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I thought I’d post some excerpts from a recent talk I gave to student athletes at Bradley University on accountability.
In the dictionary, accountable means that you are required or expected to justify decisions. It means, quite literally, to “account” or “answer for.”
We commonly think of accountability as ‘being held responsible for something.’
An example of a really responsible system is Hammurabi’s code. Hammurabi was the sixth king of Babylon from 1792 BC to 1750 BC. Hammurabi created one of the first written codes of law in history. And one of those codes specified:
“If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.”
To paraphrase Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, one of the biggest banks in the world, for each of us there is a book being written and we add to it each day through our actions, our inactions and our intentions.
I can quickly learn what’s in the book being written about you by talking to your teachers, friends, family, neighbors, teammates, and anyone else who interacts with you on a regular basis.
And what does your book tell me?
I’d learn whether you’re trustworthy. I’d have a pretty good idea whether you deliver on your commitments or if you have a history of letting people down. I’d learn about your humility, how hard you work, and your integrity. I’d learn if you’re responsible and what kind of standard you hold yourself to. I’d learn whether people like you and why.
You may not have control over what happens to you in life but you have control over how you respond.
Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust. Needless to say, no matter how tough your life has been, I bet he had it worse.
Imagine having everything taken away from you and being sent to Auschwitz.
Frankl’s most enduring insight is that no matter what is taken from you, you have the freedom to choose how you respond to the situation.
In his book he writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing : the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Courage means saying what you think even when it’s unpopular or will upset social norms.
It means calling out your teammates, respectfully, when they are not doing what’s in their control to help the team win. It means calling out your coaches when they are not doing all they can to help prepare you.
Too often this doesn’t happen. No one wants to bring reality to a situation and disrupt the social cohesion. And this doesn’t just happen in sports, it happens in the corporate world too.
The simple key to acquiring knowledge is going to bed smarter than when you woke up. Over a long life, this adds up. But that means acquiring knowledge, or what some people call worldly wisdom, must be a priority. It’s easy to go out after school, land a job, come home and watch TV until you fall asleep. It’s a lot harder to make an agreement with yourself to be responsible for continuing your education and holding yourself accountable for that.
In short, the best way to get success in life is to deserve it.
If you want people to think of you as honest, then be honest.
Being honest, however, is more than just not lying. You have to tell the truth. The philosopher and mathematician Nassim Taleb says “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud.”
If you want to be a leader you must lead. This means, you can’t shy away from the hard and difficult conversations. It means that you stand up for what’s right when everyone else is watching. It means you have be an exemplar for others. It means you have to hold yourself accountable.
I’m sure some of you have already overcome a great deal in life in order to be here today. And there are some of you who have yet to be challenged. But—if you are fortunate enough to live a long life—you will face failure or setback at some point.
In my experience, how we deal with failure and setback, is what really separates people. In fact, it may be the single most important thing determining your success in life.
There is a beautiful quote by Michael Jordan, who said:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Skills will only get you so far. Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. But he didn’t give up. He re-doubled his efforts and tried harder than everyone else.
Jordan is not the only one. Any elite athlete has, at one point or another, failed. The same for any successful person.
But it’s not just failure in the traditional sense. How you deal with setbacks matters too.
Some of the greatest people of all time have faced setbacks that would have derailed others. Nelson Mandela is a great example. So is Steve Jobs, who was fired from the company he founded. JK Rowling was rejected by most publishers before someone took a chance on what we now know as Harry Potter. Others have been fired, victims of circumstance, or rejected hundreds of times. But they all got up.
A lot of successful people—in fact almost every successful person I know—all do the same thing in the face of failure: they use it as an opportunity to examine what went wrong, what they did, and reevaluate the methods they used. This requires a lot of what we’ve talked about tonight, humility, courage, knowledge, and ultimately accountability to yourself.
Marcus Aurelius wrote “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” In other words, the obstacle is the path.
While “failure” is not an opportunity in the traditional sense, you can make it one. Admit mistakes, learn as much as you can, and move on and you’ll turn your failure into a learning opportunity. You’ll be better next time.