Going Upstream Means Owning It

I live in a house where the master bedroom is on a different floor than the boys.  The only reason to venture upstairs would be to specifically see them.  Every time I go upstairs, I go with the spirit of seeing them, spending quality time with them, and bonding.

Yet, every time I step in their room, I find new messes and smells.  Keegan’s clothes are dumped on the floor without a system to determine what’s clean or dirty.  He just scoops up clothes now and then taking them to the laundry room – regardless whether they are clean or not.  He also has the most orders from Amazon coming to the home as evidenced by the boxes piled up in corners.

Jaiden’s room is spotless, but there emits an odor of teenage body odor mixed with the stink of stale air from his door and drapes shut to maximize the countless hours of video game playing in a dark room.  There’s also a cross between sweat and various body sprays from post soccer conditioning – where he thinks rubbing a Clorox wipe around his gym bag has somehow eliminated all smells from and in it.

The worst is the bathroom they share.  Toothpaste tubes without caps and smeared toothpaste litter the sinks and counter.  The toilet paper holder on the wall is empty with the brown tube still there, and rolls of toilet paper stacked below it on the floor.  The mirror is caked with splotches of toothpaste, shaving cream, and what I believe might be popped pimples.  What was supposed to be a social visit is me now ripping the boys for their laziness and mess!

Their initial reaction: “it wasn’t me”.

While trying to suppress my anger, Dan Heath identifies this as a problem in moving from downstream mindset to upstream in his book, Upstream: “Lack of Ownership”

Here’s been the previous routine:

  1. I tell them to clean it up.
  2. They do it.
  3. I’m happy and forget about it.
  4. A week later I go back upstairs again.
  5. I find their areas are messy.
  6. It starts all over again.

This time, I cooled down to ask them by asking them who should be cleaning their room.  Jaiden had a dumbfounded look on his face (I think he really wanted to say me or Kari), but Keegan quickly responded saying it was them.

I probed further to ask why it’s a mess.  The both respond that they don’t see it as a mess.  They both shared that they were fine living in their rooms that way.

As they talked, I thought back to my bedroom when I was a kid and begin to relent.

But, then I ask them about the bathroom.  Again, they say it’s their space.  Jaiden actually confessed that he did’t know what cleaning supplies to use to clean the mirror, bathtub. etc.  I reminded them of the germs and the waste in spilling everything everywhere. Through our conversation, we made a compromise – the bathroom should be clean at all times to reduce waste and be considerate of each other.

I showed Jaiden which products to use and where to get them from (even though I knew Kari had shown that to him before).  I also helped them to set up a cleaning schedule.  And, I conceded on them having spotless bedrooms (but that Jaiden would air out his room more).

In order to go from downstream to upstream, Heath contends that ownership of the problem is key – someone has to be the champion.  As we continue our planning in the Fall, it’s important to determine who will take ownership.  There’s no way it can always be you.  How will you help to spread the awareness, the ownership, and the need?  Are there ways to gather feedback on what priorities resonate with members from your team that are willing to own it?  Before you begin creating your plans, take a pause to identify not just the person who will lead the work but truly own it.

Too often, we dictate orders for change but don’t take the time to ensure there is true ownership of the problem or willingness to (re)solve it with the fidelity it deserves.  It might mean adding additional steps or even slowing the overall process down.  But, to ensure long-lasting change, it might be worth it.


  1. I love this, Dr. Gupta. I also think about how the brain develops, from the base of the neck to the forehead. Teens are about midway in development; they are at emotion and risk taking. Sometimes we focus on problem solving skills for our teens but also need to include the art of problem finding.

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