Excuses, excuses, excuses: how students can get around their own barriers


What’s your excuse? I mean, everyone has one, don’t they?

Interviewing students for our A+ Club student support service, we’ve heard some really good ones:

“I loaned my book and he never gave it back.”

“My computer doesn’t work.”

“I lost my calculator.”

And the ever popular…

“I hate that teacher.”

Ethics & Expediency

We all want to do the right thing, especially when we don’t. Yes, especially we who don’t always choose correctly, myself at the top of the list, want to do right and well.

So when we don’t choose correctly, or when we are facing a difficult choice, it’s not because we don’t know right from wrong. That’s a rare sociopath who truly has no moral or ethical foundation.

Instead, we employ what’s called “situational ethics,” whereby we let the situation define our choices rather than our own ethics or personal goals. The process is otherwise known as “expediency.”

Here’s how expediency works:

“Oh well… “

“Yeah, but …”

“I’ll just do it later…”

The cost of expediency

Expediency is the easy way out when you know there’s a better way. The expedient solution ALWAYS has a price, and usually it comes later, which allows us to not worry about it for now.  For now.

Expediency always hits back. Cheating is a classic example of expediency: rather than studying or doing the work yourself, you chose the expedient, easy thing to do and copied from your friend, something we call cheating. Only there’s always a payback moment.

You cheated on the homework so you didn’t learn anything and failed the test. You cheated and got caught. Or even if you made an honest effort, if you cut corners or didn’t do what you know needed being done, the grade isn’t what it could have been.

For students the cost of expediency is your  grade: you give up an A in exchange for the expediency.

Cognitive dissonance to the rescue

It’s what we do here that really defines us: do we stop, reflect and fix — or do we find an excuse?

Humans don’t like feelings of guilt. For students, it’s worse than just admitting wrong, as it requires admitting wrong to adults, especially to parents. Children desperately want to please their parents, so when faced with admission of error, the emotional rescue is to create an excuse for the failure, thus deflecting blame from themselves.

Psychologists call this situation, “cognitive dissonance,” which is emotional tension between opposing thoughts or feelings. Like the fox and the “sour grapes,” we get around the mental conflict (“cognitive dissonance”) by creating an excuse to balance out the negative feelings of guilt or disappointment in a low grade — and in hopes that our parents will buy into it as well.

The excuses flow, such as those I listed above, “it’s the teacher’s fault,” “I lost my book,” and the absolutely worst of all, “I’m not smart enough.”

Obstacle building and rational deferment

Excusing backwards is bad enough. We know we could have done something differently, so we make up an excuse.

More tricky is excusing forward.

By “rational deferment” (my own term here) I mean a process of avoidance of future goals or responsibilities. It can be short-term or long term. For example, deliberately not bringing a book home creates an excuse not to have to do the homework that night. “Oops,” we say later that evening, “I don’t have my book so I guess I can’t do it.”

In the long term, it’s a matter of lowering expectations so that we can avoid the fear and stress of meeting them later. This deferment of expectation comes frequently in course selection, and we see it all the time: “I’m just not an honors student!”

(Btw, a highly insidious aspect of our school system is the propensity to reward student obstacle building through lowered standards and academic expectations.)

Once we’ve set the barrier for ourselves, we have a ready made obstacle that serves as our excuse not to have to do something. It’s fear driven, of course — yet highly convenient to have an obstacle setup in advance. No more excuse making!

It’s also destroys aspiration and potential.

Good luck with all that!

Clearly, the way around all this is to confront our feelings of disappointment head-on, facing them as facts of our own making.

And that’s not easy.

A first step is self-honesty. There will be no getting around cognitive dissonance and our ready-made excuses if we can’t look in the mirror and say, “My fault.”

The next step is self-forgiveness. Research shows that without self-forgiveness self-improvement is difficult, as the less we forgive ourselves the more we accept the barriers we are blaming things on. Self-forgiveness requires admission of responsibility and a promise to do better next time.

If we can get that far, we are on our way to self-correction. With honest, forgiving reflection on our errors, we are more likely to identify honest and realistic corrections for the future.

The voice of correction sounds like:

“I will communicate with my teacher when I don’t understand what’s going on in class.”

“Mom, I’m sorry, I lost my calculator, can we get another one?”

“I will make a checklist of my homework every day before I close my locker.”

I do wish you good luck “with all that!” I really do.

And I hope you can transform your own struggles from obstacles that block you to challenges that you can overcome. Let me know what you’re facing, and maybe we can help you out.

– Michael



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