Blame vs. Responsibility: When “Me-First” is a Good Thing

by Tim Tinnesz Headmaster, St.Timothy’s School, Raleigh NC
Originally posted in STS Head of School Blog, 3/28/17 

Traffic slows to a crawl on the highway because of construction blocking the right lane, and I dutifully merge left. But then I see one car speeding down the right lane to zip in front of everyone at the last second. All of us are trying to get to work… to family… to the next exit because our child in the back seat just announced he needs to visit a restroom ASAP… and yet this guy zooming past me on the right thinks he’s special. He thinks he should be first in line. This is one of those “me-first” moments that really frustrates me (as my children in the back seat can confirm).

But there’s another, subtler kind of “me-first” (or “I-first,” technically) behavior that I’ve been thinking about lately… and I think it’s a good thing. It can start with a simple choice of how we phrase a sentence. Consider these examples:

“That test was confusing.” vs. “I was confused on that test.”

“My computer isn’t working.” vs. “I can’t get my computer to work correctly.”

Each of those pairs of sentences basically conveys the same fact, but how we choose to phrase it—what comes first in the sentence—can have a big impact on whether we’re inclined towards blame or responsibility.

“That test was confusing” can pretty quickly lead to “My teacher doesn’t know how to make tests,” or “The study guide didn’t prepare me well,” or “My teacher never taught me that material.” It’s about blame. Sometimes blame can feel reassuring. “It’s not MY fault.”

If I'm honest, I have to admit that I'm often instinctively drawn towards blame in difficult moments. Blame is easy. When we blame, we don’t bear responsibility ourselves. And because responsibility normally involves hard work, blame means less work for us.

The problem with blame is that it’s a dead-end road. If our goal is for things to get better, then we need responsibility, not blame. Someone needs to step up, roll up their sleeves, and commit to the work required to make things better. But saying “someone else ought to do something” doesn’t get us much farther than blame does.

“I was confused on that test… so I ought to do something about it.” What can I do? Maybe I can go see my teacher to explain my confusion and seek help. Maybe I can study more or differently next time. Putting myself first in this sentence opens me up to more work, yes, but it also empowers me and reminds me that I have the ability to make things better. I’m not helpless in this situation. There are lots of possibilities before me that I can control.

With this in mind, I’m going to recommit to paying close attention to how I phrase my sentences in difficult moments… those times when I’m frustrated, hurt or disappointed. And I’m going to try to help my children be more attentive to what they say and how they respond in their own similar moments.

Bottom Line: The difference between whether circumstances improve or not could be the difference between whether we pursue the path of blame or the path of responsibility… and that could all be set in motion by the very first word of our sentence.

Timothy L. Tinnesz is the fourth headmaster in the 57-year history of St. Timothy’s School. Prior to joining St. Timothy’s, he served as Head of Middle and Upper Schools at Gaston Day School in Gastonia, North Carolina.

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