What Does Falsifiability Mean for Me?

What Does Falsifiability Mean for Me?

Have you ever heard of the term “falsifiability”? It’s an idea from philosophy of science, but like a lot of philosophical concepts it isn’t only useful for obscure, academic conversations. It also has real-world applications, and it can help you make better decisions.

So what is falsifiability? The classic example of falsifiability asks us to consider the statement “all swans are white.” All you have to do is find one non-white swan and you’ve shown it isn’t necessarily true. The statement is therefore falsifiable because it’s possible to find evidence that contradicts it.

That’s a great example and all, but what does falsifiability mean for us in our daily lives?

I always thought it was stupid to tell people to stand up for what they believe in. What if they believe in something that’s objectively wrong? It doesn’t do anyone any good to believe the sun is pink and defend that to their dying day. A much better way to live is to focus on believing in what is real and true.

This is what falsifiability can do for us in our everyday interactions: it helps us form better, more accurate beliefs, make better decisions, and live a better life.

Falsifying a Volcano

What does falsifiability mean to me, personally? For one, it helped me make an informed decision about whether or not I should flee from an erupting volcano.

A few years ago, I lived in a small town near the mountains. Out of the blue, a friend texted to say there was unusual seismic activity in the area. His conclusion was that a supervolcano was about to erupt. If I wanted to live, I had to get out by the end of the week.

I trust my friend, and if the reports of earthquakes were true, I had to accept the possibility of an eruption. I couldn’t just accept his word for it, though. There were facts about the world I needed to consider before making a decision.

I looked online and found a monitoring station near the supervolcano. Scientists there confirmed that yes, there was strange seismic activity going on, but no, there was no indication an eruption was about to occur. Not today, not this weekend, and not for the next thousand years.

I didn’t want to form a belief based on incorrect information. I realized this statement was falsifiable through real-world data, which I uncovered, digested, and used to make an informed decision.

Falsifiability Helps Us Make Better Decisions

Falsifiability doesn’t have to stay confined to volcanoes or raw scientific data. We can put it into action in our daily lives.

What’s a decision you’re wrestling with right now? One of mine is the question of how many hours I should work during the week. Conventional wisdom says a minimum of 40. That “feels right” to me, and it might feel right to you, as well.

Falsifiability - making decisions

That belief doesn’t have a lot of grounding in the real world, though. Psychology studies show that humans are poorly suited to focusing on tasks for this long, and doing it week after week for months on end leads to burnout.

I know this from my own experience as well:

  1. Personal experience tells me that putting in 40, 50, or 60 hours of work per week takes a toll on my mental wellbeing.
  2. Multiple large-scale studies show that people are happier, healthier, and more creative when they work fewer than 40 hours per week.

The idea that “40 hours per week is how much everyone should work” is easily falsifiable. Is this belief 100% infallibly correct? I’m sure it isn’t. But I have no reason to rely on conventional wisdom and every reason to seek information from the real world to help me live a better life.

What Does Falsifiability Mean to You?

Even these basics of falsifiability can help you get unstuck from negative situations. It could help you to challenge the mistaken idea that you’re “better off” staying with an abusive partner, or that your parents always know what’s best for you, even if you don’t agree with their opinions.

You can make better decisions by comparing your beliefs with the real world. The hardest part is having the courage to examine your life and accept the fact that some of your beliefs may be mistaken. By doing this, though, you can lead a better life, one decision at a time.

Try following these steps to integrate falsifiability into your life:

  1. Think about a decision you’re about to make. Maybe it’s about what to cook for dinner, or whether or not it’s worth it to go to university.
  2. What beliefs are you relying on to make that decision? Is it that getting a degree will help you make more money?
  3. Ask yourself the hard question: Is it possible that this belief could be false?
  4. Research your belief. Look past “common sense” and “conventional wisdom.” See what real-world observations have to say.
  5. Read, read some more, and reflect the new information. Don’t just accept it as-is, really think about it and internalize it.
  6. If you realize your belief was mistaken; revise it. If it seems correct, make sure you’re basing that decision on information, not a fear of change.
  7. Re-evaluate your decision from a fresh perspective.

You can do this with everyday things, or you can challenge long-held beliefs that seem so self-evident that they couldn’t be anything but true. You can even ask yourself big questions like “Is there such a thing as universal right and wrong?”

