PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Florida –
You’ve probably heard the words, “I’m sorry, it was an accident” or some variation countless times throughout your life. I have five kids, so I hear it way too often.
I know I’ve used the phrase more than I’d like to admit, and after careful deliberation, I’m purposefully trying to eliminate the phrase from my thinking and will try to retrain my kids as well. Hopefully, after reading this commentary, you will want to do the same.
An accident is defined as “any event that happens unexpectedly, without a deliberate plan or cause.” The way it is commonly used today generally implies something “wasn’t my fault.” We use it as an excuse – a way to avoid taking responsibility or avoid being blamed – when the results of our actions don’t match up with our intentions.
Consider this example. My kids run in the house all the time. My wife and I tell them not to, but they get excited and still run periodically despite our best efforts to explain the dangers and enforce our standards. Sometimes they will run into each other and ultimately someone gets hurt. When this happens, you might be tempted to think of this as an accident, but it is not. While they did not intend to collide, they still chose to run despite the risk. They did it on purpose.
In the above scenario, calling it an accident allows us to avoid accountability and ignore consequences. If it isn’t our fault, we don’t have to feel bad and our behavior doesn’t have to change. This is a somewhat selfish and immature way of thinking. It stunts our development. It hold us back from reaching our full capability as leaders at home, work and in the community.
On the other hand, acknowledging the purposefulness of our actions and resulting consequences leads to a greater sense of conscientiousness and awareness of how our actions affect ourselves and others. Being ‘on purpose’ means we accept the collision occurred only because we ran. We accept that the pain our sibling felt is only because we ran. It forces us to evaluate the disconnect between our intention (to get to the other room faster) and the results of our actions (hurting someone). We learn to evaluate and mitigate risks in the pursuit of our objectives.
It is generally understood that in our modern culture, the human brain doesn’t mature to this basic level of understanding consequence until about age 25. The good news is we can accelerate progress towards this skill earlier in life and develop even greater levels of cognitive skill at all ages through intentional development of a more conscientious mindset. The bad news is that we have to be willing to feel the pain as we learn through the experience.
Next time you find yourself in position where things didn’t go as expected, instead of defensively calling it an accident, take ownership of it and simply apologize. An example might sound like this: “I’m sorry I did this. I was trying to accomplish [insert your objective], and I did not foresee where [insert situation] would occur. I didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt and I’ll try to be better next time by [insert a way to mitigate the risk].” It is a useful exercise in nearly all situations, not just when someone gets hurt physically.
Thinking things through in this way to understand the impact of your actions will make you a more critical thinker, better communicator, and a more effective leader. Ultimately, the more ‘on purpose’ you become, the better you will get at seeing where problems could arise and make better decisions up front. So start doing things on purpose and set the example for your family, peers, employees, and maybe even your boss.