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Women cleaning up a littered beach

The word responsibility can mean different things to different people. For some, taking responsibility is akin to taking the blame, a decidedly negative interpretation of the word. For others, taking responsibility is the ultimate form of empowerment. How can this one word have such vastly different interpretations?

The answer lies in the mindset of the person in question. Webster's Dictionary defines responsibility as the quality or state of being responsible. I don't find that definition to be very useful and prefer a definition I learned 20 years ago, which is that being responsible is the choice to be at cause of a situation or outcome. This is where the empowerment lies, as responsibility takes us from being a victim of the circumstances around us to being the creator of our own lives. It's hard, it requires action, and it's often not what people do.

Start with Ourselves

The place to start with responsibility is with ourselves, and in particular with our health and well-being. If we are not mentally and physically healthy it places the burden of care onto others, reducing not only our own capacity but the capacity of our group. Unhealthy people have more difficulty earning a living, taking care of their families and contributing to society. The pre-flight safety announcements on planes instruct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before helping others. We have to take care of ourselves first—we can't help others when we are suffocating.

Independence and Expanding our Role

The next steps in responsibility are to be at cause for our own financial well-being, followed by the well-being of our families and even the well-being of our communities. This gives us independence and freedom, taking us further from victim-hood on our path to self-agency. How far can we go with this? The truth is, we can go as far as we want. We can choose to be responsible for the quality of our relationships, for the education of our children, the health of our environment or even the survival of our species. Let me ask you: What would you do if you chose to be responsible for the survival of our species?

Some Examples

In my twenties I liked to rock climb with my friends. We had a warm-up climb where we would anchor our ropes from above. I did this climb many times and could ascend quickly, only rarely slipping and being caught by the climbing rope. One day I chose to free-climb the rock, without protection from the rope. I climbed the rock more slowly and carefully that day. The lesson: We do things differently when we are the ones who are responsible.

More recently I was unhappy with the untidiness of the restroom at the marina where I keep my boat. People left paper towels on the floor and the counters were often wet. I chose to take responsibility. Without saying a word to anyone or making a point of it, when I went into the restroom I would pick up the paper towels from the floor and mop up the puddles on the counter. Within a short period of time I found that other people started following the example and that when I went into the restroom it was tidy. The lesson: When we take responsibility it influences others to do the same.


At the Sailing Science Center we are choosing to be the agents of change to create a better world. We are choosing to take responsibility for things that will shape our future years from now. We are organizing events to help people learn, grow and be of service to the community. And yes, we are having a beach clean-up day.

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