10/11/2010 12:24 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2015

Who's to Blame for This Economic and Political Mess?

The examples I used in last week's column, "Isn't It Time to Stop Griping and Start Doing?" all cited individuals who found themselves confronted with difficult circumstances, each of whom elected to do what he or she could, regardless of the external environment. Of course, some even chose to dismiss these very real examples of positive action because, well, some people just do that. It would appear that finding positive lessons and moving on them can be challenging for some.

Last week, one insightful reader, Liz McKechnie, pretty much nailed it when she wrote:

To me this is about knowing who you are in the first place and the footprint you consciously choose to make in the world.

If you know what you stand for you can commit yourself to a clear intention that is aligned with your values.

Each of these acts tells a story about the people who have taken action. The actions reflect the autonomous decisions made by people who are prepared to think for themselves. Each of these people is a leader in their own lives. In accepting responsibility for themselves they are becoming leaders in the wider community also. In this way, by choosing to serve we become leaders.

This translates into business. In short: Ask not what your workforce can do for you, but what you can do for your workforce. You may be surprised what you get back.

"Darquelord" posed an interesting dilemma, one that some would call a "Faustian Choice":

Liberals Gripe

Conservatives Blame

Which is better?

I'm sure all those self-appointed scholarly critics will choose to miss the point and instead jump all over my use of "Faustian Choice" rather than a more accurate citation of "Faustian Bargain." However, for those more interested in dialogue that might move us all forward toward a positive outcome, either can be instructive.

The classic definition of a Faustian Bargain is to sacrifice something of greater moral value in favor of temporal power or knowledge. Indeed, that would sound familiar to those of us who have been on the impact side of all kinds of political and economic choices made in favor of personal power and greed.

The "Faustian Choice" proposed by "Darquelord" presents us with something that is also all too familiar: a choice about whom to blame for our current situation. To be sure, there are more than enough targets out there for any of us to criticize, and with good reason.

However, the choice to blame the conservatives or the liberals (or the capitalists or the socialists) omits one critical factor. When we get all done blaming and have amassed all the data necessary to prove our case, we are still left with the same dilemma: now that we know who is wrong, we still are left with the same problems to be overcome.

Years ago, when I was on a track to becoming a clinical psychologist (something I abandoned and instead refocused on becoming an educational psychologist), I did some intern work with a very skilled Gestalt therapist. In one particular family therapy session, the focus was on the behavior of a six-year-old boy prone to massive temper tantrums. In the middle of the session, the boy threw himself on the floor and began to wail and flail all about. The therapist observed this for about 10 seconds and threw himself on the floor, yelling and screaming right along with the little boy.

It only took the boy a few seconds before he stopped his antics and just stared at the apparently out of control therapist. After a minute or so, the boy asked, "What are you doing?" The therapist responded, "I thought if yelling and screaming were going to change the problems you're facing, I'd try it myself to see if I can fix some things that have been bothering me as well." (Of course, this was several decades ago, so the quotes are not really accurate, but you get the message.)

We seem to have devolved into to a nation of six-year-olds, all too willing to get on the floor, the stage or the TV program, wailing and flailing as though that were going to fix anything. The real problem with all this is that some of those wailing and flailing actually care about something, and yet for all the yelling, screaming and blaming, we're still stuck with the "same old same old."

In my new book "Workarounds That Work" (coming out in January 2011 -- shameless self promotion, I admit), I frame the issue this way: where do you start when things aren't going the way you want them to go? Of course, most people look to find the fault or issue somewhere else. My advice: start with your own self and ask a simple question: what can you do that would make a positive difference requiring no one's permission other than your own? As many have learned, a simple choice to do what you can does make a difference. It may not change the world, but it may help get something moving. And, if you can make even a small difference in your own life, why wouldn't you do what you can on your own?

From there, a second question emerges: what can you do that would make a positive difference but requires permission, support, approval or cooperation? If you start with the first question, you may find yourself in a much stronger position to influence others by simply moving from bitching and moaning to proactive action on your part.

Back in the old days, cartoonist Walt Kelly, of Pogo fame, reminded us that if pollution were going to be addressed, then it would be up to us individually and collectively to do something about it. He popularized the message with the now-famous shortened quote: "We have met the enemy and he is us." His original language, taken from the book "The Best of Pogo," reads:

There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve, then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tiny blasts of tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.

In the time of McCarthyism, he noted that "each individual is wholly involved in the democratic process, work at it or no. The results of the process fall on the head of the public and he who is recalcitrant or procrastinates in raising his voice can blame no one but himself." His comic strips were his way to encourage individual engagement, not just more whining and complaining.

What do you think? What could you do to become more personally engaged? What small step could you take to help move things forward?

I would love to hear from you about your ideas, about what you have done to work around the challenges you are facing, or about what you have seen a friend or neighbor do that has been effective.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)