1 June 2021
It dawned on me when I was going through my basketball workout: I was also prone to making excuses. In the case of basketball, this meant that if I didn’t perform as well as I wanted, I would readily find a reason: the sun was in my face; my fingers were freezing; I wasn’t wearing proper shoes; my mind was distracted; I would have done better if I had hurried to get the ball after every throw; the surface of the ground isn’t as bouncy as the one on that other court. I could go on, it’s easy to find excuses. The problem is precisely that: they’re just excuses for poor performance or lack of focus. In “real” conditions (say, a competitive game), similar problems would spring up, if not additional ones (stress, peer pressure, etc.). A life without problems is but a chimera (synonymous to “pipe dream” in case you’re not familiar with Greek mythology’s fictional creatures).
The realisation that I, too, could make excuses in my head bothered me. After all, I had taken pride in being a “survivor” of sorts. My family name had always created problems for me: located towards the end of the alphabet of course (which implies alphabetical discrimination), but most importantly, unpronounceable. Not having access to pocket money as a teenager contributed to a higher barrier to going out with friends because I was studying at a posh school in a posh city. Being shorter than average and younger (I skipped a year) were also causes for being lightly bullied even if I don’t recall being much affected by it. All this while, I was once in a while beaten up by my father. As my mother divorced him, I stepped in to help with legal matters. Years later, I would suffer a series of lung collapses and accidental discoveries of tumours. Lately, I am back in the legal throes of a painful divorce, this time the divorce of one of my brothers.
All this, I’ve kept in the back of my mind, trying to display a tough skin, avoiding victimisation. Paradoxically, I would more easily victimise myself for completely different reasons when romantic relationships are turning to arguments. Psychologists may possibly not consider it a paradox: while I was supportive of others and keeping my own challenges silent, I may have expected to find the recognition I was missing otherwise from my successive romantic partners. “Do you have self-esteem?” the family doctor once asked me a few years ago. I couldn’t answer that question, even though I had plenty of time to think about my answer since the doctor picked up the ringing phone just as he had finished asking his question.
If I took pride in the challenges of my life, it’s likely because it made me secretly arrogantly believe in my superiority over others. As I’m typing those words, I’m attempting to bluntly analyse my subconscious. Am I thinking, “If I’m able to withstand those hurdles, then I’m better, stronger and I’ll be able to go through other difficulties in life”? My subconscious may very well be going beyond that: I may be expecting that life will provide me with a payback, what others call karma. It’s a little ironic considering I don’t believe in an afterlife but rewards could also be granted during my lifetime.
Both making excuses or taking pride from not making them are however misplaced. Excuses can lead to laziness in tackling problems (except for the hyper-productive among us, as I briefly hinted at in a previous article). Pride that leads to arrogance or expectations of rewards make no sense when life is not meant to be “fair” by design.
There are some important caveats to be made. Being aware of discriminations and biases is the first step to solving them. Taking pride in one’s tough skin can serve its purpose of self-protection in the face of adversity, to find the strength to keep going. But that’s why I focused my article up to here on my own case, attempting to be ruthlessly honest with my misuse of excuses and pride. I mentally whip myself here because while I recognise that I’m now part of the much decried 1% (or fairly close depending if one considers wages or wealth), I keep struggling seeing the glass half full. No near-death experience, no recurrent surgeries, no ambulance trip in Kenya act as a trigger. Humans are irrational and I’m the living proof of it.
My experiences have possibly made me both attentive and zetetic of discriminations – and excuses – reported by others. Proceeding by inquiry (“zetetic”) certainly doesn’t mean I’m doubtful: discriminations exist – a small digression: as the history professor Ibram Kendi notes in How to Be an Antiracist, the phrase “‘systemic racism’ is redundant: racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic”. The world is however a little more complex than it is sometimes portrayed.
For instance, indiscriminately advocating for any under-represented minority to be eligible to certain advantages ignores that even among those minorities, a few individuals are better off than some at the bottom of the ladder within the over-represented majority. It sounds controversial but the emphasis is on “few” and “some”, so we shouldn’t avoid seeing the forest for the trees: we could perfectly accept to be over-generous for the sake of the greater good; introducing extra criteria (say, income thresholds of the parents) could even prove costly and counter-productive. Yet I’m wondering if a small fraction of the (mainly far-right) resentment that exists today is partly linked to an over-simplification of the issues.
Furthermore, it may help to understand what “unfair advantages” one may possess, as Hasan Kubba, one of the participants to my coaching experiment, puts it in his (award-winning) book aptly named The Unfair Advantage. Not every successful entrepreneur had wealthy parents or useful connections. Analysing – and developing – one’s strengths may well be the antidote for ready-made excuses. If I can pick up the ukulele, and dare to publish my recordings as well as my questionable singing, then definitely anyone can acquire new skills, transform them into “expertise” or at least gain a competitive advantage over others.
On another note, as a manager and as someone who would be a good cop in another life, I can’t help but notice when abuse exists around me. People are unfortunately mostly not very good at covering their tracks. Given some leeway, human beings will find imaginative ways to push the boundaries in ways you couldn’t have thought of. As an unrelated story in The Talent Code went, they “took everything but the kitchen sink, and [they] went back and took the kitchen sink too”. It’s therefore a struggle for me to balance empathy with outrage mixed with depression (it’s demotivating to observe abuse) at how spoiled and whining some can be. It makes me want to simply run away from those petty behaviours – literally running away to some place that would force me to disconnect (from the Internet, from people even – both of which I would of course miss).
I’ll focus in the meantime on what I know best – or what I’m trying to know better: myself. I’ll try to stop myself when I’m making even just mental, non-expressed excuses. And I’ll attempt to shed that absurd skin of pride, instead concentrating, little by little, on enjoying life, or what’s left of it.