What accountability does and doesn't do

three young women running on beach

In a way, all the things we do to help us get things done are tricks: Carving up our schedules in this way or that. Eating our biggest frogs first.

Even accountability is a trick of sorts. If you take on an exercise buddy or join a mastermind group or self-help organization like AA or Weight Watchers, you're hoping that the specter of peer pressure will keep you on the straight and narrow where your stated intentions are concerned. (And if you're hiring a coach or therapist, in addition some part of you is probably hoping that the pain of spending money will be motivating.)

Of course, we're usually drawn to whatever outside resources we end up choosing because we think they'll have tools and processes that will make our task easier, whether it's learning how to speak or how to avoid lousy relationships. No one wants a dummy partner. But most of  the efficacy seems to come from establishing a set of mutual expectations for improvement, and then not wanting to bail on the contract. Why is that?

After struggling with all kinds of change for most of my life and finally, FINALLY, getting a handle on a small portion of it at the ripe age of almost-50, I now believe that the real "magic" of accountability itself lies within me, not outside of me. As I said to my friend Dave Seah in our little Google Wave Experiment, there are no real consequences to not following through on anything I say I'm going to do with any of my accountability setups. No one will make me walk the plank. With the exception of one weird bet with my first-shrink-slash-astrologer (and another, even weirder one with my mother), I don't ever lay cash on the line, so there's not even that to lose. While ultimately, my shrink might "fire" me or my friends stop hanging out with me if I set up a really bad pattern of reneging on my word, 99% of the time, no one gives a crap whether I do or do not go through with x, except for their concern as my friends that I stay aligned with my own intentions. And the reason I'm reasonably sure of this is because I love my friends, warts and all; unless they started regularly and egregiously and personally letting me down, or hurting themselves, to the point where my intervention was useless, I can't imagine throwing them over because they couldn't quit smoking again.

So how and why does accountability work, really? What's really going on? Here are some possibilities:

Wherever two or more are gathered in His name

I'm not religious, but there is a sort of freaky hoodoo-something that happens in community, when the purpose of community is for the betterment of anyone in it. Chris Wells, who created the Obie-winning artists' "church"/show/gathering, The Secret City, and who has begun teaching the Big Artist Workshop in New York and Los Angeles, said it in our final class last Saturday: "Everything is better in community." (This, after being struck by something extraordinary that came about as a result of a group exercise.)

And it is better in community. I sometimes hate that it is, because I'm an introvert and, as my friend Gretchen Rubin likes to say, most of the time I'd rather just stay at home by myself and read a book all day. But as she also says, she almost always feels better when she rallies and does go to the party, the event, the meetup, the whatever. Part of it is action, of course, but another part is action with other people. We're these weird, self-contained fragments but we get the Big Juice from proximity to other fragments.

Darkness made light, the invisible made visible

It is really hard to see myself. Really, really, really hard. The beautiful parts and the not-so-beautiful ones.

In company, though, all kinds of things start surfacing, because the people around us serve as mirrors for ourselves, good and bad. I started having massive breakthroughs in self-understanding when I moved past plain annoyance with an acquaintance and allowed myself to consider what in me she was reflecting. People everywhere can serve as mirrors, of course, but when you choose a challenging accountability partner or two, you get improvement on steroids.

In any kind of accountability relationship, though, even one without doppelgangers, a great benefit comes from just dragging my trolls out from under the bridge, or at least getting the gang to train their high beams on them. And professional or not, anyone you're in an accountability relationship with is bringing a different perspective to your problem, and a much more objective one. That is illuminating, and illumination disperses shadow and darkness.

More on that tomorrow. For now, I would be very interested to hear about other people's experiences with accountability, specifically, how you think the "hoodoo" works on you.


Image by Mike Baird via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.