This method of practical beliefs and decision making isn’t about discovering absolute rights or wrongs. It’s about improving your internal frameworks and bettering your life one decision at a time. It’s incremental, but incremental improvements build to gigantic changes.

Self-Reflection is Key

Engaging in self-reflection is probably the hardest part of the steps above. It’s also the most important.

Self-reflection gives us a chance to analyze and verify our beliefs. Without it, we would never understand the content of our beliefs. We don’t have to adopt a position of extreme skepticism where we doubt everything, of course. But when we bring a belief to our attention, we can look at it from as neutral of a perspective as we can.

For me, what makes this a challenge is that I don’t want to be wrong. Nobody wants to be wrong, really, especially not when it comes to beliefs we’ve held onto for a long time.

But there’s something liberating about spearing obsolete beliefs. It’s like spring cleaning for your mind. Out with the crusty old beliefs that, while comforting, probably aren’t serving much of a purpose. In with the new beliefs that are (hopefully) more stable, reliable, and better connected to reality.

New beliefs aren’t meant to be carved in stone. They’re there so you can make incrementally better decisions. If you make them permanent and unchanging, you lose the ability to refine them as you learn, grow, and experience new things.

You can start this process of self-reflection right now by asking a simple question: “Could my belief be wrong?” or “Could this idea be falsified?” I can’t think of a situation where the answer would be “no, of course not.” If a belief can be wrong, it’s worth investigating to see if you can adjust it to be more right.

Remember that the real world is messy and unpredictable. Each of us makes good decisions and bad decisions; there’s no reason to hold ourselves to a standard of unattainable perfection. If you keep your beliefs system nimble and grounded in reality, though, you’ll always be prepared to take that next step towards a better self.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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The Psychology of Excuses: How I Broke Free From A Victim Mindset

The Psychology of Excuses: How I Broke Free From A Victim Mindset

For most of my adult life I lived in a city I hated. I created a range of psychological excuses as to why I had to stay there, the most prominent of which was, “I don’t have enough money to move.”

One day I spent a few hours catching up with an old friend. I told her my situation, and her immediate response was to shout at me: “What on Earth are you doing there?!” A friendly lecture ensued, in which she informed me that I was wasting away and there was no real reason I had to stay. 

She was right. I realized later that I was stuck in a victim mindset. Things outside of my control “forced” me to stay in that town, whether it was money or relationships or minor health issues.

In reality, all of these things were totally within my realm of influence. I was simply afraid to take responsibility for my own life. It was much easier to say the rest of the world was the cause of my problems and I was the hapless victim.

The Victimhood Trap

There are certain social advantages to thinking of yourself as a victim. You can get addicted to getting sympathy from other people, for example. They won’t be so hard on you if you screw something up. After all, what kind of teacher would fail a student whose dog ate every piece of homework the entire semester? (Not a very competent one.)

This victim mindset doesn’t get you anything useful or lasting, though. It makes you dependent on other people for even the small victories in life. Over time this erodes your ability to accomplish things on your own, so you double down on the excuses just to get by. 

Instead of taking responsibility or trying to improve your life, you take the easy way out. You dive deeper into your own psychology of excuses and rely on emotional manipulation to make it in the world. This is similar to passive-aggressive behavior, and both are harmful to ourselves and others.

A particular risk of the victim mindset is falling into the drama triangle. If you’re stuck in the drama triangle, you likely see yourself as either a victim, a rescuer or a persecutor. Perhaps you even move between these roles interchangeably. This pattern is as damaging as it is drama-filled. Check out the following video to see what I mean:

Excuses and Responsibility

A psychology dominated by excuse-making is one way the victim mindset can manifest in our lives. Another is the avoiding of responsibility. Both are linked to a way of thinking that says that life happens to us, we have no control over it, and the only way we can stay safe is to adopt a self-protective, defensive attitude.

Here are some examples of how the victim mindset might manifest in your life:

  • I need to lose some weight. Too bad I can’t because of terrible genetics.
  • There’s this business I would love to start, but I just don’t have the money.
  • I keep getting sick because nobody washes their hands anymore.

You might see some of these and think, “Hey, can’t those be real reasons, too?” And yes, they certainly can. There’s a point where valid reasons turn into excuses, though, and this point is what defines the victim mindset.

