The train was late. My phone died. It’s easy to spot someone else making an excuse, but when we’re the one explaining what happened, it often feels more justifiable. But reasons are excuses, says Eric Kapitulik, author of The Program: Lessons from Elite Military Units for Creating and Sustaining High Performance Leaders and Teams.
“Saying anything other than, ‘I’m responsible and I need to change this’ is an excuse,” he says. “You don’t need to give a reason why you fell short, regardless of how true it may be. The difference between a reason and an excuse is slight. Instead of spending mental, emotional, and physical energy, have a mindset that every reason is an excuse.”
We live in a culture that likes to make excuses, but excuses hold you back from growth, says Kapitulik, who has lived his life with a no-excuses mindset. Kapitulik served in the United States Marine Corps as an Infantry Officer and Special Operations Officer. During a 1999 training mission to prepare for an upcoming deployment to the Persian Gulf, he and his platoon were in a helicopter crash that resulted in the death of seven Marines.
He founded The Program in 2008 to provide leadership development and team-building services. “Most people will go through their entire adult life without ever being uncomfortable,” he says. “If you’re hot, you turn on the air conditioner. If you’re cold, you turn on the heater. If you want coffee, there are probably 100 places to get a cup within a close proximity. We live in such an affluent society, and as a result we don’t leave our comfort zone.”
When you stay in your comfort zone, however, you aren’t challenged to grow. “Growth is uncomfortable; it can encourage us to make excuses, point fingers, and blame,” says Kapitulik. “But biology teaches us that we grow or die.”
To grow, you have to continue to get better. “When we make excuses, we’re saying, ‘I’m not responsible for my getting better,'” says Kapitulik. “You have to own everything. If it’s 1% your responsibility, it’s 100% your responsibility. Making excuses is the antithesis of personal accountability. Most successful people understand that.”
Kapitulik advises groups to give credit to the entire team when you win and take individual personal responsibility when you lose. “By taking responsibility, you give yourself an opportunity and force yourself to change and get better,” he says. “If not, somebody else has to do something different for you to get better, and you don’t control anybody but yourself.”
For example, if you’re late and blame traffic, you’ll be late again for sure, says Kapitulik. “You’re late because of your choices,” he says. “That may sound harsh, but excuses are a failure to prepare. It’s easier to make excuses because getting better causes discomfort.”
How to break the habit
When you hear yourself about to give an excuse, recognize it and challenge your mindset, says Kapitulik. “Making excuses is an additional roadblock you put up for self-growth,” he says. “Every day, you’re either becoming a better leader or a worse one. There is no middle ground. Everything we do in life is habit-forming. If you make excuses in one place of your life, you make them everywhere.”
Don’t allow others to make excuses for you either. “Typically those who love us the most will make excuses,” he says. “Surround yourself with people who don’t. It’s vitally important.”
Leaders need to create a culture of no excuses in the workplace, he says. “When leaders do a good job creating and communicating a culture of no excuses, you don’t end up in positions yelling and screaming about problems,” says Kapitulik.
While you can call each other out in respectful way when you hear someone making excuses, the more meaningful step is to recognize when a team member is taking responsibility. Talk clearly about expectations, and recognize when those expectations are met.
“If the expectation is a culture of no excuses, recognize when people take personal accountability,” says Kapitulik. “If someone talks about what they need to do to become something better, it’s impactful to the group to recognize that.”
Your excuses are showing you where you have areas for growth. Lean into them, change your mindset, and recognize when you take responsibility. “Who you are is what you recognize,” says Kapitulik.