How to Develop a Trait that is Essential for Human Flourishing

I attended Voice & Exit in Austin this weekend, June 20-21st, 2015. I learned a lot, but here I’ll share just one idea that’s now in my head as a result of attending the conference.

Brian Robertson spoke about Holacracy, a system for creating a self-management structure for one’s business or other organization. As he described ways in which businesses with Holacracy structures differ from businesses with more traditional hierarchical management structures, I began thinking about how a certain trait that appeared to be essential for a person working in an autonomous role in such a holacratic business might be the same as or similar to an important trait that I believe traditional public schools fail to develop in students.

What is this trait?

In his wonderful book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, psychologist Peter Gray lists “seven sins of our system of forced education.” The second sin he lists is “Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction.” So the trait is: Personal responsibility and self-direction, or how to handle autonomy and not feel the need to look to an authority figure such as a teacher, parent or manager to make a decision for oneself. Gray writes:

Sin 2: Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction. When Civil War hero David Glascow Farragut was nine years old, he was appointed midshipman in the US Navy. At age twelve, in the War of 1812, he temporarily led a navy team that included adults two to four times his age, when he was appointed commander of a ship captured from the British. The great inventor Thomas Edison left school three months after starting it, at age eight, having been judged by his teacher to be unfit for it because of his “addled brain” (a condition that would probably be diagnosed today as ADHD). He then began systematically educating himself. By age twelve he was making an adultsize income from several businesses he had started, and two years after that he was publishing, on his own, a successful newspaper.

Farragut and Edison were exceptional people, but the practice of children’s assuming adult-like responsibilities was not exceptional in the early to mid-nineteenth century, before the era of state-enforced compulsory schooling. Today the typical twelve-year-old in a middle-class suburb is not trusted to babysit or even walk home from school unaccompanied by an adult. We have become a society that assumes that children are, merely because of their age, irresponsible and incompetent.

The belief that children and even teenagers are incapable of rational decision-making and self-direction is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By confining children to school and other adult-directed school-like settings, and by fulfilling their time with forced busywork, which serves no productive purpose, we deprive them of the time and opportunities they need to practice self-direction and responsibility. And so, children themselves, as well as their parents and teachers, come to think that children are incompetent. Over time, as forced schooling has been extended to include people of ever-older ages, the belief in incompetence has been extended upward.

An implicit and sometimes explicit message of our forced schooling system is this: “If you do what you are told to do in school, everything will work our well for you.” Children who buy into that message stop taking responsibility for their own education. They assume, falsely, that someone else has figured out what they need to do and know to become successful adults. If their life doesn’t work out well, they take the role of a victim: “My school (or parents or society) failed me, and that’s why my life is screwed up.” This attitude of victimization, set up in childhood, may then persist for a lifetime. As schooling has become an ever more dominant force in young people’s lives, the sense of individual helplessness has increased in our society, as I discussed in Chapter 1. Mark Twain was fond of saying, “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.” Unfortunately, today, because of the great expansion of forced schooling since Twain’s time, it’s becoming harder and harder for anyone to live by that maxim.

I asked Brian whether he thought that employees in the 300+ existing Holacratic businesses tended to be more responsible, adult-like, and able to handle autonomy in the first place, or whether they learn how to be like this over time by working in the autonomous roles of a Holacracy business.

Brian said that without a doubt people acquire this trait–learn how to be responsible, adult-like, handle autonomy, and own decisions they make–by working in a Holacratic business. That is, they develop this trait so they are better at it than before.

I then asked whether this personal responsibility that they develop only manifests itself in their success at their work for the Holacratic business, or whether it also shows in their life outside their work.

Again he confirmed my suspicion that taking on this kind of work teaches a person general responsibility, as opposed to a superficial responsibility that applies only to the specific job position in which they work. Brian told me that people tell him all the time that the increased sense of personal responsibility and ability to handle autonomy that they gained from working in the Holacracy business also gave rise to positive change in how they handle responsibility in their family and other aspects of their life.

Peter Gray offers a solution to the problem of schools interfering with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction. In fact, his wording of the problem makes the solution obvious: Don’t interfere with the development of this important life trait! How can this be done? Give children the freedom to play, direct their own activities, make decisions for themselves, so that they can learn to hand the responsibility well, and not continue as they age into adulthood to feel the need to defer to a parent, manager, or other authority figure to make a decision that they ought to make and own themselves.

And as for teenagers and adults, let and encourage them to take on jobs or other roles with responsibilities of the kind all employees of Holacracy businesses must handle. Because, whether this is the only way to develop personal responsibility and self-direction or not, taking on more responsibility than you’re used to handling is an effective way to develop this trait of personal responsibility and self-direction.

Having this trait is essential to being an entrepreneur, and flourishing as an adult in life in general. Since the tagline of Voice & Exit is to maximize human flourishing, it seemed obvious to me that this was the most important new idea in my head to share.

I intend to read Brian Robertson’s book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World soon (before the end of September) to learn more about the Holacracy management structure and how it is different from traditional management structures (which I also poorly understand and want to learn more about).

I also intend to obtain a job in which I have a good deal of autonomy and responsibility and in which I can make decisions and own them, rather than merely make recommendations to a manager or senior employer in a hierarchical organization who would ultimately traditionally be the responsible decision-maker. I want a job with these characteristics for reasons of personal growth, so that I can get better at the trait discussed in this post that I feel I was cheated on developing when I made the mistaken assumption that all I had to do to be successful was do what teachers and professors in school and college laid out before me–steps to get good grades. Foolish me. I will not take the role of victim. Even if I wouldn’t blame my past self for not realizing that the assumption was false, I do currently take responsibility for developing personal responsibility and self-direction in myself so that one day I can have the confidence to achieve my goals, whether as an entrepreneur or just a flourishing true adult.


In addition to Peter Gray’s book mentioned above, I recommend his Psychology Today blog Freedom to Learn.