I have developed a principle that helps me sort out my responsibilities. I call the principle The Responsibility Razor because it helps me slice through my confusion.

The Responsibility Razor says:

If I want it, I'm responsible for it.

I use The Responsibility Razor in two ways: to identify my responsibility, and to understand whether another person has a responsibility to me.

Here are some examples of how I use The Responsibility Razor to identify my responsibility. If I want chicken for dinner, I'm responsible for making sure I have chicken for dinner. If I want joy, value, and meaning in my work, I'm responsible for making sure I have joy, value, and meaning in my work. If I want my project to succeed, I'm responsible for making the project succeed. If I want you to understand The Responsibility Razor, I'm responsible for your understanding The Responsibility Razor (This last responsibility is trouble—more on that below).

In each case, my desire creates my responsibility. It's my responsibility precisely because it's my desire.

Using The Responsibility Razor to understand other people's responsibility is a little trickier. I can't apply it directly to other people, because other people may have a different way of deciding their responsibilities.

So I apply it this way: If a person doesn't want some given result, it does me no good to say that the person is responsible for the result. If my project team member Chas doesn't particularly care whether the project succeeds, it does me no good to say that Chas is responsible for the project's success. If my boss Rhonda doesn't particularly care whether I have joy, value, and meaning in my work, it does me no good to say that Rhonda is responsible for making my work joyful, valuable, and meaningful.

What can I do in these situations? The first thing is to apply The Responsibility Razor to myself. If I want Chas to take some responsibility for the project's success, I'm responsible for Chas feeling responsible. If I want Rhonda to take some responsibility for my joy, value, and meaning, I'm responsible for Rhonda feeling responsible.

This brings me to a very slippery place. Whenever I take responsibility for the feelings or actions of another person, I'm on the verge of creating a great deal of trouble, both for me and for the other person.

I resolve the trouble by applying The Responsibility Razor in reverse: I'm feeling responsible because I want something. What, exactly, do I want? I want Chas to feel some responsibility for the project's success. I want Rhonda to feel some responsibility for my job satisfaction.

Once I've identified what I want, I can apply this test: Is it within my control? Chas's feeling of responsibility is outside of my control, as is Rhonda's. The only way out is to adjust what I want, so that what I want is within my control.

For example, instead of wanting Chas to feel responsible for the project's success, I can change my desire. I want to try to encourage Chas to feel responsible. Now I am responsible for trying to encourage Chas. That is within my control.

Alternatively, I may choose to stop wanting Chas to feel responsible. That can be a hard step to take. It can also help me to see my deeper responsibilities to myself and to the project.

I'm still learning about The Responsibility Razor and how to use it.

What are you responsible for?