You may actually have the genetic makeup that makes it harder to lose weight. That’s not a reason why you can’t shed a few pounds, though; it just means you have to try something different or maybe work harder at it than other people. Just because there’s an original cause of something doesn’t mean that cause extends indefinitely or to every area of life. And just because something might be harder for you than for others, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Trapped by excuses

The original reason I stayed in that city I hated was because I genuinely had no money. I had recently finished college and was just getting established in the job market — starting from scratch, as it were. I certainly couldn’t have moved then, but I really didn’t want to, either.

Fast forward nine years. Moving would have required that I examine my reasons for living there in the first place. I might have learned I had made a mistake, and I might have realized I was making excuses, which would make me feel sad. I didn’t want to feel sad, so instead, I made up another excuse.

The easy way out was to cling to my original reason instead of looking at the situation and deciding to take action. I needed to ditch the excuses, get rid of the external blame, and finally take responsibility for my life and my happiness.

Destroying the Psychology of Excuses

Remember that the victim mindset is just that: a mindset. It’s not a single moment of victimhood; it’s a state of mind that affects most of your decisions. 

Making a single excuse doesn’t mean you’ve fallen into this mindset, but relying on those excuses as you move into the future does.

It can be difficult to recognize a victim mindset in yourself. We all fall into it from time to time. The key to breaking free isn’t necessarily just recognizing it, though; it’s about preventing it and dissolving it through responsible action.

If you suspect you’re clinging to excuses out of a victim mindset, ask yourself this question:

  • Is it possible for me to change this situation?

Don’t ask if you’re capable of doing it, as that might trigger the victim mindset to generate an excuse. Instead, ask if it’s logically possible for you to change your situation. Only in a few rare circumstances will you be able to answer in the negative.

Is it logically possible for you to lose weight? Of course it is. It may not be easy or fun, but it’s possible. How about starting up that business? Yes, you can raise the money; just find a way. How about me moving from that city? Despite all of the excuses I made over the years, yes, it was always possible to leave.

Now take this and apply it to your own life. Are you refusing to take action because you think you’re a perennial victim? Are you backing away from a life well-lived because the world is out to get you? No matter what, I’m sure there’s a way out. And that way is entirely within your power.

Don’t confuse what’s easy with what’s possible. If you really want to do something you can make it happen. Obstacles will appear and failures will stand in the way, but they don’t control you, you’re not the victim. No, you’re the active, responsible, heroic person you’ve always imagined yourself to be.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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Why We Should Stop Worrying about Exams

Why We Should Stop Worrying about Exams

Imagine you wake up one morning with a sharp pain in your side. It doesn’t go away after breakfast, and the pills you take at lunch aren’t helping. Guess it’s time to see a doctor!

If you could pick medical professionals from a catalog, which would you rather have: a doctor who scored poorly on med school exams but has helped hundreds of people, or a doctor who aced their exams but hasn’t seen a single patient?

In the real world, nobody cares about exams, grades, or any of that nonsense. We want people who have practiced and improved their craft, and the only way to measure that is through action.

Examining Exams

Exams are supposed to be an indicator of a student’s mastery over a body of knowledge. If  you know the topic, you get a good score. If you don’t, well, you’re a failure, or you didn’t apply yourself or work hard enough.

This idea is complete rubbish.

To pass an exam, you simply memorize information and repeat it back on command. Different types of exams do this with varying degrees of interaction, from written essays to multiple choice tests. Some exams do inspire a bit of thought, yet the way they’re structured as a class capstone still encourages students to focus on test scores instead of learning, promoting an unhealthy fear of failure.

The only thing an exam score is an indicator of is your ability to regurgitate data. It says nothing about your ability to put that information into practice in the real world.

If you flunk your foreign language tests but can carry on a conversation with native speakers, what purpose did the tests serve? According to the school you failed, but according to the tourists you gave directions to in their native tongue, you’re quite competent.

Exams and grades have no connection to our real-world abilities. Focusing on getting high marks just takes attention away from what really matters: building and improving on skills we need to succeed.

Worrying about Nothing

Back when I was a student, a ceramics professor neatly demonstrated to me why worrying about grades and test scores is nothing but a distraction.

His emphasis was always on the practical application of ceramics. The class was about making bowls, plates, cups, and mugs; things that want to be used in day-to-day life. Yes, it was great when they’re pretty, but we tried not to get lost in abstraction. We stood there and made something you can drink out of.

