Don’t make excuses when you’re wrong

Published 7:21 pm Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Stephen Forrester was born during the “baby boom” period after the Second World War. Raised in the Mississippi Delta during the 1950s, he grew up poor.  But, the young man had a gift.  He was a natural athlete who particularly excelled at baseball.  He was so good that he earned a scholarship to play college baseball. His baseball career shined bright for three years. During his fourth, he was preparing himself for the major leagues. The shortstop was having his best year until the 1970 game against Alabama when he broke his right leg sliding into second base in an unconventional manner.

His baseball career was over. He was devastated. For the rest of his life, Stephen would blame the Tide second baseman for ruining his career. As he grew older, he married a wealthy socialite from Oxford, Mississippi. They settled down in a large home near the Ole Miss campus. They had two boys and life appeared to normalize. 

However, during the course of the marriage, Stephen’s problems grew on all fronts. He used his wife’s money to start businesses that would always fail, mistreated his children, and eventually became a thief.

Yet, in every circumstance, Stephen would create an excuse, blame other people, or other things.  He also refused to apologize to anyone he had harmed.   

In 2015, Stephen died penniless with no friends, family, or even a funeral.

The tragedy of Stephen Forrester is an extreme example. I can count on one hand the number of people like Stephen. But, his story illustrates how excuses breed failure.     

Everyone has experienced failure and have hurt other people. When this happens, there are three actions that can be taken; (1) We can ask ourselves, “What could I have done differently?” (2) We can convince ourselves that it wasn’t our fault. (3) We can apologize or refuse to do so when we have harmed another person.

If we choose to blame others and/or refuse to “man up” when we are wrong, God and science say we will suffer defeat.

God wants us to accept responsibility for failure and to commit to improvement. He also wants us to make amends to those we have wronged. We cannot do either with excuses.   

Two researchers who published their findings in The Journal of Psychology studied college students’ bias towards taking responsibility for themselves or making fraudulent excuses. They found that 72 percent of their test students admitted making fraudulent excuses. But, the interesting correlation they found was between fraudulent excuses and lower grade point average. The more excuses you make, the worse you’ll do in school. But why? Not enough research has been done to draw a responsible conclusion. But, it seems that excuses are emotional responses.

Making excuses has a damaging effect on how you behave in the future. An excuse is a way to externalize your failures by placing the blame on others, inexperience, miscommunication, etc. Why do some people consistently do this? It makes them feel better.

But, when people externalize failure, it also makes them feel like the outcomes of endeavors are totally out of their control. When a person lacks control, it’s almost impossible to muster the motivation to possess work ethic which leads to poor performance. Under these circumstances, defeat is certain.

The opposite approach is taking personal responsibility. While this requires humility and courage, the person avoids true defeat, is respected and will win.

Researchers at The University of Missouri-Columbia recently studied the connection between 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. They found that those who made the fewest excuses were the most committed to improving themselves.

Taking responsibility leads to introspection and a level of control. A person can study everything that went wrong and become motivated to pursue a winning strategy, work harder, work smarter, make amends and possess some control in overcoming a challenge. 

Had Stephen taken responsibility for just some of his defeats, he would have left his children a proud legacy. Instead, the only remaining legacy of the talented man is a pauper’s grave somewhere in the Mississippi Delta.