Stop Making Excuses: How to Cure Excusitis

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Magic of Thinking Big" by David J. Schwartz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever wondered what makes some people succeed in life and others fall behind? What do successful people do differently?

Unsuccessful people have a tendency to make excuses about why things haven’t worked out. But if you look at successful people, you’ll find they may have experienced those same roadblocks, but they don’t dwell on them. They don’t make excuses. The roadblocks weren’t even a factor. 

Here’s how you, too, can stop making excuses and start making things happen.

The Disease of Excusitis

In his book The Magic of Thinking Big, author David J. Schwartz calls the tendency to make excuses the “disease of excusitis.” Like a physical disease, excusitis can get progressively worse. At first, the person might know the excuse is just a convenient lie – but the more she repeats it, the more she believes it. Soon, she uses that excuse to justify every problem in her life, instead of taking responsibility and solving the problem.

People tend to make excuses centered around four areas: health, intelligence, age, and luck. 

We’ll look at each area in detail, but the pattern is this: people use personal traits they can’t change as excuses for not trying. To finally stop making excuses, invert your attitude: don’t waste time regretting what you don’t have; instead, make the most of what you do have

A disadvantage with the right attitude will beat an advantage with the wrong attitude.

Health Excusitis

What it is: You surrender to your health woes and use an illness or condition as an excuse to stop reaching for your goals. “I’ve now got this disease – my life will never be the same.” “I don’t have the energy/health to do what I really want to do.”

Why this thinking is flawed: There’s no such thing as a perfect human specimen. We all have, or will have, a physical limitation. It’s our attitude about our health that matters. We can dwell on our ailments, falling victim to “health excusitis,” or we can keep a positive attitude and keep moving toward our goals.

You can imagine someone with heart disease who puts his life on pause and becomes depressed. Contrast this with another person who recently had a pacemaker installed who is bursting with energy and vitality, ready to pursue his dreams, grateful to get a second shot at life. The first person surrendered to health excusitis, while the second person remained optimistic and positive.

The author shares a story about a golfer friend who had an arm amputated. No one would’ve blamed him if he gave up his sport, but instead he remained positive, upbeat and determined. He worked on perfecting his swing, and others marveled at how he became better than most two-armed golfers. The golfer said, “It’s my experience that the right attitude and one arm will beat the wrong attitude and two arms every time.” People with an actual disadvantage but the right attitude will always beat someone without the disadvantage but with a bad attitude.

How to Cure Health Excusitis: 

  1. Don’t talk about your health issues. The more you talk about a health problem, the worse it seems. The author likens talking about your health woes to putting “fertilizer on weeds.” Plus, discussing your ailments tends to bore people and makes you seem self-centered.
  2. Don’t worry about your health excessively. Worrying about your health doesn’t help anything, and the stress can lead to even more problems. 
  3. Be grateful for the health you have. Know that if you’re alive, you are incredibly fortunate. 
    • The author, a diabetic himself, talks about a diabetic acquaintance who shunned activity and other people for fear of getting sick or overexerted. Another diabetic friend, on the other hand, viewed the disease as a mere inconvenience, saying, “When I take those shots, I just praise the guys who discovered insulin.”
  4. Live your life. Enjoy your life and live it to the fullest. The author speaks about a friend with a terminal illness whose philosophy was, “I’m going to live until I die…I’m not going to get life and death confused.”

Intelligence Excusitis

What it is: You overestimate the intelligence of others and underestimate your own intelligence. You think you’re not smart enough for a certain career or opportunity. Unlike other forms of excusitis, people with intelligence excusitis often suffer in silence, feeling their perceived inadequacy deep down.

When you suffer from intelligence excusitis, you sell yourself short and miss opportunities. You use your perceived lack of smarts as an excuse not to try new things. 

Why this thinking is flawed: What really matters is not how much intelligence you have, but how you choose to use what intelligence you have. To flesh out this idea: 

  • Knowledge is only potential power. The important thing is how you put that knowledge to use. 
    • Einstein was once asked how many feet were in a mile. He replied that he didn’t know or even care to know; he didn’t want to fill his brain with facts he could easily just look up. He felt that the mind was for thinking, not storing facts.
  • Enthusiasm and interest are vastly more important than your IQ when it comes to success
    • When asked about which kids should become scientists, a leading physicist said all that matters is that “the child have a high degree of interest in science.” Sticking with something is more important to success than your IQ, and you can’t stick with something if you’re not interested in it.
  • A positive, optimistic and cooperative attitude is more important to success than IQ. Have you ever wondered why some brilliant people are failures? It’s partly because of negative thinking. When a bad attitude guides your thoughts, you tend to contribute little and create nothing. 
    • The author mentions a brilliant acquaintance who ended up in a mediocre job with few friends and no spouse. He let fear guide his life; he used his immense brainpower to come up with reasons things wouldn’t work. This made him avoid responsibility and relationships. His brain could have been used as a tool for success, but instead it became a tool for self-defeat.
  • Successful people have creative thinking skills, not necessarily a high IQ. Thinking creatively is more important than knowing facts. Anyone can memorize facts. It takes creative thinking to dream up solutions to problems and generate ideas that will change the world.

