On R-Day, my first day as a “new cadet” at West Point, back in the summer of 1987, I was taught my four responses. These four responses were to be the only acceptable answers to questions upperclass cadets might ask me for my entire plebe year. I remember somebody much bigger than me in a very stern voice showing me my four responses and giving me the opportunity to recite them from memory until I got it right.
And I still remember them 32+ years later:
Sir/ma’am, I do not understand.
No excuse, sir!
Perhaps not surprisingly, for something so seemingly simple, under the duress of R-Day it took me a couple tries to get it right! Since I wasn’t taking selfies on R-day back in 1987, I’ve included a stock photo below that pretty much captures the gist of my first year of college.
Thus began my plebe year – an extraordinary context based on the premise that you can’t be a leader until you’re a good follower first. And one in which just about every aspect of your behavior and character receive copious amounts of feedback, to put it in the most positive terms.
Physical hazing wasn’t allowed but verbal hazing was the norm, and the smallest mistake or poor decision was noticed by somebody. This gave me lots of opportunities to unlearn the habit of making excuses. Here’s what it would look like:
Upperclass Cadet: ”Cadet Kanis, your shoes look like a dog literally took a shit on them. Did you shine them with a Hershey Bar? I guess you’re just too good to shine your shoes anymore, huh? You’re better than the rest of us now, right?” (yelling at me, and inch away from my face, with bad breath, too).
Me: **has a reasonable explanation and attempts to offer it **
Upperclass Cadet: “NO EXCUSE, SIR, right Kanis? NO EXCUSE, SIR” ** continues hazing me but now it’s no longer about my failure to shine my shoes but about my attempt to make an excuse.
Here’s the thing that’s totally bananas – you’d think I’d figure it out pretty quickly, right? ** JUST SAY NO EXCUSE, Sir!!! ** but I couldn’t make myself do it!! Becuase I had an excuse. It took me a solid 6 to 8 months of my plebe year and plenty of unnecessary suffering to get out of the habit of offering excuses.
For the record I also had a really difficult time “removing that smirk from my face.” Military bearing took a tremendous amount of effort for me and even now I have nothing resembling a poker face! If I think something is funny, I am gonna laugh! But that’s a story for another day.
What would your life be like if you spent zero energy justifying your own behavior or trying to explain to someone how they misunderstood you? I’m not saying don’t apologize and commit to doing better going forward, especially if you’ve caused harm. But I am saying it might be more efficient if nothing else for you to dispense with the habit of making excuses once and for all.
Next time you find yourself wanting to defend your behavior, try “no excuse” on for size and see what happens. You just might free yourself up from a whole lot of wasted energy so you can get on with the important work of making the world a better place.