Updated on 04.14.11

Who’s to Blame for My Failures?

Trent Hamm

This morning, I sat at the keyboard in our basement, practicing a certain part of a song on the piano that I’d been working on for a while. I had attempted to play it during my last piano lesson, but my attempt at it had completely fallen flat and I was disappointed in myself. So, there I was, working on a few of the rough points in the song.

What I realized while I was practicing is that the real key to getting better wasn’t that I was practicing. That choice to practice was just the outcome of the real reason why I’m (slowly) improving as a piano player.

What’s the real reason? I realize that when I put out a poor performance, I’m the one to blame. It’s my own fault for not doing whatever it would take to maximize the chances of a good performance.

Every time we mess up, it is very easy to blame someone else. The lender was acting in a predatory fashion. The lawyer didn’t explain the contract very well. The boss didn’t understand how much work it would be. My friend didn’t show up in time to get me to work. My professors assigned too much homework for me to complete it all. The grocery store charged outrageous prices for the ingredients.

The truth is that in virtually every case, we as individuals could have done things to improve our performance – and our outcome. I could have asked for help in understanding the loan or the contract from another source. I could have managed my time better. I could have articulated the challenge to my supervisors. I could have created a backup plan. I could have shopped around. I could have planned for alternate ingredients.

When I apply the same filter to my own financial and professional mistakes, I see the same relationship between my blame and my own actions.

I could blame my old coworkers for creating a wedge in my family – or I could look at myself for not articulating this problem very well.

I could blame marketers and advertising for convincing me to spend money on stuff I didn’t need – or I could look at myself for not having willpower.

I could blame my parents and my school for not providing strong personal finance education – or I could look at myself for signing up for things and spending money on credit without understanding what I was doing and without educating myself.

Hand in hand with realizing that I’m the one to blame for poor performance comes the idea that realization pushes me to take whatever steps I need to ensure that I don’t have a poor performance in the future.

When I finally took charge of my career situation, I realized it was up to me to put myself in a position that I was happy with with regards to the balance of career and family. I put my nose to the grindstone and built The Simple Dollar (and some other opportunities) so that, above all, I would have the flexibility I needed to not miss any more of those big family moments. It was up to me – not my coworkers, not my boss, not society at large – to fix the problem.

When I finally took charge of my spending, I realized it was up to me to start making better choices. Yes, I might often be tempted by friends and family and by advertisements to spend money on things I didn’t need, but that choice was really up to me. I can only build a better financial future if I make choices every day that help me to build that future.

When I finally took charge of my own personal finance education, I buried myself in reading and putting things into practice because I recognized that I was very poorly educated when it came to money. I didn’t have all the answers, but I certainly knew that with work and focus, I could learn a lot of the answers I needed.

Right now, I face the same challenges in many other areas of my life. I’d like to be in better shape. Whose fault is it that I’m not? I’d like to be a better piano player. Whose fault is it that I’m not?

Whenever something in your life doesn’t work the way you want it to, don’t waste a second of energy blaming others. Don’t blame your boss. Don’t blame the government. Don’t blame Mother Nature. Don’t blame your friends. Instead, look at the problem you’re facing and focus entirely on what you can do differently to make that situation better.

The biggest thing holding you back is you.

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  1. jackson says:

    Great post on owning our failures. I’ve always like this Michael Jordan quote on failure:
    “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan.

  2. Katie says:

    If everyone did this, nobody would spend any time trying to change government policies that are unfair, or social attitudes that are bigoted or discriminatory, or workplace policies that give a raw deal to employees. Owning things can also mean looking at where external change needs to be advocated and doing it.

  3. marta says:

    Exactly, Katie.

  4. Johanna says:

    You’re improving as a piano player not because you practice, but because you realize it’s your own fault you’re not a better piano player? So if you didn’t practice, but you still realized it was your own fault, you’d still improve? What?

    I know I’ve made this same point a bunch of times in a row, but: Self-flagellation does not automatically bring success, nor is it necessary for success.

    Maybe some people are inspired by posts like this, but I’m really not, at all. Telling myself over and over again, “I messed up and it’s all my fault,” does not make me want to do better. It makes me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.

  5. Tracy says:

    I don’t buy it.

    I feel like I’m missing something here. Until you realized that it was your responsibility to play well or not, who were you blaming for your poor performance? Were you EVER putting the responsibility on anybody but yourself?

    Were you ever blaming your coworkers for ‘putting a wedge in your family’?

    And also, I agree with Katie. While I think it’s important to take responsibility for your own actions, you’re advocating accepting everybody else’s behavior – even if it’s illegal, immoral or unethical.

  6. Des says:

    “What’s the real reason? I realize that when I put out a poor performance, I’m the one to blame.”

