Inventing Excuses - Joe Abittan

Inventing Excuses

With the start of the new year and the inauguration of a new president of the United States, many individuals and organizations are turning their eyes toward the future. Individuals are working on resolutions to make positive changes in their lives. Companies are making plans and strategy adjustments to fit with economic and regulatory predictions. Political entities are adjusting a new course in anticipation of political goals, agendas, and actions of the new administration and the new distribution of political power in the country. However, almost all of the predictions and forecasts of individuals, companies, and political parties will end up being wrong, or at least not completely correct.


Humans are not great forecasters. We rarely do better than just assuming that what happened today will continue to happen tomorrow. We might be able to predict a regression to the mean, but usually we are not great at predicting when a new trend will come along, when a current trend will end, or when some new event will shake everything up. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t try, and it doesn’t mean that we throw in the towel or shrug our shoulders when we get things wrong.


In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “an analysis of thousands of forecasts by political and economic experts revealed that they rarely did better than dilettantes or dart-throwing chimps. But what the experts were extremely talented at was inventing excuses for their errors.” It is remarkable how poor our forecasting can be, and even more remarkable how much attention we still pay to forecasts. At the start of the year we all want to know whether the economy will improve, what a political organization is going to focus on, and whether a company will finally produce a great new product. We tune in as experts give us their predictions, running through all the forces and pressures that will shape the economy, political future, and performance of companies. And even when the experts are wrong, we listen to them as they explain why their initial forecast made sense, and why they should still be listened to in the future.


A human who threw darts, flipped a coin, or picked options out of a hat before making a big decision is likely to be just as wright or just as wrong as the experts who suggest a certain decision over another. However, the coin flipper will have no excuse when they make a poor decision. The expert on the other hand, will have no problem inventing excuses to explain away their culpability in poor decision-making. The smarter we are the better we are at rationalizing our choices and inventing excuses, even those that don’t go over so well.

The Torment of the Past and Future

Our brains and the way we think about the world are basically our real world super power. We are able to predict what is going to happen five minutes from now, five hours from now, and five days from now. We can remember loads of information from our past and synthesize that information in new situations to draw new conclusions. We are able to intuitively recognize what other people are thinking and to deduce how they felt in past situations or how they will feel in future situations. Our brains do incredible work to help us move through the universe and our species would not be here today without our brains’ super powers.


But as great as these super powers are, they can also lead us astray and cause real problems in our lives. Ruminating on things we do not like from our past or on our fears for the  future can be life ruining. We can become embarrassed, scarred, and find ourselves in so much pain from our past that we cannot enjoy our present. Similarly, we can become paralyzed with fear, disillusioned with possibilities, and stuck thinking about negative things may happen in the future, causing us to forget our present moment. In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “But the chief cause of both of these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessings of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves of that which is to come as well as over that which is past.”


To a much greater extent than many of us do, we should probably seek out psychological services to help us better order our thoughts. Stoicism has helped me with remembering the present and has given me tools to use to avoid ruminating on the future or past. Combining psychological services with a stoic toolkit can be very helpful in a world where happiness is presented in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the things that will make us happy. We want to plan ahead and strive for a healthy life where our needs are provided for, but if we become so focused on needing out life to have a particular type of car, or so focused on what might happen if we are not able to pay certain bills, then we can ruin our health and our current lives. And if we cannot let go of the past, if we cannot look at what has happened in our life and say, “that sucked, but here is what I can learn moving forward,” then we will constantly be haunted by ghosts. Learning to be present is not just about breathing exercises and comfortable pillows. Being present is about recognizing when our minds have jumped ahead or when our minds are stuck in the past and learning to refocus the mind on the current moment, the only time where we can take any action to improve things.

Do things become more simple over time?

What I have begun to learn as a recent college graduate is echoed by Vesterfelt in a section I highlighted in Packing Light when she wrote about things she was learning and beginning to understand as her 50 state road trip continued on.  “The longer I traveled, the more I realized things don’t get more organized with time. They become less so.” Having recently moved, started a full time job, and tried to start a new podcast, I have seen how true this sentence is.  I constantly struggle with balancing the things  I want to do in a day with the responsibilities I have. Crossing the graduation finish line and getting a job right out of college was a huge mile stone for me, and I always imagined reaching this point and having life feel easier. I predicted life becoming more organized without homework to bog me down and prevent me from doing the things I like.
After crossing one finish line, what I have instead found is more finish lines, and less time to do the thing that will carry me there.  This has been a very frustrating realization, but a little self awareness has gone a long way in helping me understand myself at this point of my journey.  Recently I listened to an episode of the Mindful Creator Podcast in which the host and his guest discussed this phenomenon of always chasing new finish lines. The two speakers both shared the same visions of the future settling down when they reach the new finish lines, but one said that he understood that crossing one line would just make another appear. His approach was interesting. Rather than denying new finish lines, he accepted them, and believed that through understanding this process he could learn to be more happy with the place he was currently at.
Combining the message from the podcast with Vesterfelt’s quote helps me see that I am in a good place to work on organization now.  Rather than putting off organization until I reach a future finish line where things are supposed to be easier, I need to find ways to maximize where I am now. I may reach that point with better productivity habits, or more self awareness and appreciation for the life and lifestyle I am able to live.  Waiting on things, and putting them off until a future where I will be more successful and things will be better organized means that things will never happen, because as Vesterfelt wrote, things do not become more organized as time goes on.