BOOK REVIEW: TAKING RESPONSIBILITY: SELF-RELIANCE AND THE ACCOUNTABLE LIFE by Nathaniel Branden (Simon and Schuster, 1996)
In Taking Responsibility, Nathaniel Branden examines the meaning of self-responsibility and discusses both the personal and societal benefits of adopting this life strategy. After providing general information on autonomy, responsibility, social metaphysics, and living a self-responsible life, the author addresses the importance of self-responsibility for specific issues. As such, this book is a valuable resource for those interested in cultivating self-responsibility in themselves or encouraging it in others.
Taking Responsibility offers specific strategies that college or university educators can use or adapt to empower their students. For example, Dr. Branden describes a simple strategy that he teaches to his clients, which is to begin each day with two questions: “What’s good in my life?” and “What needs to be done?” As he says, “The first question keeps us focused on the positives. The second reminds us that our life and well-being are our own responsibility and keeps us proactive.” With a little revising, this activity could be used for helping students to adopt greater personal responsibility for their education; for example, the questions could be changed to “What’s good in my life here at [your college]?” and “What needs to be done?”
The book is full of specific examples and stories from the author’s clinical practice (he’s a psychotherapist), as well as experiences in consulting in a business and organizational setting. Several of these stories could be converted into case studies and used for building awareness of self-responsibility, the importance of autonomy, the value of conscious choices, and many other ideas relevant to college educators.
In addition, the author explains his use of sentence-completion activities for developing self-awareness in his clients. In this activity, you start with an incomplete sentence (sentence stem) and keep adding between six and ten different endings, with the only requirement being that each ending be a grammatically correct completion of the sentence.
Some sentence stems suggested by Branden include:
“If I take responsibility for how I prioritize my time…“
“If I take more responsibility for fulfilling my wants…“
“If I take 5% more responsibility for my choice of companions…“
Users of Skip Downing’s On Course text will recognize his adaptation of Branden’s strategy in Journal 5 where students are asked to complete sentence stems dealing with personal responsibility.
In the appendix, Dr. Branden includes what he calls “A Sentence-Completion Program for Growing in Self-Responsibility.” Here he provides a progressive series of five sentence stems per week for 30 weeks, along with specific strategies for using these stems.
I found some parts of the book to be less useful to me than the ones mentioned. The final chapter, “A Culture of Accountability,” begins with strong arguments for building responsibility in families and communities, but then goes on to argue that government regulations of any kind are essentially the cause of the downfall of American society. Branden states that “…government regulation of our economic activities does not work…the welfare programs were intended to solve problems that have gotten steadily worse….the most important gains made by African Americans all took place before … civil rights legislation, [and] many black leaders are now saying the situation has worsened since.” He does admit, however, that “the social issues I touch on in this section are complex, many-faceted, and difficult to address briefly. I am also aware that my particular perspective is radical.”
On a less political note, the chapter on self-reliance and social metaphysics was difficult to understand and apply for someone like me without much background in psychology and philosophy. I also found it a small annoyance that nearly every chapter in the book was a mini-advertisement for one of Dr. Branden’s previous books (he manages to cite six of his own titles in this two hundred page document).
Even so, when I had finished the book, I knew more about the principles of self-responsibility and how they apply across many settings, and I had at least two specific strategies to implement with myself and my students.
Rating: 3 Stars (out of possible 5)
–Reviewed by Deb Poese, Director, School of Education and Faculty, Mathematics, Montgomery College, MD