If it’s important to you, you will find a way. If not, you will find an excuse. – Daniel Decker
Have you ever convinced yourself that a goal or ambition you had was unrealistic, unattainable, or simply not worth the effort? Humans have many ways to rationalize our lack of discipline or laziness (not a fun word, but it’s often true). We trick ourselves into thinking that the thing we thought we wanted, we don’t want, yet deep down, we know we still want it. We justify our lack of will, determination, or motivation in to give ourselves a pardon, an out. Fight tooth and nail to keep yourself from falling into these ways of thinking. It’s so easy that we often don’t realize it’s happening.
Excuses have been around for as long as humankind has walked the earth, so don’t think you’re special or unique. While I’ll spend much of this post discussing the danger of excuses and how to rid your life of them, it’s essential first to understand that excuses are a natural part of being human.
But first, a chemistry lesson…
Research has shown that excuses are born out of fear. Most of us have heard of the amygdala (/əˈmiɡdələ/), the portion of our brain responsible for emotional responses. This region of the brain also controls our response to fear. The body releases two chemicals (hormones) when it senses fear: adrenaline and cortisol. (It also releases glucose into the bloodstream, but at the risk of dropping too many readers this early into the post, let’s not get too technical.)
These two hormones (adrenaline and cortisol – stay with me here) are a part of our body’s “fight-or-flight” response. Surely you have a vague recollection of that from 9th-grade biology class.
Still with me? Good.
Before we dive into the “meat” of the post, I want to take a moment to differentiate a reason from an excuse. It can be too easy to classify any reason as an excuse, and that’s not fair. The way I distinguish the two is simple. When you make an excuse, you hide some amount of guilt or shame, a “protective veneer for avoiding a deeper issue.”2 Excuses justify us to rationalize destructive behaviors. If your reason can’t easily be described in this manner, it’s not an excuse, so cut yourself some slack and don’t try to make it one.
Ok – so we know that making excuses is in our DNA (more or less), and the reason behind making excuses is rooted in fear, but what exactly are we afraid of? I’m glad you asked.
The following five fears tempt us to make excuses, especially when the fear itself overshadows our inability to rationalize it. As with any shortcomings or faults, everyone will struggle with each of these to varying degrees, but the person who hasn’t struggled with all five at various points in their life is rare.
1. Fear of the Unknown
2. Fear of Consequence
3. Fear of Failure
4. Fear of What Others Think
5. Fear of Hard Work
Do any of these sound familiar? Let’s explore what each of these looks like in our lives.
Fear of the Unknown
Many of us strongly desire to control our circumstances, our path in life, and our future. Don’t worry; this is only natural. A popular saying goes, “You always fear what you don’t understand.” In other words, people fear most what they cannot change, anticipate, or prevent from happening.
People would rather stay in a job they hate than explain why they quit doing something less certain. So they remain in an unpleasant or destructive situation, wishing they could be brave enough to try something new while hiding behind the excuse that “it’s just not the right time.”
But is it the unknown we fear, or rather our preconceived thoughts, emotions, and fears that we impose around the uncertainty yet to unfold? After all, at its core, the unknown is just that: unknown. Moreover, there’s potential for both good and bad in the unknown.
We do not fear the unknown. We fear what we think we know about the unknown.– Teal Swan
The situation you’re scared of could be the best thing you’ve ever done. So accept that you have fearful thoughts, but don’t let these fearful thoughts paralyze your life.
Fear of Consequence
Sometimes, we fear embracing what we already know to be true and make excuses for not facing the outcome.
Let’s say you have an impending deadline at work that you’ve continually procrastinated, and you know that the consequence of missing this deadline might be getting fired. You might tell your boss that you “didn’t have the time or resources to deliver the task on time.” Instead of taking responsibility for the consequence, you choose to make an excuse. While the potential outcome is understandably concerning, it doesn’t rationalize the excuse.
Embrace the fear of consequence, and cultivate a more honest, respectable relationship with yourself, staying clear of the slippery slope of excuses.
Fear of Failure
Ok, this is a big one, and I want to give it the attention it deserves without getting too deep into the weeds. We’ve all experienced the fear of failure, and I feel it’s the most significant driver of fear we experience.
So much of our fear of failure stems from our definition of failure. What does it look like to succeed? Is there only one path to avoid failure? Have you set unrealistic and unfair expectations for yourself in which the likelihood of a failure far exceeds the chance of success? What factors outside of your control contribute to your chance of success?
I like to run. If every time I went out to compete in a race, my only measure of success was whether or not I won the race; I would inevitably be considered a failure most of the time. But measuring ourselves this way doesn’t make sense and isn’t fair. In this scenario (as in most scenarios), too many elements outside our control factor into our ability to succeed or fail.
