Excuses Are Useless: Taking Ownership of Your Mistakes

The first political science professor I ever had specialized in Chinese politics, game theory, and making students feel about two inches tall. He was a hard-nosed guy who had probably never considered bumping up a student’s grade from an 84.9 percent to an 85. He took his job very seriously and ultimately wanted the best for his students, which meant that coddling was out of the question.

For the first couple months of the semester, he frustrated me to no end. He began class by picking a random student and asking them to answer an overly-specific question whose answer could be found somewhere in the heaps of reading he had assigned the previous week. When the student inevitably gave the wrong answer, he would reprimand them for not doing the readings even though they probably had. I would have dropped the class, but the topic was interesting and I felt like there was a lot I could learn from this old, stubborn guy.

On a rainy Tuesday morning sometime in March (I could be making the specifics up, as this was years ago), the professor stood in front of our class of about 120 students and for once, didn’t begin his lecture by ruining an undergrad’s day. In a voice much smaller than the one we had come to expect from him, he said “I’m sorry, I made a mistake when calculating midterm grades. I have to lower your grades by about 10 percent out of fairness to other students who have taken this course and will in the future”. Of course I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist.

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There was a brief moment of stunned silence which immediately erupted into a cacophony of griping and whining. I was among the whiners, because I had studied diligently for the exam and felt like, if anything, I deserved a higher score than I had received.

He stood behind his podium and waited patiently for the chatter to subside. “I understand this is frustrating, so I want to take this moment to assume full responsibility. Your teaching assistants did the grading, but I provided the incorrect calculation method. I am the one at fault here.”

Suddenly, I was less frustrated about my grade and felt something else. Was I feeling bad for him? No, that wasn’t quite it. Did I want to choke him? A little, but that wasn’t it, either. No, it was admiration. I was astonished at the bravery it must have taken to stand in front of over one hundred people whose respect he usually demands and instead, own up to a huge mistake.

Of all the lessons I learned in that class, the value of honesty and directness was one of the most valuable.

I hate to admit this, but I used to be the type to offer up an excuse when I should have been giving an apology. I would say “I left my apartment on time, but traffic was so bad and that’s why I’m late”, or “Ashley told me I didn’t need to make copies of that form, so I didn’t. I guess she was wrong.”

It makes me cringe just to type those words out. Does that sound like a person you’d like to work alongside or be friends with? A person who is always looking for a way to take the heat off of themselves and place it on someone else?

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After that fateful day when my midterm grade dipped from a B to a C, I took a look at why I was so unwilling to admit to my mistakes. Why couldn’t I be as honest as my professor? Ultimately, I realized it was my fear of failure and need to be liked. While I was so busy trying to make sure people never saw me mess up, I ended up showing them an ugly side of me: I wasn’t dependable, trustworthy, or willing to take criticism.

As the reality began to set in, I started trying to approach apologies differently.

Instead I would say “I was late today because I hit the snooze button too many times. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again”, or “The store really busy when I made that mistake, so I should have made sure to slow down and not let the crowd get to me. I’ll do better next time.” Phrasing apologies in this way shows that I understand how I could have prevented the mistake and how I will prevent it in the future.

Being more forthcoming with my mistakes has had numerous positive benefits in my life.

The most important is that I am learning from them because I’m taking the time to figure out why they happen. I used to immediately think “how can I make myself look better in this situation,” but now I figure out where I went wrong and try to fix it.

I was chronically late because I never felt the pressure of being at fault for my lateness. I continued to make the same blunders at work because I would blame the fact that we were busy, blame it on a computer glitch, or assume the person who trained me didn’t train me properly. All I was doing was making lame excuse after lame excuse without admitting any fault or promising to do better next time.

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The result was that I never learned from my own mistakes. I was just getting better at making excuses.

Another benefit I’ve seen is that I am more approachable and trustworthy. When others mess up and are looking for guidance or a person to confide in, they know they can come to me. Since I am so honest, people know I won’t judge them. The trust I have built with my coworkers, family, and friends is worth more than a false reputation of being Ms. Perfect-Who-Never-Makes-A-Mistake.

Lastly, it just plain feels good. I love getting it off my chest when I’ve done something stupid. It feels great to ask my peers for advice and know that I’m coming away from the experience a stronger person.

Make no mistake, owning up to your blunders isn’t the same as taking the blame for everything. Sometimes traffic really is the only reason you’re late, and maybe the person who trained you at work really did teach you the wrong method. You aren’t at fault every single time something goes wrong, but it’s important to recognize when you are.