Tom Cornell, Business Psychologist at Chemistry, wonders what the real cost of making excuses is…
“If you are reading this – congratulations! You have just opened yourself to an un-ending world of opportunity. You could, instead, have listed a near-infinite number of reasons not to click on this link – “I’m too busy”, “I’m too tired”, “There is nothing that this rambling idiot could say that is worth my time”, and so on.
But what if you later found out that it contained the single greatest message ever to have entered the public domain? That it had wholeheartedly changed the lives of all who had read it for the better? That you were now doomed to wander as a mere mortal amongst the enlightened who had taken the time to read on?
How stupid would you then feel, thinking back on your excuse? An excuse that, at the time, seemed to provide unerring justification that this golden opportunity was not worth your time.
Yes, I get it – not every blog you read is going to drastically change your life – and at this point, I implore you to drastically lower your expectations – but…
Every excuse you make is an opportunity wasted.
Sometimes they are (or at least appear to be) genuine. You may, indeed, have been too busy. Or too tired. Or correctly labelled me a rambling idiot right from the off. Nonetheless, I challenge you to look a little deeper and think about why you make excuses in the first place – and what the outcome of making excuses really is.
A few weeks ago, I produced a sub-standard piece of work and my manager shared with me what I could have done better. Did I say, ‘Thank you so much for this constructive feedback. I will absorb and reflect on this and become a more wholesome human being’?
No. Instead, I justified at length why I had not done the things that she suggested – that I didn’t have the time, that it was beyond what I had set out to do, that someone else was going add that bit later.
I was adamant that it wasn’t my fault, and I put up the Floyd Mayweather of psychological defence mechanisms in an attempt to protect my precious ego. But in doing so, I distracted myself from the opportunity to stop and think about why I hadn’t done all those things in the first place, and therefore consider how I could better myself next time. I shirked responsibility, and I tried (and failed) to shift the attention away from my mistake, rather than opening myself to the opportunity that it had provided.
The plague of missed opportunity and covert excuses.
My better half is Danish, and we have been together around 2 years now. “How good is your Danish?” I hear you ask.
Helt jævnligt forfærdeligt. Absolutely terrible. And I had to use Google translate for that.
When pressed on this, I give the excuse of not having the time, or the fact that it’s an incredibly difficult language to speak (that one is actually true – try saying “Rødgrød med fløde” or “Lagkagehuset” to a native speaker and see what their reaction is). But if I were to be honest for a minute: I’m actually just another lazy Brit who knows he can pretty much get away with speaking English the whole time.
And have you seen what I’ve just done right before your very eyes?
I just excused my terrible excuse with yet another terrible excuse. Even when trying to avoid phoney justifications, and trying to be honest with you (and indeed myself), I’ve patriotically excused myself by pulling on the classic British maxim that, “Well, everyone speaks English don’t they?” Second only to, “It’s because we don’t focus on foreign languages at school like other countries do.” Remember that one next time you frantically point to a menu overseas and accidentally end up with a mysterious body part masquerading as a local delicacy.
What’s really happening is that I am missing a golden opportunity to (relatively easily) learn a new language with a motivated, native speaker serving as my own personal tutor (for which the going rate is normally around £20-50 in London). And this is from someone who supposedly finds languages fascinating (indeed, I have spent almost £500 on language lessons in the last 9 months), loves going abroad, and insists on speaking the native tongue when travelling overseas as much as possible. It’s completely at odds with who I perceive myself to be. Somewhere along the way, I am clearly lying to myself through the guise of an excuse.
People always remember the excuses.
Even without realising it, we throw half-hearted excuses out there to justify or obscure the reality of what we have done or haven’t done, what we are about to do or fail to do. But people always remember your excuses, and they tend to look on them poorly because of what they imply.
In sport, for example, excuses give an over-riding impression of poor sportsmanship and integrity. A weak attempt to take credit away from the victor. Think of David Haye’s infamous broken toe against Wladmir Klitschko. Did everyone say, ‘Ahh, fair enough – reverse the decision and give the man the win. He had a good excuse’? Or did it go down as one of the more embarrassing moments in sporting history? He missed the opportunity to salvage some form of victory from the loss by showing integrity and being gracious in defeat.
In politics, excuses can be far more dangerous. To me, the North Korean Foreign Minister proclaiming that, “The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” is undoubtedly the most chilling utterance of the escalating rhetoric in the region. It reeks of a pre-emptive, “But they hit me first!” that they can later fall back on, just like a sibling who has been pulled in front of their parents justifying why they just hit their younger brother.
Except this sibling has a nuclear arsenal in the toy box under their bed.
And in this instance, I don’t even want to speculate what the lost opportunity could be when looking back on this moment in 6 months time.
So, what does this mean for you?
When you justify a sub-standard piece of work or the reasons why you didn’t get something done, are you being dishonest with the listener and, more importantly, yourself? Why didn’t you take the opportunity to go above and beyond what was expected of you? Why didn’t you reflect on what was fed back and focus on the opportunity to better yourself, rather than immediately jumping to your own defence?
And have you really considered how your excuse sounds to the other person? Is it really going to have the effect you intended, or are they going to look down on you as someone who is resistant to feedback, excuses their actions, and avoids opportunities to learn and develop?
For a scientist, this has been a wonderfully unscientific piece of writing. But I implore you: next time you try to excuse yourself, take the time to consider why you feel the need to do so, how it will sound to those who hear it, and whether it would be better to just apologise or thank them without trying to get the last word in.
The word ‘because’ can inadvertently become incredibly damaging.
Stop making excuses. Start taking opportunities.
The sceptics amongst you will say, “Yes, but just knowing not to do something is all well and good, but actually doing it is much more complicated than that.”
…sounds like another terrible excuse to me.”