And how do you get better at making cups? The same way you get better at anything: by doing it, failing at it, learning from your experiences, and doing it again.

This professor said he would be thrilled if each of us built 100 mugs a day. Maybe only one of them would be worth keeping, but that wasn’t the point. Focusing on the goal would mean adopting a harmful achievement-oriented mindset. Instead, we put our attention on the process. We tried to enjoy making each of those 100 mugs, and learn from each flopped attempt, too.

We didn’t have exams in that class. Sure, the professor could have tested us on technique, clay mixing recipes, glaze temperatures, and the like, but to what end? He just wanted us to make things. If we had studied for a test and worried over the outcome, it would have taken both time and attention away from what mattered.

Outside of school, nobody has ever asked me what score I got on an exam. A lot of people do ask about the rust and cobalt glazed bowl I have sitting on my desk, though. I made it in that class almost 20 years ago.

Testing without Exams

As soon as you bring up the idea that exams are pointless, people fire back counter-arguments. The most common one is that without exams, we’d have no way of testing knowledge.

I have a pretty simple response to that: how on Earth do you think that’s true?!

Graded exams do not occur in the natural world. A whale does not need to pass a test to learn how to surface for air, and a lion doesn’t need a B+ before it’s allowed to join a hunt.

How do these animals pick up skills? By learning from experienced members of their community. They aren’t concerned about missteps in their learning process, nor do they get distracted by a hunting exam at the end of the season. They simply practice, fail, and improve.

The knowledge we pass to other people is more complex than gazelle capturing methods. The principles behind teaching and learning are exactly the same, however, and they have been throughout our own history.

How can you prove you’ve learned something unless you take an exam? A philosophy professor I know solved this problem in the most straightforward way: he replaced exams with one-on-one conversations.

Many students saw this as an oral exam in disguise. I took the opportunity to relax and focus on understanding the material, which was all I wanted in the first place. Put those same students in a room together today and most will talk about how stressful that class was. I remember good lectures, good readings, and a whole lot of useful philosophy.

I asked this professor once why he chose to have discussions when grading tests would have been less time-consuming. He had a simple response:

“I want to know how well students actually understand the knowledge. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by talking to them.”

Shifting Focus onto Practical Skills

Really, exams and grades only exist to make it easier for schools to codify their efforts. They don’t benefit students, and they don’t benefit anyone in the real world. It’s just another way for schools to enforce subconscious lessons like obedience and a fear of failure.

Your life isn’t over if you fail an exam. On the contrary, it might be a wake-up call to show you how pointless exams are, so you can get to work actually learning something useful, something you enjoy, something you can benefit from in your daily life.

If you want to learn how to code, pick up the basics and build a program, then scale upwards and outwards from there. Why would anyone care what grade you got in coding classes if you can make something useful in the real world?

Think back on any tests you’ve taken in the past. How much do you remember from those pages? Probably very little. Now think back to any skill you’ve picked up, even something as small as being able to throw a baseball. You remember a lot more about that process, don’t you?

If you’re nervous about an exam, even an exam you think you need in order to get into a certain career, try not to worry about it. Seriously, don’t. Your goal is to get better at some skill or some body of knowledge, and tests are a poor indicator of ability. 

Forget about test scores, and forget about grades. It’s time to focus on what’s real and useful in your life: practical skills. Follow what interests you and don’t let something as pointless as an exam get you down.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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Here’s The Problem With Age-Based Segregation in Schools

Here’s The Problem With Age-Based Segregation in Schools

I dropped out of school when I was 16. I was a smart kid and I always got good grades. School bored me, though, and so did the people there. I was ready to grow up and move on to something that challenged me and satisfied my curiosity.

When I told my parents I wanted to withdraw, they were horrified. They weren’t concerned that I was throwing away my life or career prospects. Instead, they were worried that I wouldn’t be properly socialized if I left school.

Properly socialized? In those classrooms, with those people? I wasn’t interested in chatting with my peers, nor did I learn anything from talking with them. 

I don’t think I’m the only person who had this experience, and yet we expect young people to learn social skills from these rigid, monotonous environments. In what universe is an artificially uniform environment the best way to socialize a young person?

