We’ve all met them — fellow students or colleagues who just can’t seem to get it together, and sometimes even appear to be purposely sabotaging their most important career or academic efforts. “Genuine excuse artisans,” as this January 5 article in the Health section of the New York Times refers to them,
…don’t wait until after choking to practice their craft. They hobble themselves, in earnest, before pursuing a goal or delivering a performance. Their excuses come preattached: I never went to class. I was hung over at the interview. I had no idea what the college application required.
“This is real self-sabotage, like drinking heavily before a test, skipping practice or using really poor equipment,” said Edward R. Hirt, a psychologist at Indiana University. “Some people do this a lot, and often it’s not clear whether they’re entirely conscious of doing it — or of its costs.”
Even if some people are able to pull the wool over their own eyes this way, others around them certainly are not deceived. A recent study by James C. McElroy of Iowa State University and J. Michael Crant of the University of Notre Dame (read the abstract here) found that outsiders begin to look negatively upon people who are constantly full of excuses for shoddy performances.
Why is this? Before you spend too much time questioning this phenomenon in others, take a look at your own behavior. When was the last time you stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, despite an important commitment early the next day? Have you ever failed to study enough for an important exam, even if it was worth a significant part of your final grade? Had too much to drink the night before a major game or race? Wondered why you weren’t trying harder on a challenging task or assignment? If you’re now berating yourself for some past failure, you’ve missed my point: most of us are guilty of self-sabotage at least occasionally, but only rarely do we admit to ourselves the real reason for our behavior.
The Times article makes a really interesting point toward the end: This phenomenon of unconsciously shooting oneself in the foot is undoubtedly related to a fear of failure. After all, if you never put your best effort in, when you fail you can always fall back on the excuse that you weren’t really trying in the first place, thus preserving your self-image. The article concludes,
“It’s like the line from the old Brando movie ‘On the Waterfront’: ‘I coulda been a contender,’ ” Dr. Hirt said. “In the long term, that may be easier to live with for some people than to know that they did their very best and failed.”
On that note, here’s a New Year’s resolution for us all: Try to be more aware of the excuses we make, and commit to taking risks sometimes in order to do our best possible work. Knowing you gave your absolute best to the task at hand, regardless of outcome, should be a reward in and of itself.