What’s the worst excuse you’ve ever used? The worst excuse for being late, or not having done something you were supposed to do, or for missing an activity. Sometimes, like white lies, excuses are used to avoid hurting feelings or to maintain good relations. You decline a party invitation saying that you have a prior engagement. Do you really?
One of the great theatres for the performance of excuses is the reasons employees give for taking the day off work. The following are genuine examples – not, I hasten to add, given by staff at my school, but taken from an employment website:
‘My dog is having a nervous breakdown; I forgot I’d been hired for the job; my toe is stuck in the tap; a bird bit me; I was upset after watching ‘The Hunger Games’; I locked myself inside my house and I can’t get out; I can’t find my car; I’m stressed out and if I come to work I’m likely to punch someone.’
This kind of excuse-making is funny on one level. Some may indeed be true, but excuse-making ends up debasing the trust between people and, often, insults the intelligence of the person on the other end of the excuse. George Washington, the first US president said: “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one”. It is far better to tell the truth and face the consequences, than it is to damage trust.
The second kind of excuse is what psychologists call ‘rationalization’: this is when the individual deals with emotional conflict and external stresses by through the elaboration of reassuring, self-serving and incorrect explanations. In other words, you deceive yourself; inventing a more comfortable illusion, in order to avoid facing the truth. We may do this when we find things tasks difficult and want to give up. When we fail, we may look for things outside ourselves to ‘soften the blow’ – these excuses are simple self-deception. And they prevent us from developing and facing up fully to our challenges.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their act”. Rationalizations – excuses – prevent us from dealing with the mistakes and wrongs we have done, both on an individual or collective level. Think about some of the justifications for acts of aggression and war.
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre explored the idea of self-deception. He wrote: “For many have but one resource to sustain them in their misery, and that is to think, “Circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to be something much better than I have been. I admit I have never had a great love or a great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were worthy of it; if I have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so; or, if I have had no children to whom I could devote myself it is because I did not find the man I could have lived with. So there remains within me a wide range of abilities, inclinations and potentialities, unused but perfectly viable, which endow me with a worthiness that could never be inferred from the mere history of my actions.” But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.” Whatever ones views of Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, these words have the ring of truth: we are judged by our acts – what we do, rather than being judged on the quality of the excuses we offer for the things we didn’t do.
In a book on leadership and self-deception, philosopher and business consultant C Terry Warner looks at sport as another theatre for excuse-making. “Except in a very few matches, usually with world-class performers, there is a point in every match (and in some cases it’s right at the beginning) when the loser decides he’s going to lose. And after that, everything he does will be aimed at providing an explanation of why he will have lost. He may throw himself at the ball (so he will be able to say he’s done his best against a superior opponent). He may dispute calls (so he will be able to say he’s been robbed). He may swear at himself and throw his racket (so he can say it was apparent all along he wasn’t in top form). His energies go not into winning but into producing an explanation, an excuse, a justification for losing.”
The spirit of good-sportsmanship is vital: playing fair and 100% committed to the final whistle and looking to learn rather than make excuses. Similarly, in our work, we must not seek to deceive ourselves or others. Honest effort and honest reflection are keys to improvement. Florence Nightingale, that epitome of honest good work and courage, said: “I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse”.
May this be a year of ‘no excuses’: let’s try to embrace our challenges, face and learn from our failures, and get stronger by doing so.