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Wisdom from a Navy SEAL on the Power of Overcoming Excuses

Below is an excerpt from the new book, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, by Navy SEAL and New York Times bestselling author Eric Greitens.

Greitens, who is presently considering running for Missouri Governor, is a Rhodes scholar, graduated with a Ph.D. from Oxford, and is the founder of The Mission Continues, a philanthropy that empowers veterans to apply their hard-won training and skills in their local communities.

We present the following book excerpt on the power of overcoming excuses with permission from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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How do excuses take hold? An excuse starts as a protective measure. It shields us from pain, saves our pride, keeps our ego from being punc­tured, allows us to obscure the brutal truth. That feels like a relief at first. We avoided the pain.

Then we lay another excuse on top of the first. Then another. Excuses make us feel safe. So, we think, why not add another? Soon enough, you’re wearing excuses like a knight wearing armor.

Well, what’s the harm in that? How fast do you think you’d be able to run wearing a suit of armor? How well could you climb a mountain? How well could you swim across a lake? How well could you hug your kids?

Excuses protect you, but they exact a heavy cost. You can’t live a full life while you wear them.

You can take away someone’s house. You can take their food, their money. You can take their clothes, their freedom, even their children. But you can’t take away someone else’s excuse.

We give up our excuses ourselves, or not at all.

And here’s what’s really difficult about excuses. You’re the only one who can let them go, but other people offer them to you all the time. Ex­cuses don’t just tempt those who make them, they tempt those who hear them. Sometimes the world can’t wait to give you an excuse.

Why? Because an excuse often frees everyone from responsibility.

If you grab an excuse, it can almost look generous. It can look as if you’re giving not just yourself but everyone around you a break, and that makes it even more tempting.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a group of eighty-some veterans in St. Louis who’d flown in from around the country. They were enlisted and officer, soldier and sailor, marine and airman. Many had been in combat. Most had been diagnosed with a disability.

I told them that one of the greatest dangers facing a veteran coming home is an onslaught of misdirected sympathy.

That’s partly because, along with gratitude, the veteran is offered a raft of excuses. The world says: “Because of your injury (or your stress, or the friends you lost), you don’t have to . . .

“Be there for your family.”

“Show up for work on time.”

“Treat your friends well.”

“Serve anymore.”

Excuses are usually offered with the best intentions. People want to be kind to those who are suffering. People want to reach out and do what they can — even when what they choose to do is worse than noth­ing.

They offer you an excuse because they don’t want to add to your suffering. Or maybe they want to connect and don’t know how. Maybe they want to express thanks, and think that letting you off the hook is a way to do that. (That happens more and more in a country in which soldiers and civilians are increasingly strangers to one another.) It comes from a place of kindness.

But it’s kind poison. Don’t drink it.

People who think you weak will offer you an excuse. People who respect you will offer you a challenge.

In truth, it’s not the trauma that’s most harmful. The harm comes when we make trauma an excuse to avoid the activities, the relation­ships, and the purpose that are its only lasting cure.
Diabolos is the ancient Greek word for devil. The literal translation is “one who throws an obstacle in the path.”

It’s often easier to imagine that a guy with horns and a pitchfork has harmed us than to realize how we have harmed ourselves. Yet we are usually our own worst enemy. We throw obstacles in our own path.

If we had an external enemy who consistently forced us to make bad choices, to engage in self-destructive behavior, to be less than we are capable of, we’d declare war. Why should we act any differently when the enemy is inside?

You have to master the one who throws obstacles in your way. Mas­ter yourself.

Over the long term, you are responsible for your happiness. I don’t say this to blame you for how you feel. I say it because in taking responsibility you will find freedom and power.

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