a conversational style so pardon the grammatical and composition errors, think of it as thinking out loud. Join me in the conversation.
There has been a bit of a theme around lately, maybe for the last few years. Perhaps it’s always been there and my circle of interest just hadn’t intersected with it, or maybe it is really a movement that has emerged in recent times. For those who exist within the realm, they’ve probably always been there, as it does seem to be not so much a vogue you fall into but a state of mind, a sort of natural way of seeing the world. Personally, I’ve found this way of thinking to be extremely effective in my own life, it has given me motivation and tapped into an inner strength I didn’t know I had and it’s clearly having an impact on many, many people. But I’m conflicted, because some of what I have been reading and thinking about recently tends to take a negative view of it. The theme I am talking about is accountability.
Simply, the idea that you are responsible for everything in your life. Your happiness, your weaknesses, your wins and losses, literally everything that happens in your life is something you and you alone have the power to manage. (That last word is important). So, let’s unpack this a little.
Around three years ago, I guess it was, I was listening to Jocko Willink on Sam Harris’s podcast. They talked about the profession of violence and what its like to be in combat and some of Jocko’s thoughts and philosophies on life. I’ve always been interested in things of a military nature, I consume reams of military related material, mostly autobiographical accounts of war and combat, so I live vicariously through the experience of those who lived a life of sacrifice and service. I do what I can to honour those people and if I can find a small outlet to do that through The Here and Now Podcast or this blog then that’s my small gesture of thanks to those that serve.
So, I was listening to Jocko, who is just this beast of a guy, and I was really taken with his ethos. I knew he’d started his own podcast, I knew he had a following, and I knew that if I dove in as well then I would be onto something potentially life changing. But I didn’t dive in, I avoided it. I just knew that things would change, I would be compelled to act, and I didn’t know if I had it in me at that time. I was afraid of looking myself in the eye, acknowledging my weaknesses and slovenly behaviour, and having to put the work in to do better. I was afraid of facing up to my own accountability.
But time passed and eventually I could resist no longer, so I began the journey. Jocko is a warrior, no question, but his message is not really about trying to make everyone else a warrior like him, it’s about taking responsibility for one’s actions and behaviour and becoming the best version of yourself. He calls it extreme ownership, others call it personal accountability. It’s not a magic bullet, it doesn’t look to some outside force for inspiration, justification, or reasons why. It just says, there is a path that leads to good things, but it is up to you to make the choices that lead you down that path. Like all hard things, the path is narrow and easy to fall from. It takes constant and continual work to strive and to move forward. There will be setbacks and bad days, but the will to go on can only come from within.
This is powerful stuff, who would have thought, finding the best version of yourself doesn’t come from someone telling you how to live, what to eat, when to train, or any of that stuff. Quite simply, it comes from your own discipline, the knowledge that you and you alone have to do the work.
Then other people entered my life via books, podcasts and social media. People from a similar background as Jocko that also had a fire inside that drove them on to do amazing things. One such individual was David Goggins. Like many people, I first heard him on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and also like many people I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here was a guy, a black guy no less, who was once overweight, at rock bottom, spraying cockroaches in fast food restaurants in the middle of the night who saw a TV show on Navy SEAL’s and decided that’s what he wanted to do. And he did. Goggin’s story is hard to believe, I recommend his book Can’t Hurt Me for the full version – the audio book is particularly good. But, here was another person who had adopted this mentality of total and complete personal accountability.
Just a few weeks ago Goggins came second in the Moab 240, a 240 mile or 380 kilometre ultra marathon through the Moab desert of Utah to be completed in under 112 hours. Goggins finished in 56 hours, 22 minutes. There’s digging deep, but the people that complete these events have something else.
But, you don’t have to be a man or even a Navy SEAL to do these amazing feats. Courtney Dauwalter was the first winner of the Moab back in 2017 and this year she went even further by setting a women’s record in the US running of the Big Backyard ultra. In this race competitors must complete a 6.7 km course within an hour and they keep going with another lap every hour until no one is left running. Courtney completed a women’s record of 68 laps for a total distance of over 467 kilometres in 56 hours 51 minutes. 467 kilometres in two and a half days of continuous running. Think about that.
Then there’s the story of Joe Simpson, the climber who broke his leg high in the Peruvian Andes and crawled for days to safety as retold in his book Touching the Void which became a film of the same name. Again, there is something in this story about finding accountability, the will to survive, to succeed, to drive on despite adversity, a sense of purpose that comes from within. I’ve always been fascinated by this, its one of the reasons I turned to psychology, to understand what makes people tick right at the extreme end of human performance and capability.
But what if you’re not one of these elite performers in your person, professional or sporting endeavours? What if you’re just a regular Joe or Josephine like most of us? Where does that leave you? We didn’t win the genetic lottery, we don’t get abs while watching TV on the couch, we dislike running, we’ve got bad knees, we never took swimming lessons as a child. Our parents didn’t support us, we didn’t come from the good part of town, maybe our best friend died in a car crash while we were at high school or someone close to us committed suicide which really screwed us up. There are a myriad of reasons, excuses, for why we just can’t reach the lofty heights that others can. Most of these we make up ourselves. Maybe you’re not a morning person, there’s just no way you can get up at 5 am and workout. Maybe you’ve got kids and a job and too many responsibilities, there is just no way.