What it Means to Socialize

Same-age socializing is supposed to make it easier for kids to learn from each other by encouraging imitation. The idea is that because they’re developmentally similar, they’ll have an easier time mimicking their peers, thus helping them learn how to get along in the world.

Imitation has its place in our developmental lives, of course. By watching the behavior of adults around them, children learn how to eat, wash, talk and think. The problem is that putting children in groups of people their own age just makes the groups default to the lowest common denominator of human behavior, often involving bullying, neediness or other forms of immaturity. In other words, a typical 16 year old is not going to learn much from being around peers of their own age.

There’s a shocking lack of evidence that socializing with others of the same age generates any kind of real benefits. Educators have known for decades that cognitive development is enhanced when kids interact with different age groups in the classroom, even when those groups are years apart.

The video below is an adapted talk by Ken Robinson, an outspoken proponent of educational reform. In it he discusses some of the many failings of the modern system, including the fact that we send young people through school in batches grouped by age, as if the most important thing about them is their “date of manufacture.”

Students Don’t Benefit from Same-Age Classes, but Schools Do

School is supposed to prepare us for the real world by teaching us the skills and knowledge we need to thrive. This clearly isn’t working, as we’ve discussed before in our articles about how school infantilizes teens and encourages a toxic, achievement-oriented mindset.

Same-age classrooms are yet another realization of this failure. In the real world, we meet people of different ages every day, converse with them, and hopefully learn something from those interactions. Nowhere in an adult’s life are interactions regulated by age, and the reason is pretty simple: age isn’t that important.

One of the reasons schools insist on maintaining age-based groupings is because it helps them control students. The more conformity that’s in the classroom, the more young people are pressured into subverting their individuality. The message children receive is that they just need to copy the actions of the “good students” to pass the class.

And remember, “good” in this case simply means obedient – not innovative or thoughtful or any feature that would benefit a person in the real world.

As educator Frederick Burk wrote in 1912, the age-based classroom concept actually has a lot in common with how military officers marshall a company of soldiers. It’s designed to promote obedience and conformity, not provide the best environment for learning or socialization.

What a 12 Year Old Taught Me

Knowledge travels from those who know to those who want to know. Older people tend to have had a greater variety of experiences and are usually seen as being more knowledgeable. But that doesn’t mean that younger people can always learn something from their elders, nor does it mean you can’t learn anything from younger people.

Well into adulthood, I suffered a severe leg injury that left me temporarily unable to walk. When I finally went to physical therapy I couldn’t even move my leg, let alone put weight on it. Recovery was slow and arduous. It took a severe toll on my mental, emotional, and physical health, so much so that years later I still encounter remnants of that trauma.

One day I ran into a kid in the physical therapy office. He was about 12 years old, hobbled on a weak leg just like mine, and had to rely on his mom to open doors and steady his gait. We immediately bonded over our similar injuries. 

The kid explained this was his third leg injury – his kneecap tended to slide out of place. This recent incident happened while going for a walk in a National Park. His parents had to carry him down a long trail, then he had to endure a bumpy multi-hour ride back to town, wincing and screaming as his kneecap bulged out the side of his leg.

A few weeks later I was carefully making my way out of physical therapy, angry and frustrated with my lack of progress. It was one of those days when I was ready to throw my crutches into a ditch and give up. I used to hike, bike, run, and lift weights. Now a trip to the grocery store required heroic levels of effort.

This kid walked up just as I was knee-deep in self-pity. He obviously recognized the state I was in. He stopped and gave me a speech about how injuries work, about how the biggest obstacle is usually mental, not physical. He then promised me that I would get better, just not that day.

He didn’t say anything revolutionary, but the way he delivered the information, with me knowing this wasn’t his first major injury, affected me deeply. I was three times his age but he still had plenty to teach me.

Imagine if some random adult was given a text about recovering from severe injuries. Would that lesson have affected me as profoundly just because it came from an older person? I doubt it.

A Better Solution

What would learning look like if we let go of artificial class structures and taught based on evidence and real-world effectiveness?

First, a good learning environment wouldn’t bother dividing young people by age. There are both practical and social lessons to be learned from mixed-age class groups, and schools could take advantage of that. This would provide real and meaningful social interaction with students of all ages.

Next, instead of choosing an adult to be the teacher based on arbitrary academic qualifications and making them the sole source of information, a better learning environment would utilize people who teach from experience. Imagine that: mentors you could actually respect because they had been out in the world and accomplished things.