    Umm…no. The REAL reason you improve at a musical instrument is that you practice. It doesn’t matter why you are practicing.

    Maybe, you blame the teacher for your failure because he/she assigned a piece that was too hard. So, out of anger, you practice your butt off to play it perfectly next time. I’ve done things like that.

    Likewise, the way you escape debt is by spending less than you make and using the difference to pay it down. It doesn’t matter WHY you do that, only that you do. Maybe you want to prove to someone that you can overcome odds, or maybe you want to escape a bad relationship.

    DOING is what makes you improve in these thing, not the underlying motivation.

  7. Jonathan says:

    I’ve been hoping to see a post like this for some time. It could have gone much farther into the idea of taking responsibility for ones failures, but I’m sure it is going to be a help for some readers. There seems to be a pervading victim mentality in our society. Anything that helps people take responsibility is a step in the right direction.

    @Katie – This is a common misconception that I see when people talk about taking full responsibility for ones own situation. If I am unhappy with a government policy, then it is my responsibility to do something to change it. I allowed the politicians in charge to be voted in, so I can’t just sit back and blame them for the things I disagree with. I think that advocating for change is an extremely important part in taking full responsibility. The same applies to other areas as well. If I don’t like a corporations business practices then it is my responsibility to stop supporting them financially.

  8. Katie says:

    It’s an important point, Jonathan; I think it should be made explicitly, not left for people to read or not read between the lines. You can’t really say it’s a “misconception” on my part when I’m left to guess whether that’s what Trent means or what he doesn’t, and you certainly can’t say it’s a “misconception” based on the fact that it’s not what you mean when you talk about personal responsibility .

  9. Steven says:

    Why place blame or try to find fault, even in yourself? Why not just acknowledge what is, and work from there? No fault, no blame…just motivation to improve.

    Trying to put blame on others, or even yourself as you’ve so repeatedly done in this article, is counterproductive.

    In my own life, I can say that I’m not the greatest rock climber, but I can also tell you that I’m not going to blame others, or myself, for that. I’m just going to put my harness on, and climb to the best of my ability, even if I’m not the best. I know that in order to get better, I have to continue to challenge myself every time I climb. That always means failure of some sort.

    But, you know something, I AM getting better, even if I’m not the best. I can also tell you that if I wasn’t out there struggling, I wouldn’t be getting any better.

  10. valleycat1 says:

    Well said, Steven/#9. Not only is blaming counterproductive, it’s a waste of time that diverts one’s attention from the actual issue at hand. If something isn’t the way you want it, you do what you can to fix it or decide to accept it. If it’s fixable, then you have to figure out what or who is the source of the problem, not to blame them but to know where to focus your energies. If it isn’t fixable or isn’t important enough to go on your list, then accept it & move on with your life.

  11. Lex says:

    I disagree when you say to blzme yourself instead of mother nature. What good can come of it?

  12. Lindsay says:

    I second jonathan #7. Everyone will get a different message from this post. I feels it’s a great point! I am a firm believer that you make your own luck in life. I do understand that bad things can happen to good people ( I am a hospice nurse ) and that good things do happen to bad people. I do agree with #9 Steve…guess I am in the middle. But I think in today’s society it is very easy to blame everything on everyone and not take ownership for your actions.

  13. *pol says:

    Thank you for writing such a bold post.
    I agree with you.
    By taking ownership of life’s shortcomings, you also can claim ownership of life’s successes without blaming “luck” (bad or good). See anyone that has overcome & flourished in spite of extreme hardships and there are hundreds more that are content to be “victims” to their circumstance. It’s just easier to blame outside forces than stand up for what you really want.
    More people need to accept that the hand we are dealt is just the starting point, with foresight, common sense and determination (practice included) amazing things are always available!

  14. almost there says:

    The saying “If it is going to be, it is up to me” comes to mind. Say this to yourself and don’t worry about assigning blame.

  15. Nicole says:

    As a professional musician and an admitted perfectionist, I have to chime in. There have been countless times in my life when I have prepared exceedingly well and then blew it because of nerves or something. There have been other times when I prepared AND performed exceedingly well and still did not get what I wanted. I can assure you, blame is not very helpful.

    Trent, the question on my mind is whether your expectations of yourself are reasonable. You don’t mention what your teacher thought of your performance. Learning an instrument is hard at any time, but being an adult beginner can be especially hard for reasons that are very real. Also, it’s actually conterproductive not to take a break now and then — that time helps your brain — so I hope you aren’t beating yourself up for having taken a day off or anything like that.

  16. Gretchen says:

    I don’t understand how blaming yourself is helpful.

    Why blame anyone?

