“An excuse is worse than a lie, for an excuse is a lie, guarded.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
–George Washington Carver
I don’t remember much about my first day at West Point. It was a blur of going here and there, reporting to the cadet in the red sash, screwing up, picking up equipment, getting shots, and in general, wondering (when I had the spare millisecond) what in the heck I’d gotten myself into.
There was one thing that I learned in the first day.
I was allowed to have only four responses to any inquiry:
- “Yes, sir.”
- “No, sir.”
- “No excuse, sir,” and
- “Sir, I do not understand.”
The third one was the one that I had the opportunity to exercise the most. I was quite the screw up, getting lost, showing up in the wrong place, putting down bags when I shouldn’t have, and then picking them up when I wasn’t asked to. The list went on and on. Oftentimes, one of the cadre would bellow out at me “New Cadet! What are you doing?!?”
The third answer was almost always the most appropriate.
The thinking behind the repetition of “no excuse, sir” was that, while I and my other not quite as equally spazzing classmates, could have come up with reasons (“my arms were tired,” “I wasn’t paying attention where we were going and couldn’t find the way back,” or “you scared the crap out of me, and my mind went blank”), reasons and justifications didn’t change the outcome: I’d done something wrong.
They wanted us to focus on outcomes, stop coming up with defenses, and strive to improve. If something went wrong, then we needed to improve. It was quite simple. Bullets don’t slow down because you need to look at the map again to make sure that you took a wrong turn or because you didn’t have enough coffee that morning or because of your belief system. In war, they were training us, the enemy would be happy for any opportunity to kill us, and it was our job to make sure that they didn’t get that opportunity to kill us or our soldiers.
War is a messy business. I’m glad the closest I ever came was peacekeeping, and I’m perpetually grateful for those who went willingly into harm’s way.
While I try to be warm and cuddly and loving (it does, after all, help the medicine go down), my background makes me short on patience in one area:
While your past has an influence on how you became the person that you have become, your past has no bearing on your future.
You’re in a current situation, good or bad, and in order to get where you want to go, you need to act. If you’ve been wise and disciplined, then it may simply be a matter of “well done, carry on!”
However, if you’re reading this, then there’s some unanswered question in your life for why you aren’t satisfied with your situation and you’re wondering what you need to do to get security about your future goals.
Professor Shlomo Hareli of the University of Haifa has an excellent and deep discussion of the psychology of excuse-making. Simply put, Monkey Brain doesn’t want to accept any responsibility for his actions if there’s a negative outcome, and, furthermore, he wants to impress everyone with his wisdom, whether that’s someone else, or it’s you.
When you don’t get an outcome you want, Monkey Brain immediately starts putting up the Post-It Notes on his cage for reasons why everything didn’t turn out roses. His influence on your acceptance of those reasons depends on your locus of control. The more external your locus of control, the more likely you are to believe Monkey Brain’s litany of defenses. The more internal your locus of control, the less likely you are you buy into his reasoning.
We make excuses for two primary reasons, no matter if the audience for the excuse-making is internal (your thinking self, the cerebral cortex) or external (the people to whom you are providing the excuses).
- Reducing the negativity associated with the outcome. We offer justifications in these cases when we have a bad outcome, but we don’t want the audience to think that the outcome is that bad. If the outcome winds up not as bad as someone made it out to be, then the pain of the blame isn’t as bad.
- Reduce our responsibility for the action. We want to make it look as if another actor was the one who actually caused the bad result. A good example is blaming being late on the traffic that we encountered. The actual cause of us being late was not leaving early enough to be able to avoid traffic or to have enough buffer in case we encountered traffic, but blaming our lateness on the traffic attempts to create culpability for someone else (or, in this case, ALL of those other bozos on the road) for the outcome of our actions.
As Jeremy Dean pointed out, excuse-making leads to self-defeating behavior. When we make excuses, we deny the reality around us. Furthermore, excuses actually serve to increase our self-confidence, as we tell ourselves that something good would have happened but for whatever it was that provided us with the excuse.
We then underprepare in the future so that we have a ready-made excuse – we’re talented, we’re capable, but we just didn’t try hard enough. We’ll try harder next time.
Except, next time, we don’t try harder. We lean on the excuses that we’ve been flinging out. Instead of improving so that we don’t need the excuses, we keep the status quo, or, worse yet, allow things to get worse, and just use the excuses as a surrogate for improvement.
If you find yourself constantly in a cycle of making excuses, it’s not easy to break the habit. As Dean explains, you’re going to have to take a hit to your self-esteem to improve. Excuses have provided a great shield for Monkey Brain to explain away not meeting your goals, and taking them away will force you to face up to the fact that you’re not getting to the destination you want to reach. It’s a necessary step, though, to improving and to getting rid of the crutch of excuses.
The other step that you need to take if you’re caught up in the cycle of making excuses is to try harder. Not trying your hardest gives you a ready-made excuse for when you don’t succeed. Trying your hardest exposes you to the possibility that you may give it your all and still not succeed. Not trying your hardest means you’ll never have to face that potential outcome. But, to improve, you need to find out where your true limits and boundaries are and then you need to force yourself to get better.
Excuses gives you an excuse (so to speak) to never improve.
If you never improve, you may not reach your goals.
If you don’t reach your goals, you’ll be unhappy and dissatisfied with your life.
Stop the excuses. There is no system rigged to conspire against you. Work hard. Make yourself happier. Reach your goals.