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The Rewards of Ownership


© 2024 Lane Wallace

Aviation for Women magazine, January/February issue, 2024

I have always believed I could change the world. 


The good news is, this makes me a determined optimist. If something isn’t as I wish it to be, I believe I have the power to change it or find some alternate path forward. And I’ve succeeded at that many times in my life. The downside is, if something doesn’t turn out the way I wanted, I instinctively think I failed.


Psychologists would say this means I have an “internal locus of control,” because I believe that what happens to me is a result of my own actions. Not everyone sees the world that way. I even know pilots who, despite believing they can control an airplane, don’t have the same attitude about other events and circumstances in their lives.

To be honest, I sometimes envy people who, through some combination of DNA personality and life experiences, develop that kind of external locus of control. Because if you believe that what happens to you is largely due to external factors, you don’t beat yourself up so much when things go wrong. Of course, if you don’t believe you have the power to change things, you’re also more likely to accept subpar outcomes instead of seeking (and potentially finding) creative alternatives and paths forward. Everything’s a trade-off.


In truth, regardless of what we believe, reality lies somewhere in the middle. I still believe I can change the world. But now I put the emphasis on the word “can.” As in, sometimes. Or to some extent. Because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to accept that there are things in the world I don’t, and can’t, control. Including, but not limited to, bureaucracies, toxic corporate cultures, market trends, and the actions and reactions of other human beings.

Taking ownership makes us happier, even if some of what we’re owning is uncomfortable, because it gives  us a sense of control.

But the reverse is also true. While we might not control everything that happens to us, we always have some control. And it’s important that we not only recognize that, but take responsibility for it. We take action, even if we choose inaction. And we make choices, even if we choose to let inertia or happenstance determine the course of events. As the saying goes, “Not to decide is to decide.” 

Why is it important we recognize and take ownership of the control we have? Because it transforms us from powerless victims into empowered protagonists of our own life stories. And that makes us stronger, happier, and more likely to succeed at whatever we do.


Taking ownership makes us happier, even if some of what we’re owning is uncomfortable, because in the end, humans need three things to be happy: a sense of meaning from what we do, strong and positive personal relationships, and a sense of “autonomy.” Which is to say, feeling like we have some control over our lives. So viewing situations from the standpoint of choices and actions we control makes us happier. If, for example, we can reframe our thinking from “I can’t quit this job” to “I could quit this job, but I want to provide for my family, so I’m choosing to stay until I can find another option,” we’ll probably feel better about going to work.


Viewing that situation as a temporary choice we’re making also energizes us to come up with that better option. That’s the second big payoff of ownership: it motivates us to work harder and more creatively to change what we don’t like. And that increases our chances of success—not just individually, but also by making people want to work with us. Imagine a teammate whose dominant mood is resignation. They’re a boat anchor. They’re not going to work hard, because “Why bother?” But someone who says, “I get that we can’t change ‘X,’ but maybe we find a way around that if we…” is someone people want to work with.

While we might not control everything that happens to us, we always have some control. And it’s important that we not only recognize that, but take responsibility for it.

Looking honestly at elements we control, and owning our part of the outcome, also makes us stronger. Why? First of all, because if we’ve already taken responsibility, we aren’t as vulnerable to others’ critiques. We’ve already owned and accepted our part, and are ready to move on to how to do it better. That’s a power move. Even if what we’re owning are mistakes, it makes people see us as stronger and more trustworthy. Which, again, makes them more willing to work with us. Beyond that, ownership is the first step in learning how to do anything better. We can only improve those things that are in our control to change. So we don’t just seem stronger when we accept responsibility; we’re identifying ways we can actually get stronger, wiser, and more competent. 

Some of that may seem obvious. But it’s also far, far easier said than done. Especially if we grew up feeling belittled or harshly criticized for mistakes, or with parents resigned to their fates. It’s harder to believe there are always things you can control and change, how to own those pieces, and that mistakes are opportunities for growth, if nobody taught you that as a kid. But even then, there are things we can do to help us achieve that mindset.

First, try to identify the source of any harsh, unforgiving critics in your head—and escort them to the door. As a charter member of Perfectionists Anonymous, I have to work on this every day. What makes me think I have to be perfect in order to be acceptable? What an insane standard! It helps to remind myself that imperfection is a human feature, not a human flaw. I don’t want to be a boring Barbie doll, and what makes me imperfect is also what makes me unique. I’ve also learned to distance myself from people who are critical or embrace resignation and victimhood, and surround myself instead with people who are more accepting of imperfection.


Second, work on envisioning yourself as the captain of your own ship. In charge. Empowered to set sail across any sea you want. That vision matters because it helps you want to find those elements you can control, even if that means accepting more responsibility for what happens along the way.


And third, work on learning to forgive yourself. Forgiveness is very different from refusing to take responsibility. Think about it. You have to own something before you can forgive yourself for it. As one psychologist I interviewed put it, “We need to learn to be ‘kindly observers’ of ourselves. Observe honestly but kindly, so we can own what we observe. That allows us to forgive, heal, and grow.” Forgiveness also helps us let go of regrets. Whenever I start beating myself up too much, I find it helps to remind myself that I gave my life to be the woman I am today. Right or wrong, my actions and choices made me who I am. And if I disrespect or disown them, I disown myself. None of this is easy. I know that. But here’s what I also know: nothing worthwhile ever is.  

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