You can start doing this right now, even if you spend your days in a same-age classroom. Actively seek people of different ages to learn from. Ask them questions, share your mutual curiosity, and enjoy the benefits of their experience. Doing this will automatically expose you to a variety of different ideas and perspectives.

On a more practical level, you can also find people who are good at something you’re interested in and learn directly from them. A 14 year old who lives and breathes circus arts might be the best juggling teacher you could ever hope for.

Above all, don’t let the fact that we’re accustomed to age-based education shape the way you think about learning. People throughout history have naturally passed knowledge from the experienced to the inexperienced. It has nothing to do with age and everything to do with curiosity.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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Taking Responsibility For Your Life, One Apple Box at a Time

Taking Responsibility For Your Life, One Apple Box at a Time

Do you have a right to be happy? A right to be satisfied at your job? A right to friendship? 

Stop and really think about it for a moment. Think about what it takes to get those things in your life. Are you entitled to them simply because you exist?

Your first instinct is probably to say yes, of course you have a right to happiness and friendship. On some level you might be right, but I’m here to make the opposite case.

You’re not entitled to happiness, friendship, or anything like that. Furthermore, if you genuinely think you are, you have the same mindset as a kid in the toy store who stamps their feet until mom buys them everything they want.

Wrestling with Responsibility

Young children aren’t responsible for anything. They don’t have to work, do dishes, or buy snow tires. If they need something, then theoretically their parents provide it. This happens with such regularity that some children throw a fit when they don’t get what they want. They expect their desires to be automatically met, almost as if they have a right to that bag of candy from the store.

As we mature, we learn that fulfilling our wants and needs isn’t as simple as waiting for someone else to take care of them. If we want something, we have to put in the effort and exchange something for it, such as time or money. Meals don’t just magically appear on our table; they have to be purchased and prepared. Growing up is the slow process of realizing we have to shoulder these burdens ourselves.

This makes perfect sense to most adults, especially when it comes to tangible things like finding a home. We don’t expect to live rent-free in the apartment of our choosing.

Strangely, though, this doesn’t translate to some other concepts, like happiness or friendship which we mentioned above. There are many things people think they are owed even though they refuse to put in the effort to obtain them.

Health is a good example of this. We all know that eating fast food and candy bars every day is a bad idea. When we gain a bunch of weight, though, we want to say it’s genetics or society or some kind of stealth calories companies hide in our meals.

We think we’re entitled to a thin and healthy body, but it’s being denied to us by forces outside of our control. The reality is we simply need to accept responsibility for our situation and eat a salad once in a while.

Teaching Obedience instead of Responsibility

The modern educational system is guilty of perpetuating this concept of entitlement. Instead of teaching young adults to take action and be responsible, they encourage us to be passive and wait for life to be delivered on a plate.

One of the biggest benefits of getting a degree, we’re told, is that it proves to the world how responsible we are. Anyone who turns in their homework on time, does every assignment from the syllabus, and aces all of their tests must be responsible, right?

Following a list of instructions doesn’t prove responsibility, though. It really just proves obedience, which you could argue is the opposite of responsibility.

Think about it this way: if you train a dog to sit on command, who is responsible for the trick? The dog is the one that actually carries out the action, but it’s you who made the choices and put in the effort to teach it. The dog wouldn’t have done all of this itself.

In the case of universities, you pay mountains of money to get a list of chores handed to you at the beginning of each semester. If you complete those chores, you prove you can follow instructions. The university trained you to do a trick and you get a degree as a reward.

When you graduate you retain that same mindset: “I got a job, now society has to bend over backwards to make me happy.” Life doesn’t owe you that, though, and you shouldn’t sit and wait for it to deliver. It’s your responsibility to actively ensure your own happiness, not everyone else’s.

After graduation, you suddenly have to write your own chores list. The university didn’t prepare you for that, and neither did being a kid. Now’s the time to get rid of that childish mindset and take control of your own life.

Taking Responsibility Changed My Life

For most of our young lives we’re shuffled from group activity to group activity. Playdates as toddlers, birthday parties with neighborhood kids, 13 or more years sitting in classrooms with our peers. That has value when we’re still figuring out how life works, but what about when we’re older and more capable? Should we still expect friendships to drop in our lap?

