Jordan Peterson frequently makes the argument that life is made meaningful by taking on as much responsibility as possible. The idea of taking responsibility occurs frequently in “self-help” literature. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, for example, talks about taking responsibility as opposed to being “entitled” and expecting success to be given without earning it. Jack Canfield and Dave Andrews talk about committing to their program 100% (integral to taking on responsibility as I will explain) as a means of cutting off the internal, mental debate that would ensure if one committed anything less than 100% to the 30 Day Sobriety Solution.
Although the idea of taking responsibility is approached from different perspectives by each author there is a common theme present among them all. That is, the best way to live one’s life is by taking on the responsibility of living it. Put another way, the best way to live one’s life is to embrace the responsibilities that present themselves rather than avoiding them, treating them as a burden or blaming them for your own problems. Whether this means deriving meaning through responsibility, accepting the consequences of one’s actions without excuses, complaint or blame, or simply deciding to leave no wiggle room to escape when one makes a decision, the taking on of responsibility brings forth an authenticity to one’s life that would not otherwise be there. This authenticity, in turn, improves the quality of existence because it is aligned with Truth.
One might reasonably argue that the aforementioned authenticity comes from both taking control of one’s life by actively deciding to take on responsibility as well as from submitting to the higher power that bestowed the responsibility upon the self. In other words, authenticity is found by navigating that middle ground between ego and selflessness. The ego is needed for survival in this world. But selflessness or service to a purpose other than the self is where meaning can be found. Obviously, meaning in this world cannot be found if one is dead, so one must first survive. So in a sense, it is authentic (or real or truthful) to acknowledge both the need for the self to survive and the need to be selfless to provide meaning to the self’s existence at the same time.
Manson talks about the difference between fault and responsibility. He asserts that we are not at fault for the situations in which we find ourselves much of the time. But we are always responsible for how we act in response to those situations. This means that we frequently find ourselves in situations not of our own making that we are, nevertheless, responsible for. In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, he provides the example of someone leaving a baby on another person’s doorstep. In this scenario, the person to whom the doorstep belongs is not at fault for the baby’s predicament, but once he becomes aware of the baby, he becomes responsible for acting to protect the baby or deliver it to someone else who can. In this situation he could theoretically avoid responsibility and pretend he has not seen the baby or in some other way ignore it. But (I assume few people would contest) that the right thing to do would be to take responsibility for the situation.
Notice, that pretending he has not seen the baby or ignoring the baby requires the doorstep owner to act inauthentically. He is pretending he has not seen the baby when he actually has seen it in order to avoid responsibility for it. Of course, one could argue that if the baby is not a member of the doorstep owner’s tribe (however he chooses to define it) he could authentically not take responsibility for the baby out of principle. That is, he is only responsible for those people he defines as inside his tribe. But this, in my eyes, would be denying the innocence and humanity of the baby who is neither at fault nor responsible for its situation and therefore, the doorstep owner’s denial would necessarily be another form of inauthenticity.
Now, it is not immediately obvious that the taking on of responsibility should be a proper aim in life. For example, many people often assume that happiness should be the proper orienting principle. But this would be a mistake from the position of those who hold that responsibility should be the orienting principle. Peterson argues that happiness is nice when it comes around but is not the proper goal because unbridled happiness is antithetical with survival in the material world. Manson argues that happiness is not enough because life is suffering and the only way for a person to grow and learn is by encountering problems and solving them. Happiness comes as a by product of solving problems but the problems, and solving of the problems, are integral parts of the process and should be accepted as such.
In the final analysis, the only way any individual can determine if taking on responsibility should be their proper aim in life and whether pursuing this aim will improve their life is to try it for themselves and to learn from it empirically. In a sense, taking on responsibility requires this empirical investigation because in a sense, taking on responsibility is itself an empirical investigation. That is, one who takes on a responsibility will necessarily learn from the experience. But again, the responsibility should be taken on willingly and not viewed as a burden or imposition. This is the connection with Jack Canfield and Dave Andrew’s concept of committing 100% to a process. Because any commitment that is less than 100% is not taking full responsibility for whatever is being undertaken. If a responsibility is not taken on with 100% commitment then it is not seriously being taken on. This, in turn, will open the door to the internal debate as to whether the responsibility should be taken on it the first place. Whereas, taking on a responsibility with 100% commitment eliminates this internal debate.