The Excuses

When I was getting divorced from my first husband, I spent many months reliving the past. These mental hamster-wheel moments were accompanied by sleepless nights, too much scotch, and – to complete this picture in all it’s transparency—family-size bags of Lays BBQ potato chips.

During these long nights, I would try and re-imagine each crucial conversation, or drawn-out fight, or a pivotal decision that we made, to find some alternative path that would have “fixed it”.  When I was unable to design the imaginary fix, I would move on to rationalizing, over explaining, or trying to find an excuse for what happened.  As in, “since I’m a product of a broken family, it’s no surprise I got a divorce”, or “we overstretched our finances, so of course our relationship was strained” or “sending someone to Law School might not have been a good idea” to externalize what was going on, and make it about this or that, as if somehow I hadn’t made those decisions.

And then somebody very wise said this:

It doesn’t matter what you should have done, then.
It only matters that you know to do better, now.

And there it is. We all do our best. Until we know better. And focusing on what we should have done, doesn’t actually help to fix the past.

If you’ve read my work for any length of time, you know I explore failure and learning, and what stops humans from being open to new things, and perseverance, and all that stuff. I am so into that stuff intellectually. And,  I don’t really want to tell you this. But you need to know. Emotionally, I don’t want to grow. Well, more specifically, I don’t want to experience the growth. If it could just happen with a snap of a finger, I’d sign up. But to grow, I have to first live in a very uncomfortable place. To learn, I have to first accept not knowing, and then start that very grubby and messy process of figuring out new skills, trying new approaches, somehow learning what works, and integrating them so they are natural.

Aside from the intellectual desire of growth, what I think most of us want emotionally is certainty and clarity. As in: I Want To Know, Darn It (foot stamped!). We want to know that if we try the new thing, it’ll actually succeed. After all, we know the past. We know what it looks like, feels like, and even what is wrong about it. The future is all about the unknown. We don’t know that if we try to learn something, we’ll actually learn it. There are no guarantees. In fact, it might turn out that we just fail in a whole new way. And, who wants that? And, it might hurt. Or suck, or be visible to others that we’re failing.

These last few weeks I’ve been working with people who know they need to try some new approaches and methods to grow their businesses, but most of what they know they need to starting doing is unknown stuff to them. And there’s a certain line of thinking that goes about “what if it doesn’t work; better to stick to what we already know, which works okay enough”. It’s a certain kind of gravitational force to stay in the “known” space.

In business or in life, even if we know we need to try a different approach, it is much easier to keep doing the thing we know to do. And we can find all sorts of excuses masked as reasons to rationalize this choice. For example, you might hear a team say, “that method isn’t proven yet…better to wait”. But let’s recognize that it’s just an excuse that we use to hides our fear of change. All of this stuff – fear of the unknown choices, a desire to de-risk situations, and lots of things already on our plate that we would need to move aside – are just our excuses to not have to face that discomfort.

The truth is ugly: discovering a new and better way is risky. It means we need to put down whatever is our equivalent of comforting BBQ potato chips. We need to suck it up and start the hard work of learning new skills, and trying new things, and experimenting to discover what will work better – none of which is guaranteed to succeed. Nope, not even. But, deferring it doesn’t help. To be the people (and the businesses) we are meant to be, we must gather the courage to make the choice that we know we need to make, now.

15 Replies

  1. from TS Eliot … the Four Quartets:

    You say I am repeating
    Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
    Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
    To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
    In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
    In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
    In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
    And what you do not know is the only thing you know
    And what you own is what you do not own
    And where you are is where you are not.

  2. Thirty seconds before reading this, I was just sharing some folk wisdom with my almost-teenager: “the first thing to do when you’re in a hole, is to stop digging.” This is a great reminder to challenge the comfortable and known…even if it’s sort of mostly working ok, I guess.

    In related news, have you read Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford? I loved it, and as I was reading, I kept thinking, “wow, this is right up Nilofer’s alley.”

    1. I will be sure to check it out. I am researching belonging, conformity and power right now for a project I hope to share more publicly at some point. (It’s just early nascent ideas right now…) but I share that in case you find things in that space to pour into the mix…

  3. As a society, we encourage creativity and risk taking, but fail to address fear of change issues first! This is great information and worth repeating over and over. It’s hard to give us the fear habit, take a deep breath, and take a risk. Wonderful post which I will RT and recommend a lot!!!

  4. Excellent piece telling it like it is…except the first words of the final paragraph…
    The truth is NOT ugly: only by taking new paths are we able to leave failures behind us. There is so much to discover, so much potential and opportunity that we are not even aware of that we can only develop when we open ourselves. All business innovation comes from accepting this challenge. All meaning in life comes from opening ourselves to the new.
    The truth is beautiful.
    Oh…otherwise Nilofer, I love your blogs 🙂

    1. The truth IS Beautiful. Nice catch. As I was writing this the other day I had a sense something was off wit that last piece and your words captured the idea welll.

      Truth is beautiful on it’s own. It’s our context that makes it look ugly.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation, and come by more often if this is the kind of impact you’ll be making.

  5. Great post on intellectual desire of growth vs. bias towards emotional certainty.

    I think this tension is deeply inherent in human nature. It determines the way people deal with experimentation and exploration the ‘unknown’, as well as their individual attitude towards innovation and change.

    There are two thoughts I’d like to add in this context – they might help further pointing out why it’s not easy for people to overcome this tension:

    – It’s easier to be bold and take risks when you’ve got nothing to lose. –
    (Interestingly, this seems to be similar for startup vs. big organizations.)

    – Resarch indicates that there is a roughly two-to-one ratio of fear-of-loss to pleasure-of- gain. Which seems to show that the main driver is loss aversion.

  6. Great post Nilofer and good time for me to read it

    My wife and I just got into a fight and she said that she thinks that we might break up soon

    This is my second marriage as well. My ex left me because she thinks I put my mother in my no one priority!

    My existing wife has some problems with my mother and she just said the same statement as my ex that I put her last in my priority list

    Yes I’m disparate now and ready to collapse but thanks to your post for cheering me up

    I do t think my wife meant what she said and it’s only one off thing that came out in anger but I still have that fear of failure that haunts me whenever my wife and I go I to a fight

    I don’t really know what is the fix but I k kw that I should be open to both my wife and my mother of this situation and I think both should help me get out of this!

    I don’t want another failed marriage 🙁

    As you clearly advised I think I need to step out of my comfort zone and try to learn from my failure!

    I need not to think that I’m perfect! I shouldn’t think that I should satisfy everybody around me because I want their blessing!

    Tha ms for cheering me up with this post Nilofer 🙂


  7. Thanks Nilofer as usual for your insightful advice delivered with colorful imagery and humor. Although I work in the not for profit sector in health, I always look forward to reading your posts and appreciate your work on collaborative leadership. Look forward to hearing about your new work on belonging, conformity and power when you are ready to unveil it.

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