When I decided to adapt my 2013 book Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn for a teen audience, I was excited about adding ideas and illustrations that teens would relate to. And it was a fun and insightful process. In the book, which releases this week, you can find stories about people like championship surfer Bethany Hamilton, tech guru Steve Jobs, and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousavzai. I believe each of them can teach teens – and adults – something important about turning a loss into a win.
Today’s excerpt features someone else that many of us can relate to, and how he journeyed from mistakes to success.
Responsibility: The First Step of Learning
Robert Downey Jr. knows a thing or two about mistakes. Today, the star of Iron Man, The Avengers, and Sherlock Holmes is riding a wave of success. He’s rich, he’s famous, and the movies he’s starred in have earned billions at the box office. But just over a decade ago he was on a much different journey.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Downey showed so much promise that he was described as “the best actor of his generation.” But behind the scenes, his life was a mess. From the time he was around nine years old, Robert Downey Jr. was a drug addict. And even as he succeeded onscreen, his real-world life was in chaos.
Starting in 1996, Downey’s addiction started getting him in trouble with the law. For most of us, being arrested once would get our attention. But even after multiple arrests, multiple trips to rehab, multiple court appearances, and twelve months ￼￼￼in prison, Downey stayed on the same destructive path. It looked as if he was going to squander his talent.
Finally, around 2002, after losing yet another major acting job and becoming uninsurable in the film world, he made a decision. He took responsibility for himself. “I just happened to be in a situation the very last time and I said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can continue doing this,’ ” he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview in 2004. “And I reached out for help and I ran with it, you know?”
Today Robert Downey Jr. lives a much different life. He takes responsibility for his actions every day. He stays busy with work. And he practices wing chun, a martial art that he credits with developing discipline in every area of his life. He has also surrounded himself with people who will help him and hold him accountable. When asked about his past, he doesn’t deny or minimize it. “To me, here’s the only thing: You take responsibility, whether you’re outraged by the results or not, that you in some way participate in and create what you’re experiencing,” he’s said. “I don’t pretend it didn’t happen.”
We tend to think of responsibility as something given to us by someone who is in a position of authority, such as a parent or a teacher. And that is often the case. But responsibility is also something we must be willing to take. And after more than forty years leading and mentoring people, I have come to the conclusion that responsibility is the most important ability that a person can possess. Nothing happens to ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼advance our potential until we step up and say, “I am responsible.” If you don’t take responsibility, you give up control of your life.
Every time you fail, you have a choice: to take responsibility and do things that lead to future success, or to avoid the temporary pain of responsibility and make excuses. If we respond right to failure by taking responsibility, we can look at our failure and learn from it. As a result, we won’t be as prone to making the same mistake again. However, if we bail out on our responsibility, if we don’t examine our failures, we don’t learn from them. As a result, we often experience the same failures and losses over and over again.
Some things that happen to us are completely out of our control. But a lot of times, we share at least a tiny bit of the responsibility and we can make a difference in the outcome. In your journal, list things that have happened to you that you feel were someone else’s fault. Look carefully at each and see if there was something you could have done to affect the result. Taking responsibility for your part in any situation demonstrates maturity and prepares you for a life of self-sufficiency.
Adapted from Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn for Teens
Available now from participating retailers