  17. getagrip says:

    I’m not sure I like the term blaming. I prefer responsibility. I believe there is a balance to be had. First off you cannot always control what goes on around you, you can only control your reactions and actions to it. You need to focus on what you can control and accept responsiblity for that. I can’t control the weather, but I can pay attention to the fact a hurricane may hit the region and ensure I’m prepared to hunker down or evacuate. I may just be an employee in a division that’s let go by a company, but I could have paid some attention and already put feelers out for other positions. You can’t control the addict in your life, but you can keep them from laying blame on you for their addiction and accept responsibility in having enabled them.

    So yes, we can consider “blaming” ourselves for many things. But the point of blaming shouldn’t be to find fault as much as seek improvement. To me it’s more about recognizing what you can and can’t control, and focusing energy on that.

  18. Kevin says:


    Because taking ownership of our failures empowers us to recognize that we’re responsible for our own successes. Life is a 6-billion-person free-for-all fight to the death, and nobody out there is going to put you before themselves. You can sit in a corner and cry and be miserable and jealous, or you can stand up and take what you want out of life. Life isn’t fair, and blaming others for your own unhappiness doesn’t do anything to change that. It just wastes time.

  19. Hunter says:

    I think a lot of coaches, or leaders of any stripe could plug into this and motivate their crew.

    A very strong leader I had the pleasure of working with many years ago gave a similar talk to our team. We had lots on the go, many balls in the air, and results were expected.

    The speech was about efforet. He spoke of the college try. “Give it the goold old college try”. He tore that phrase apart and threw it back at us. Hi argument was that only losers say this. It’s their cruch, their losers limp.

    Just get it done and be satisfid knowing that you made it happen.

  20. Shannon says:

    Geesh, is this my problem? I ALWAYS blame myself (or as one commenter said, i take full responsibility for my actions). I’ve long suspected that my thought processes were different from others and now I have confirmation why people are the way they are and there is a me, me, me attitude because it’s always somebody else’s fault. Recycling, consuming less, spending less than I earn; it’s all about personal responsibility and it seems our country has a long way to go if this post is a revelation. Sorry for the negative tone; lack of sleep. :-)

  21. Katie says:

    Shannon, in my experience, this is one of those things where virtually everyone thinks that they take full responsibility for things, but everyone else has abdicated personal responsibility entirely. You notice nobody has commented on this post saying “That’s right! I have been blaming marketers for my overspending! I should stop that!”

  22. Gretchen says:

    See, I don’t think “taking ownership of my failures”* is the same as “blaming myself.”

    * if failure to be a better piano player is a true failure. As usual, I think it’s a poor example.

  23. QuiteLight says:

    I think the real challenge (at least for me) is to assign responsibility appropriately for a problem. If a friend behaves badly towards me, I need to figure out how much responsiblity I have, & how much belongs to them. Did I behave badly first? Or is this a result of their own issues? I can take responsibility for any poor behaviour on my part. I can learn about how to do something differently in the future.

    For the stuff that belongs to them, I still have once piece of responsibility; how I am going to deal with this behaviour in the future? If someone is behaving badly (friend, politician, whoever), I need to decide where my boundaries are & what kind of action I’m going to take. That’s my responsibility. I can’t control them. I can control myself. Well, as much as anyone can! ;)

  24. Leisureguy says:

    I highly recommend the book, now out of print but available through secondhand-book sites, Playing the Piano for Pleasure. It’s an excellent guide for the amateur pianist, and it’s well written and enjoyable. The author’s job at the New Yorker required him to interview many professional pianists, and as an amateur he always asked about technical advice for the amateur. Quite a wonderful book for the piano enthusiast.

  25. Leisureguy says:

    Reading the thread, I’m struck by the frequent use of the word “blame”—that word obviously carries a lot of emotional freight.

    Whenever one is dissatisfied with something and seeks to change it to make it more satisfying, it generally is important to analyze it to find the causes of the problem. If you don’t know the source of the problem, it’s difficult to solve it effectively and efficiently. I suppose finding the source of the problem is the “blame” thing, but obviously simply finding the source of the problem doesn’t solve it, so in that sense “blame” is not a solution—but finding that source is essential.

    A friend pointed out that the point of “root cause analysis” is to continue the analysis until you arrive at something you can do to solve the problem and/or prevent its recurrence. If one stops too soon, then I think that is negative sense of “blame”: being satisfied with finding a problem source that falls within the bailiwick of others. But that is too soon: the analysis should continue until you find what you can do.

    Example: a development team finds that users frequently fail to read the instructions on a screen and thus click the wrong option. One cause of the problem is user inattention, and that is certainly the case. OTOH, this is not root cause analysis, because it gives the development team nothing to do. So the analysis continues: given that users are inattentive, how can the screen design be changed so that the error is precluded. That’s the whole point, obviously.