I talk a lot about Stoicism (for obvious, I think, reasons). Letting go of things outside our control is Stoicism 101. I’ve included three notable quotes from Epictetus that come to mind.
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. Some things are within your control. And some things are not.”
“We should always be asking ourselves: “is this something that is, or is not, in my control?””
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
Returning to my running analogy – I have little control over my ability to win a race. Though I can control my effort, many more factors are outside my control. The race conditions, weather, and the abilities of my competition (to name a few); are elements over which I have ZERO control. Ultimately, all I can do is focus on myself, rely on my preparation, and trust in my abilities. The ability to let go of the rest will greatly determine my likelihood of succeeding.
If you find yourself in a similar situation with conditions poised to determine your ability to succeed (and avoid failure), it’s a good sign that you must redefine failure.
Fear of What Others Think
“At the root of most fear is what other people think of us.” Fear skews and distorts our perception of reality, ultimately paralyzing us into a cowardly ball curled up and hiding in a corner.
“There are many who dare not kill themselves for fear of what the neighbors will say,” Cyril Connolly once joked. My intent is not to make light of the tragedy of suicide but to make a point. We’re so concerned and afraid of what other people think, even if we wouldn’t be around to hear about it.
Let other people worry over what they will say about you. They will say it in any case.
Don’t let fear cripple your ability to make the right choice. You deserve so much more than that. When we permit ourselves to make excuses out of fear of others’ perception of us, we ultimately refuse to take ownership of our choices. No one else deserves the power we give them over our lives when we make excuses.
Fear of Hard Work
Hard work is hard. That’s why, you know, they call it hard work. As they say, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
Success rarely comes without effort, without hard work. Sure, we could talk about the outliers, the lucky few who (at least as far as we can tell) seem to have been handed success and riches on a silver platter – but again, those are the exceptions, not the rule.
Chances are, the people you look up to, regardless of their walk of life, occupation, or industry, reached where they are because of good old-fashioned hard work. Don’t allow yourself to make excuses to rationalize your unwillingness to work hard. “Oh, but I don’t want to look that fit or athletic; that person must be vain.” Or, “That person must be too money-driven and have their focus in the wrong place. I don’t want that level of success.” While it’s plausible that some people’s motivation for their (outward) success may be ill-conceived, that’s not the point. Too often, we’re making an excuse to convince ourselves that we don’t want someone else’s success. Why? So we can avoid the hard work required to bring success.
Is that an excuse you’re ok living with?
The secret to your existence is right in front of you , and it manifests itself in all the things you should do but you’re avoiding.– Jordan Peterson
In my previous career, I was responsible for managing a team and conducting annual employee reviews. One of my favorite questions to ask each employee was, “What are some things about your job you don’t like?” I would almost always get the same reaction; first, a little surprise at the question, and then would come a moment or two of a blank stare, behind which you could almost see the gears spinning. They were frantically trying to determine the “safest” way to answer.
I don’t take credit for what I think is a brilliant question. But here’s why it’s so powerful. It almost forces the employee to acknowledge and vocalize things about their job that they don’t like or enjoy. Sure, they’re likely uneasy about sharing this with their boss as they wonder how this information will be used or perceived. But the part that makes this question insightful is what comes next. First, I tell them that it’s ok not to like certain things about their job. I even share a few responsibilities I’m in charge of that I don’t particularly enjoy. But then I say, “It’s ok not to like certain things about your job, but it’s not ok to not do them.” Almost across the board, each employee exhales a sigh of relief, and you can see the understanding spread throughout their body. Of course, some take longer, but they all get there eventually.
Our ability to self-justify our complacency, our lack of action and discipline, is one of the biggest traps we can fall into. We convince ourselves that we can’t, that it’s too hard; maybe we’ll start tomorrow. We trick ourselves into believing we don’t want what seems outside our reach. That somehow the work involved and the sacrifices required aren’t worth it.
When we learn to make ourselves do the things we don’t want to do, we harness the power to create any result we want in our lives. Think about that. We all have something we don’t want to do at work, around the house, or in our personal growth. Those who achieve remarkable results, genuine success, and happiness are those who have harnessed the power, through discipline, to consistently do the things they don’t want to do. Don’t let fear make you think that you’re not in control of your destiny. If you don’t believe you can do something, it’s not just unlikely that you can do it—it’s guaranteed that you won’t even try.
It’s that simple. It’s not easy, but don’t convince yourself that it’s more complicated. We know what we want to do, what we can do, and what we must do.
Stop being afraid.
Quit making excuses.
Take control of your life.