I get it, I really do. We all do. Life is basically one big excuse of what am I doing here? And what am I doing with it? This idea of accountability seems to level the playing field when clearly, the playing field isn’t level. I didn’t choose where I was born, what sort of family I was born into, and I definitely didn’t choose my gifts and weaknesses. But neither did any of the people who are out there working, day in day out, many of them came from far worse circumstances than you or I did. So, there must be something else in that attitude that fires them up and keeps them going.
But the reality is, most of us don’t have that in us naturally, we have to seek it out and work at it every day. And some days we will fail, no question. But what sets us apart, in our own small way, is the ability to get back on that path, over and over again. Yes, you will fall, but it’s a slippery slope, getting back on the path is the hardest part.
This is why motivation is not enough and why I don’t believe in New Year resolutions. You pick an arbitrary date and time to change your life? Ok, it’s symbolic, but why not tomorrow? And a week after New Year’s day, when that burst of motivation has fizzled out, what are you left with? Motivation comes and goes, so what you need to keep going when motivation has left the building is discipline, and personal accountability.
It seems that there is also a personality aspect to this, conscientiousness perhaps, a natural level of accountability that comes from getting an overwhelmingly bad feeling when you fail or feel you’ve let yourself or someone else down. For those people who constantly come up with excuses and roadblocks and convince themselves that they just can’t, they tend to be more neurotic. But that doesn’t mean they can’t, it just means that it’s hard.
So how was that? Great motivational speech right? You’re all going to be out there at 5am tomorrow struggling through a sit up and starting your new life, hooyah? What’s the catch? This is where it gets a bit controversial, and where my recent studies have thrown up a few roadblocks which I’m trying to reconcile.
It really comes down to this question: is there a situation, some conceivable scenario, where circumstances really do make personal accountability null and void?
Let’s have a think about the Other. If you come from a place where you are the Other, where everything is stacked against you, do you deserve a bit of help to level the playing field? If we are starting from different positions on the track, then is it fair to say you just didn’t try hard enough and have enough believe in yourself? Is it even possible for you to achieve the same level of success because of privilege and bias built into the systems we inhabit? Be that education, monetary, judicial, political? The accountability proponent in me says yes, that is the point, accountability is about pushing forward despite all of the obstacles that are holding you back. But it does seem important to acknowledge that the playing field is not level for many people.
And here’s another catch, no one stands alone. For all of the people who have had success in life, whatever their background, it was through the support of others that helped them to achieve those things. No one is single handedly capable of doing it all alone, and there is nothing wrong with that. Perhaps I’m naïve, but for the person without privilege who shows the guts and desire, they need that extra bit of help to allow their potential to flourish. We need to stay on the lookout for that.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where just wanting something so bad that you’ll do whatever it takes to get there is not always enough. Our challenge, therefore, is to help each other out, to recognise that drive regardless of bias and background and do what we can to level the playing field.
That’s about as far as I’ve got trying to understand the accountability path. Yes, I believe we need to be accountable for our own destiny, be that health, fitness, or opportunity. Life is to be lived, and the only thing we can be certain of is that if we do nothing, nothing will happen, or worse, bad things will happen. Now bad things will happen anyway, so you may as well get used to adversity and knocking off personal milestones so the victories taste sweeter. But I also think we need to be careful about lumping everyone together and holding people accountable for their failures. Is the alcoholic, meth addict or homeless person just someone who can’t sort themselves out and take responsibility? Or do they need our help because sometimes we just can’t do it alone and illness takes many forms? Do we marginalise some communities and then wonder why they are not functioning optimally in society like we are?
Quite a long time ago I was out on a Saturday night in my hometown with some friends. We were standing outside a popular bar chatting when one of my friends recognised a couple of guys nearby. “Hey it’s the Afghanis!” he shouted and proceeded to engage them in conversation. In our small town it was pretty unusual to meet people from Afghanistan and, keeping in mind that this was sometime around 2010, that country was not exactly a popular holiday destination. Without going into all of the details, it was pretty clear that these guys were outsiders, they were Others, and the way they were being talked about was pretty upsetting to me.
Here we were in our home town in New Zealand where we really had a life of privilege through no effort of our own; we just struck it lucky and were born in this amazing country with all that anyone could hope for. Yet, these guys couldn’t have come from a country more different than ours. Wracked by decades of war, Taliban oppression, very basic lifestyles by western standards, I mean, you just couldn’t get a more contrasting background to ours. And here they were, by some miracle of chance and circumstance, in New Zealand where rather than be recruited by or become victims of an oppressive regime, they had the ability to live a safe and comfortable life, yet they were suffering racial slurs and jokes at their expense. Tell me they are accountable for their own success?
But the amazing thing is, those guys have probably achieved more than any of those who came from privilege, because their entire lives have been about fighting to survive through adversity. It’s ironic, but it does offer insight into the what I think are the limits of personal accountability.
You can’t control your circumstances a lot of the time, but you can control your attitude and behaviour and how you manage what comes your way, and that is the power of the accountability message. Accountability is about finding a way forward in spite of, not accepting things are the way the are and assuming that there is nothing you can do about it. Accountability is about finding a way, any way, and making it happen. Don’t wait for someone to help you, but take all the help you can get.
Maybe I’m sending a mixed message, but like I said, I’m still trying to figure this one out. I’d appreciate your thoughts on the topic so go ahead and drop me a line.