I certainly did. After graduation I moved out on my own, far from the town I grew up in. Months passed and I had yet to make any new friends. Something was clearly wrong, and I knew it had nothing to do with me. The people here were obviously flawed.

In the past, friendships always sort of happened. I was in a class with a few decent people, we hung out a few times, and that’s it, BFFs. But how was I supposed to connect with people when we aren’t trapped in a room together day after day?

It took some time, but I eventually figured out that the problem really was me. I thought the way to make friends was to wait for it to happen. Friendship and happiness are just supposed to be there. When friends didn’t show up, I simply waited more.

When we feel like we’re entitled to or have a right to something, what we’re actually saying is we want someone else to do the work for us. By maintaining my thinking pattern of “other people will befriend me,” I was no different from the child waiting for his parents to put dinner on the table.

By the time I arrived at this conclusion, I had already made a few casual friends. (Or, more accurately, they made friends with me.)  But I realized they were completely wrong for me. They were friends of proximity and convenience, not of shared interests or compatibility. I took what was given to me and thought that was the best I could hope for.

One ordinary summer day, I did a full 180 on that passive attitude. I ditched my friends, every single one of them. I went from friendful to friendless in a matter of seconds, all by conscious choice.

And you know what? It felt great. I took control, I became responsible, I stopped waiting for other people to give me the things I needed. That act filled me with energy, confidence, and courage, and all it took was me making that single decision.

ABCs of Responsibility

We’re not entitled to have happiness, friendship, or a satisfying career, but we are entitled to pursue those things. There’s a world of difference between these mindsets, and it all comes down to responsibility.

Refusing responsibility is to embrace inertia. When you look at your life with an attitude of “I have a right to something,” you’re really saying you don’t want to put in the work to get that thing, you just want to have it, and you want someone else to get it for you.

At the other extreme we have an excess of responsibility. Just because you can influence something in your life doesn’t mean you’re required to. This would lead to a level of self-policing that makes a domineering parent seem mild by comparison.

If you overdo it with responsibility you risk shifting attention from yourself to the things you’re trying to be responsible for. After that it’s just a few quick steps to becoming a tyrant. I’ve fallen into this trap many times in my own life. It leads to anxiety, anger, and many other unsavory emotions.

There is a healthy balance somewhere between micromanaging our responsibilities and being completely apathetic. We all have to find that on our own, but it always starts with an honest examination of your life and a careful noting of the things you are actually capable of influencing.

Biting off Bits of Responsibility

My journey started with the rather large gesture of ditching unhealthy friends. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that everyone begin there, as it’s a bit of a wild leap. A better starting point would be the changes I made shortly afterwards.

I could talk about the usual stuff people do when they make a positive shift in their life. I bought less junk food, for example, which led to healthier eating patterns. But instead, I want to talk about something far less obvious: cleaning out my closet.

At the back of my home office was a small closet filled with eight identical apple boxes. Inside of those boxes were knicknacks from childhood, old clothes, miscellaneous memorabilia, you name it. I don’t know why I had been holding onto these things, but I knew I hated how full that closet was, and that I could take responsibility for that mess.

Cleaning out the closet isn’t a single action; it’s a series of tiny actions that fit into a larger whole. It starts by pulling out one box. I open that box and I pick through individual items inside. Do I need this 20-year-old toy? How about those empty Nintendo 64 game boxes or the purple shirt I literally never want to wear again?

Each item I examined was a small bite of responsibility. Those bites quickly added up to a full meal. I wasn’t a slave to that cluttered closet, just like I wasn’t a slave to other people’s desire to befriend me. Moving from passive entitlement to active responsibility is as easy as taking those steps. In fact, you can start right now.

Look at your surroundings, think about a conversation you had yesterday, examine your desk, check out the dust on top of your laptop. Is there anything you can do at this moment to improve these things? 

Of course there is. It’s easy to dust your PC or tidy your desk. It’s even easy to bring up an argument you had with your parents the other day and start a genuine conversation about it. You don’t have to drag every single apple box out of the closet right now and create another huge mess. Just take one, look at a few things inside, and make a decision. That’s progress, and it’s surprisingly energizing.

You are in charge of the things in your life; they are not in charge of you. Don’t just understand that passively: put it into action by taking that first step.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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