  26. Kathryn says:

    I’d love to blame my ex-husband for our marital financial problems, but I had to do the same thing Trent has done. Stop blaming other forces and accept responsibility for my (then) present situation. I allowed a lot of stupid things to occur for the sake of marital peace when I should have been standing up for my beliefs. I didn’t trust my own judgment and allowed my ex-husband make some really poor decisions in regard to our money. (The decisions he made that I didn’t know about, I’ll put on him, but even for those, I had a chance to ask questions and chose to close my eyes.)

    It’s not about self-flagellation either. It’s about acknowledging and strengthening our power in our own lives. If we learn that it’s all up to us, we can use that information to make good things happen. “How can *I* avoid this problem in the future” is a good question to ask when faced with a situation gone wrong.

    This can be a really valuable message if we let it, but some of us will find fault with Trent for not phrasing it better. Oh look there, we’ve done it again.

  27. Laura G says:

    I just want to know what works in keeping this from going too far in the other direction. A slightly silly but illustrative example:

    Several years ago, I won some free passes to an amusement park. I organized some friends for a weekend of hanging out, including a day at the park.

    We overslept the day of the park due to a mutual agreement to stay up too late the night before. The lines were incredibly long, the weather was incredibly hot, and everyone was miserable.

    I felt I was to blame since this trip was, in a sense, *my* baby, so I was responsible for it going well. Ultimately, I know it was a group responsibility for staying up late, and no one’s responsibility that it was so hot out, and part of the “price of admission” of amusement parks that the lines were so long.

    In fact, I know that I should receive *at least* as much credit for providing the tickets as I would get blame for things not going well.

    But even acknowledging all this, to this day I blame myself for “ruining” this trip. And I don’t think that’s any healthier than shifting the blame elsewhere. So where’s the middle ground?

  28. Tanya says:

    Taking responsibility for yourself does not equal accepting other people’s bad behavior. In fact, your responsible, positive behavior can and will affect others and may inspire them to do better.

  29. Leisureguy says:

    Stephen Coveny in Seven Habits of Highly Successful People talks about locating the sphere of one’s control and understanding what’s within your control and what is not, and then to focus your efforts and attention on what is within your sphere of control. It’s a useful approach, and he provides many examples.

  30. Jonathan says:

    @QuiteLight (#23) – “I think the real challenge (at least for me) is to assign responsibility appropriately for a problem. If a friend behaves badly towards me, I need to figure out how much responsiblity I have, & how much belongs to them. Did I behave badly first? Or is this a result of their own issues? I can take responsibility for any poor behaviour on my part. I can learn about how to do something differently in the future.

    For the stuff that belongs to them, I still have once piece of responsibility; how I am going to deal with this behaviour in the future? If someone is behaving badly (friend, politician, whoever), I need to decide where my boundaries are & what kind of action I’m going to take. That’s my responsibility. I can’t control them. I can control myself. Well, as much as anyone can! ;)”

    In my opinion, taking full responsibility means not trying to place blame on the friend in this situation. If I am unhappy with how a friend is behaving towards me it is easy to blame the friend. As you suggested, however, I should ask myself, what did I do to cause this behavior? I need to take it farther, however, and ask myself why this behavior bothers me. I can choose to not let it bother me, or if it the type of behavior I cannot tolerate then I must choose whether to remain friends with the person. If I choose to remain friends with him/her, then any negative feelings I have when they behave this way in the future if 100% on me, since I am unwilling/unable to change my perception of the behavior, yet am also unwilling to end the friendship.

  31. Jonathan says:

    @Laura G (#27) – In the example you provided, I think that taking complete responsibility for you being miserable on the trip is reasonable. I do not, however, feel that you should feel responsible for the others. Assuming they are all adults, they should take responsibility for their own actions. They chose to accompany you, they chose to stay up late the night before, they chose to do activities at the park that required standing in long lines, etc.

    Taking full responsibility for your own actions is great. Feeling like you’re to blame because others did not have a good time, however, is not good, in my opinion.

  32. Jonathan says:

    @Katie (#8) – You have a valid point. I can’t speak for Trent or know for sure what he meant, therefore it wasn’t fair for me to say that your comment was a misconception. I can say that based on what I mean when I speak of personal responsibility, and from what I’ve read and discussed with others, the idea that proponents of personal responsibility do not advocate for change is a common misconception.

  33. Riki says:

    I think there’s real difference between “taking responsibility for your own actions” and “blaming yourself for failure” . . . similiar, yes, but not the same and each idea sets a very different tone. I’m all for taking responsibility but definitely not ok with blame.

    I don’t think blame is useful.

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