The gist: When you make excuses for your hardships, it zaps your motivation and power to recover. To succeed in the long-term, take responsibility for failure even when its not your fault.
11-year-old James had a big, impractical idea. He was going to graduate from high school. Before you dismiss what would seem an alarmingly average accomplishment, consider his story.
James lived in rural, war-torn Uganda. He lost his entire family to disease by the time he was six and was raised by his grandmother who didn’t even earn enough for the $500/year school tuition.
A high school diploma was not the default path for James. And you could hardly blame him if he decided that goal was impossible—that he should give up and work in the fields.
But he didn’t. Instead, he and his grandmother devised a long-shot of a plan to secure the financing his tuition.
It all stated with a goat.
His grandmother sold one of hers and, with the proceeds, James bought shoes, clothes, and a bus ticket to the capital city where he’d stay with his aunt.
That’s where the plan gets more interesting.
To get the money necessary for school, he’d sneak into the president’s compound and ask for a scholarship. It would require scaling a barbed-wire fence and getting past armed guards.
Once inside, though, he’d learned that he’d be greeted warmly and given money for tuition.
So that’s what he did. And—to everyone’s amazement—it worked. Today, now in his 30s, James has two masters degrees and is a leader with a great job. 1
Making excuses and giving up would have been easy and certainly forgiven.
The hurdles between 11-year-old James and James of today were immense. But something deep inside compelled him to take responsibility for his life and do whatever it took to realize his goal.
At the age of 11, James had mastered his psychology and committed to a dream. His story is heroic, but it’s also explained by psychology. Regardless your station in life, there’s a link between the excuses you make and the success you achieve.
If you have big plans—but you also see big hurdles ahead—you’ll need to learn to be like James.
Excuses Breed More Failure
When it happens, you have two choices for how to respond. You can ask yourself, “What could I have done differently?” Or, you can tell yourself, “It wasn’t my fault. There was nothing I could have done.”
If you choose the second option, you’re doomed.
In a study published by The Journal of Psychology, making fraudulent excuses about schoolwork directly correlated with lower GPAs.2
The more excuses you make, the worse you peform. But why? Not enough research has been done to draw a definite conclusion, but here’s a theory.
Making excuses now has a cascading effect on how you behave in the future.
An excuse is a way to externalize failure—blame it on something else. We’ve all done it. And we all know why we do it. It makes you feel better!
But when you externalize failure, it also makes you feel like the outcomes in your life are out of your control. When you lack control, it’s difficult to find motivation work harder. Why bother if you’re not in charge?
When you lack motivation, your performance suffers. The chain reaction that follows an excuse ensures failure not just now, but spiraling into the future as well.
Of course, that’s just one path. You can take another.
Personal Responsibility Breeds Success
James Robertson (yes, another James) has been offered a new car, multiple times, by complete strangers.
In fact, a neighbor offered to be his personal chauffeur. Other’s have offered to pay the insurance bill for whatever new car he ends up with. Why is this generosity coming to him?
It could be because The Detroit Free Press wrote an article about him. Why did they do that? Because he walks to work every day. Not that impressive, you say? His commute is 21 miles.
James is loyal to his job. When his car broke down and Detroit buses stopped serving his route, he woke up one morning and just started walking. And then he kept doing it.
“Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.” That’s what James’ dad told him. It must have stuck. When people heard about his daily marathon commute, people across the country jumped at the opportunity to help someone who was willing to persevere.
That’s right in line with what researchers at The University of Missouri-Columbia found when they studied the connection between future commitment—the resolve to make something happen—and excuse making.
They tested the excuses their subjects would make (or not make) while completing tasks and how that lined up with their resolve to improve. Unsurprisingly, those who made the fewest excuses were the most committed to improving themselves.3
The point of the story is not so much about generous strangers as it is about what created them.
Who would blame James for giving up in such a dire situation? He could have quit, gone on public assistance, and felt sorry for himself. None of the hardships he endured were his fault.
James didn’t see it that way, though. That’s why strangers are rushing to lend a hand. And it’s why people who take responsibility for their own situations—regardless if they deserve the blame for it or not—tend to end up in a better place when the dust settles.
If making excuses allows you to externalize your failures, then taking responsibility does the opposite. Taking responsibility leads to introspection. You study everything that went wrong and you ask yourself, “What could I have done differently” and “What can I do now to fix it?”
When you ask yourself those questions, you feel like you’re still in control of your destiny. When you’re in control of your destiny, you’re motivated to make it the best one possible. And when you’re motivated, you work better, smarter, and harder. You get what you want.
How To Stop Making Excuses
We all want to be the best we can be at whatever we do. But excuses are easy to make, and genuine commitments to improve are hard.
If you want to be the person who takes responsibility and gets what you want, it could all come down to the stories you tell yourself when you feel overwhelmed or fail.
- If you’re out of shape, do you tell yourself it’s just your genetics? That your poor eating habits are too strong to break? Or, do you tell yourself you just haven’t found the right solution yet, but you’ll keep looking and trying.
- If you work too much and don’t have time for fun, do you tell yourself that people demand too much from you? Or, do you tell yourself you don’t prioritize your own time well enough?
- If you don’t have enough money for the life you want, do you tell yourself your job just doesn’t pay enough? Or, do you tell yourself that you’re not communicating your value well enough or that it’s time to find better work?
In each of those cases, there are two stories. One you can control, and one you can’t. If you focus on the story you can’t control, you’ll spiral towards failure. But if you focus on the story you can, you’ll spiral towards success.
Today, take a second to ask which of those stories you tell yourself. What excuses are you making in your own life? And how could you change the story you tell yourself to make success more likely?