Excuses or Progress Choose One
He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.
One day, we say, we’re going to live a beautiful life. The best life.
We’re going to wake up at the best time every morning, do the best workouts, eat the best foods, and do the best things with the best people.
One day, we say, we’re going to lose that belly fat, learn that instrument, get that corner office, write that poem about the goat that shagged the pumpkin.
The kicker, though, is that day will never come because it’s always tomorrow, next week, next year, next lifetime.
There are always excuses why today isn’t that day.
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Whenever we say, “I would do X, but I can’t because Y,” it’s almost always bullshit unless Y is “I don’t really want to.”
That’s what most everything in life really comes down to: necessity, the mother of all invention. There’s probably very little we’re actually incapable of, there’s only our sense of urgency and willingness to act.
When we lie to ourselves and say otherwise, what we’re really saying is that we find alibis more attractive than achievements, excuses more seductive than excellence, and comfort more desirable than challenge.
We do this because excuses are seductive. They promise freedom from pain, embarrassment, and failure. They lull us into letting ourselves off the hook. Without excuses, we have to face the things we don’t want to face and do the things we don’t want to do. We have put ourselves out on the line every day and prove that we’re still worthy of our station. Without excuses, having done and been is never enough. We have to continue doing and becoming, continue living up to our standards.
The world loves to offer us excuses, too. People can’t wait to justify our shortcomings and shortfalls for us and thereby attempt to absolve themselves of their own as well.
Excuses are a harsh mistress, though. Like the lotus fruit of Homer’s Odyssey, they have a narcotic effect, sapping you of your spirit and desires. Partake in too much excuse making, and you’ll lose your sense of what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” which is characterized by praising or blaming ourselves for our success and failures, rather than assigning responsibility to factors outside our influence (an “external” locus of control). For example, an athlete with a strong internal locus of control will credit his success to hard work, rather than innate talent. An entrepreneur with an internal locus of control will chalk a failed venture up to his faulty due diligence, rather than bad luck.
Psychologists have been studying locus of control since the 1950s and they’ve found that an internal locus of control is associated with greater academic success, higher self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and longer life span. Scientists have observed that people with an internal locus of control tend to make more money, have more friends, fare better in marriage, and experience more professional success and satisfaction. Those with an external locus of control, however, encounter more stress and hardship.
When you refuse to believe that it’s okay to give up, though, to take the easy road out, to look for reasons to be weak, to blame anyone or anything else for your circumstances, you tap into something primal and powerful that sets extraordinary people apart from everyone else. When we let go of our excuses, there’s no telling what we can do.
Imagine you’re an 11-year old boy with a dream of graduating high school. A boy who lives in the backlands of war-torn Uganda, whose entire family succumbed to disease by the time you were six, and whose grandmother couldn’t afford the tuition fee of $43 per month. How are those odds looking to you?
Well, that was once reality for James Kassaga Arinaitwe, who refused to see his goal as impossible and resign himself to working the fields filled with everyone he knew. Instead, he came up with a plan: sell a goat to get shoes, clothes, and a bus ticket to his aunt, who lived near the Ugandan president’s country home, infiltrate the compound by scaling the barbed-wire fence and sneaking past the guards, and humbly ask the premier for his assistance. That’s exactly what he did and it worked. Today, he has two master’s degrees and is the CEO and co-founder of Teach For Uganda, which works to expand educational opportunity to all children in Uganda.
Imagine you’ve been arrested for writing derogatorily about your government and shipped off to serve an eight-year sentence in forced labor camps with an average life expectancy of one winter. How might you view your fate?
Well, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a decorated Soviet soldier who fought against Nazi Germany, and in February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, he was arrested by SMERSH for criticizing how Stalin was conducting the war in a private letter written to a friend. In July of the same year, he was convicted in absentia of anti-Soviet propaganda and “founding a hostile organization,” and sent to the Gulag.
After spending some time in the camps and witnessing the true horrors of communist totalitarianism, Alexander began to reflect on how exactly he had gotten there. Whose fault was it? Who should he blame? He could have easily blamed Hitler or Stalin, but he came to a different conclusion: it was his fault because, ultimately, he was playing the same game. He had completely forfeited his relationship with the truth and not only allowed his society to degenerate into a brutal monocracy, but he had also fought to advance his captor’s tyranny into the world and looked the other way while his compatriots looted and executed civilians, gang-raped women and girls to death, and bombed and strafed refugees.
Here’s how he later explained it: “There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes. After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned the heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my Captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: ‘So were we any better?’”
Alexander’s insistence on shouldering responsibility for the entirety of his condition and refusal to point the finger elsewhere inspired him to write the book that passage appears in, which was published in 1973 and called The Gulag Archipelago. This book chronicled his years in the slave camps and constituted such a powerful indictment of the foundations of the USSR that it would eventually contribute to its downfall and win the Nobel Prize.
Think twice before you say “I can’t.”
I can’t get into the gym a few days per week, or I don’t really want to?
I can’t save money, or I don’t really want to?
I can’t ditch fast food for home-cooked meals, or I don’t really want to?
Take a moment to imagine what you might be able to do if you refused to make excuses for every failure, shortcoming, and disadvantage. Refused to believe that it’s okay to give up and take the easy road out. Refused to look for reasons to be weak. Refused to blame anyone or anything else for your troubles.
Elon Musk once wooed investors by sharing that he approaches life as a samurai would: he’d rather kill himself than fail.
Whether sieging the “impregnable” city of Tyre or facing the “invincible” Persian hordes, Alexander the Great refused to believe he couldn’t succeed. “There is nothing impossible to him who will try,” he once said.
After going through thousands of unworkable lightbulb filaments, Thomas Edison was challenged about his “lack of results.” “Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results!” he replied. “If I find ten thousand ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.”
People like these don’t lard their decisions with a coat of “maybe” or saddle them with “if’s” or “but’s.” They don’t look for loopholes or keep justifications waiting in the wings. They aren’t quick to explain why they haven’t, why they don’t, why they can’t, and why they aren’t. They refuse all excuses that might be made by the mediocre.
That’s power. That’s the big secret. That’s how to do the “unimaginable.” When you can do that, you can do anything.