Books of 2020: The Responsibility Process

Today, I want to share a book with you that had a lasting impact on me last year. “The Responsibility Process” by Christopher Avery came with heavy praises from several colleagues of mine and when I finally picked it up and read it, it changed the way I think — mostly about myself.

The Responsibility Process

The book falls into three parts: The first one, entitled “Personal Responsibility in Everyday Life” sets the tone of the book by diving into the different concepts of responsibility that exist in our culture and how they’re used. The author then contrasts this with his concept of Personal Responsibility, which is what the book actually discusses.

The second part, “Three Tools for Understanding and Practicing Responsibility” somewhat unsuprisingly focuses on just that: Tools to further your understanding and practice of Personal Responsibility. These are The Responsibility Process (namesake of the book), The Three Keys to Responsibility (Intention, Awareness, Confront) and The Catch Sooner Game. Even if you haven’t read the book, you may already be aware of The Responsibility Process — Avery’s model of the different states we all experience when faced with anxiety or frustration.

The third and final part of the book (apart from a short conclusion) is “Practicing and Mastering Responsibility”. Here, Avery takes us step by step from building responsibility in ourselves, to sharing it in a team context, helping others with developing responsibility and leading in an organisation which values responsibility.

I don’t want to dive too deep into the contents, after all, I’m recommending you read it yourselves, so why spoil all the fun?

Surprisingly enough, what struck me most about the book was not The Responsibility Process itself. The reason I found that surprising is because it is the most discussed part of the book and has been the topic of several talks I’ve heard over the last two years.

No, the first and most important lesson hit me on the first pages. There’s a difference between “being responsible” and personal responsibility. One that was intuitively clear to me once it had been spelt out, but which I hadn’t even considered before in my life: So often, others call upon us to “act responsibly” — and all too often what they mean is to do what is expected of us. Because they, the world, society, or whatever depends on us doing as is expected. However, that is not exercising responsibility. After all, if someone else tells us what to do and we just do it, are we truly responsible for those actions? Do we feel responsible? Personal Responsibility is when we make our choices. And then accept and deal with the consequences that follow. Obviously that requires us making a choice. Ususally an informed choice (you may remember me touching on the subject recently). And so the concepts of responsibility and freedom are closely linked. Personal Responsibility is when we have the freedom to make our own choices and then own them. It was this part of the book that immediately made me think of my own life. How often had I believed to have been “the responsible one” by just doing what was expected. And how much more I liked making my own choices and feeling in control of my life as compared to “doing the right thing”.

I’ve recently mentioned that during the years I found myself in situations where I remained silent about my thoughts or feelings out of a misunderstood sense of responsibility. This is the book that finally made me realise what I was doing and why it wasn’t a good idea. Don’t get me wrong, there are always secrets which must be kept, despite my general love for transparency and openness. However, when the things I keep secret are things I struggle with, I give up my own freedom and pay a toll of mental health on top of it, which is usually not a desireable outcome for anyone. Knowing the difference between external expectations (as reasonable as they might be) and personal responsibility as a result of my own choices was a massive shift in how I view myself and my interactions with others.

There’s another realisation I had when I read the book — or rather, when I employed one of the exercises suggested therein. The times in my life when I felt the happiest were the times when I was largely free to make my own decisions (and did so). When I started university and moved out of my parents’ home. When I first enjoyed the financial independence that came from working a full time job, etc.

To an extent, this wasn’t a new discovery. I have always had the tendency to seek out positions where I can act somewhat autonomously and I have always wanted to help shape organisations I belong to to make them better. But the profoundness of it all, the inteneseness of how much I want to be in control of my decisions and how deeply I sometimes resent being told by others what to do, hadn’t been apparent to me until then.

Another liberating feature of the book is how often it told me to forgive myself. Practicing Responsibility takes practice and that means it is something I can get better at over time. So when I don’t live up to my own high standards (and boy, do I have those!) I can forgive myself. I’ll get better over time. I don’t need to be perfect. This is easy for some people. But it is incredibly hard for others. And Avery’s constant reminder to not forget that part did help me a lot.

Of course, these are just the things I personally took from reading the book. If you look into it, you may find something completely else. Luckily the contents already provide a lot of useful stuff that every reader can enjoy. The book covers a variety of practices and concepts on responsibility which can be helpful to just about anyone, I’d say. And who knows what you’ll learn about yourself if you read it. I recommend it wholeheartedly. And if you read the book, I’d be very interested in what you took from it.

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Julian Bayer

I am fascinated by people, their behaviour and the systems they build for themselves.