In summary, intelligent people with the wrong attitude can fail. Less intelligent people with the right attitude can really succeed.

How to Cure Intelligence Excusitis:

  1. Don’t sell yourself short. Find your own talents. Don’t worry about other people’s intelligence. Remember that it’s how you use your brain that counts.
  2. Tell yourself daily: “My attitude is more important than my intelligence.” Practice exhibiting a positive attitude at home and at work. Look for ways something can be done, not why it can’t be done.
  3. Develop creative thinking. Understand that thinking is more than memorizing facts. Use your brain to create. It’s way more valuable to come up with new ideas and find better ways of doing things. Think, am I using my mind to memorize history, or to make history on my own?

Age Excusitis

What it is: You think you’re too old or too young for a certain job or opportunity. The “old” form is more common, leading people to believe it’s too late for them to try a new challenge. They think they’re washed up and unable to learn new things, so there’s no point in even trying. You can try saying, “You’re only as old as you feel,” and they’d likely respond, “But I feel old!” 

Why this thinking is flawed: How old you are isn’t imstop portant. It’s your attitude about your age that determines your success. 

No matter how old you are, you still have time left. Many people stay productive into their 70’s. Even if you’re 50, you still have decades left. Are you going to let 20 years go by moaning about your age?

The author’s relative wandered from job to job and never truly found fulfillment. At the age of 45, he decided to go for his long-held dream of becoming a minister, despite his fears of being too old to start something so new and different. He struck forward on this dream, made it happen, and realized he still had decades to spend in this ideal job.

Once again, an old person with the right attitude will beat a young person with the wrong attitude.

How to Cure Age Excusitis: 

  1. View your present age as a positive. Feel the invigoration of youth. Think “I’m still young,” not “I’m too old.”
  2. Compute how much productive time you have left. What age do you think people stop being productive? How much time do you have left? It’s likely a very long time. When you realize there are probably decades ahead of you in which to be productive, you’ll stop feeling “too old.”
  3. Spend future time doing something you love. Stop negative thinking like, “I wasted so much time doing something I hated.” Instead, think positively: “I’m starting now! My best is still to come.”

For Youth Excusitis: For the people who view being too young as a problem, the answer is similar: youth is a liability only when your attitude is wrong. Gain confidence in your abilities and what you have to offer in any situation. If you can do the job, people won’t care how old you are.

Bad Luck Excusitis

What it is: You think things just don’t go your way, that you’re a victim of bad circumstances. When you look at successful people, you just think they got lucky. You ignore all the hard work and character traits that got them there.

Why this thinking is flawed: When you suffer from bad luck excusitis, you don’t take into account the hard work that goes into success. You don’t understand that your own mistakes may have created missed opportunities. 

Luck excusitis is a dead end. When you dismiss someone else’s success as merely the result of luck, you don’t discover a solution to your problems. You can’t reproduce someone else’s “luck.” But you can learn the habits of successful people (hard work, attitude) and emulate them to improve your situation. Isn’t this a more productive way to solve your problems?

The author uses this analogy: suppose General Motors were to reorganize the entire company on the basis of luck, placing names in a hat and randomly drawing for president, vice-president and so on. This would be the world if luck were really the major factor in success. This is ridiculous, right? Rather than luck, people who rise to the top in any organization get there because of attitude, ability, and hard work.

How to Cure Bad Luck Excusitis:

  1. Take another look at what you consider to be someone’s “good luck.” You’ll see planning, preparation and practice. Now take another look at someone’s “bad luck.” You’ll likely see mistakes in judgement and other missteps. 
    • For example, everyone makes mistakes and has setbacks, but people with “good luck” learn from their mistakes. People with “bad luck” do not.
  2. Stop wishing for more luck. You can’t change the luck that you get. Instead, concentrate on what you can control – developing the qualities of successful people, such as planning, preparation, practice and learning from mistakes.
Stop Making Excuses: How to Cure Excusitis

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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