Alternatives to excuses

There’s a difference between a reason and an excuse. It’s simple. A reason is what you can speak about today that explains what happened to you yesterday. However, if the same thing happens again to you tomorrow, then any story you come up with then becomes an obvious excuse.

For example, in Britain every older person has the experience of – one time or another – having to invent something as ‘an excuse’ for why they didn’t hand in their High School homework on time when they were younger. Usually it was an outlandish tale like ‘My dog ate it’ or ‘I left it on the bus’. Okay, the teacher might say. That gets you out of having it here, done, but – why don’t you do it now? And, more important, why can’t you have it done by tomorrow? Answer – no reason. That’s the point. You’ve got a second chance, so if it doesn’t arrive by tomorrow, there’s no reason that will sound reasonable. It really will be clear to everyone that whatever you say is just a made-up excuse.

Let’s look at another example. Suppose I was walking down the street and suddenly came across a huge hole in the pavement. I hear someone shouting for help. It’s you. I look over the edge of the chasm, and there you are ten feet below, looking trapped. Now, no doubt you will be able to tell me a good story about how you got down there. There might be all kinds of reasons for how such a situation came about. That will be interesting, but since I’m in a hurry, there’s only one thing I want to know: do you want a hand to get out of there? Don’t get me wrong. There’s no pressure. It’s completely up to you. You can take my assistance if you like, and maybe with my help, you can scramble back out onto the level ground of the street. But the offer’s there, and if you don’t take it, that’s your choice. What I’m saying is, that if I come walking back the same way tomorrow morning – and you’re still there – well, there isn’t really any excuse that would justify that, is there? You’re in a hole. Your choice.

It’s a bit like current trends in literature. Read any newspaper and they will tell you that the big new thing is ‘Tragic Life Stories’. In fact, if you go into a big bookshop like W H Smiths or Waterstone’s, you will see a whole set of shelves devoted to this new trend. (They’re right next door to Romantic Fiction – which gives you some idea about who reads this stuff.) Only one problem, most readers love the misery of an abusive and deprived childhood, but – according to the critics – they also want a ‘happy ending’, (or at least an end in sight). That tells you something. It says that people are both horrified and inspired by tales of kids being locked in cupboards, beaten and starved, but they then want things put right. They want justice to prevail. Fine, same goes for your life story. Tell me you’re in a job you hate, going nowhere, feeling awful, and I’ll sympathise. But hey, you tell me the same thing next week and I’ll be thinking – ‘Doesn’t this story have a happy ending?’ Or, ‘If it’s so bad, why doesn’t s/he stop putting up with it and start doing something about it?’

Here’s your problem. A reason that worked yesterday is not necessarily going to be still good tomorrow! Sorry. People get bored. They get inspired by hearing about other people struggling against the odds and overcoming adversity, but that means, at some time or other, you’re going to have to climb out of that hole – not wallow in it for ever!

Here’s a real-life example. Here in England we’re used to living with the shame of the fact that 40% of our young people leave school at 16 with no qualifications whatsoever. No certificates, no exams passed, no subjects studied and absorbed. Maybe these kids think ‘it doesn’t matter’ and they’ll ‘get a job anyway’. Big surprise. Employers don’t like it, and if they’ve got a choice between the youngster with the certificates and the one without, well, which one would you you choose? That’s right, which is one reason why the person with no bits of paper to their name finds recurring problems in finding work and keeping it. Now there might be all sorts of reasons for how this situation came about, and yes, it might have something to do with the media, and too much TV and not enough books in the house, and the pressure of pop culture with ‘role models’ of singers and football players. The point, of course, is that it’s a sickness with a cure. In this country we have the ‘Careers Office’ which is open to anyone up to the age of 25 for advice, especially about college courses and adult training. Also, that’s recently merged into a bigger department, with so-called ‘Connexions’ advisors (right spelling!), who work with teenagers in or out of school. So, no excuse, right? You’ve got no qualifications, okay, I get it – it’s all your parents’ fault, or it was the school, or the area in which you lived. Fine, blame them. My question is this: what are you going to do about it now? It’s simple. If you’ve left school at 16 with no qualifications then I’m interested in the reasons behind that and the obvious struggles you must have had, growing up. But if you’ve still got nothing at 21, don’t give me your excuses. It’s your choice.

Finally, here’s another distinction between the two words. When you wake up tomorrow, what will happen? If you bound out of bed and get going, odds are that you’ll have a reason. If you stay in bed, it’s more likely that you’ll have an excuse. What could be clearer than that? More important, which one would you prefer in your life right now?