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How I’ve Trained Myself To Avoid Making Excuses

Source | FastCompany : By JEFF BOOTH

I’ll never forget a tense conversation I had with my leadership team about the launch of a key tech product. We were discussing why we weren’t getting broad adoption among our users. One of my team members in the company, which operates in the home-improvement sector, offered this explanation: “This industry is just slow to adopt new technologies.”

I’ve been thinking about that comment ever since. But not because it’s accurate.

As a matter of fact, construction was the first industry to heavily use cell phones—back when they were big, blocky, and expensive. On a deeper level, what struck me was the frame of mind behind the remark. By making the excuse that “it’s the industry,” you let yourself off the hook. It’s a mental dead end, and it’s a well-known psychological phenomenon referred to as an “external locus of control.” It means that you assume some outside force —the economy, dumb luck—is running your life, your work, your business. But if you have an “internal locus of control,” you believe that you are in the driver’s seat.

Making this switch is never easy, but it’s something you can learn how to do. And in my experience, it really does come down to your mind-set—one in which you reflexively take total ownership of your work and all that comes with it.

To be sure, this can be pretty frightening; most of us understandably may not like to confront the idea that our success or failure rests solely in our hands. And while it’s true that many outside factors do shape and define our spheres of action, it’s this conviction that nevertheless predominates among some of the most effective leaders—who, by the way, are far from delusional optimists as a result.

Instead, embracing what some call “radical responsibility” requires seeing things as they actually are, limitations and all, and asking hard and careful questions about how they got to be that way.


This is one area where business can learn from science. The scientific method is about making hypotheses and testing if they’re wrong. Instead of looking for reasons why you’re right, it’s more useful to try to find ways that you might bewrong.

In physics, this spirit finds special form in “first-principles” thinking. People usually reason by analogy: They look for a precedent and try to iterate on that. Take the example of transportation. In the late 19th century, everybody was competing to create the best horse-drawn carriage. But as soon as the combustion engine arrived on the scene, the world changed.

If that oversimplifies the reality of technological innovation, it’s at least partly the point; with first principles, you’re trying to get at fundamental truths. Elon Musk has spoken explicitly about this approach, which he credits with having helped him launch SpaceX. “I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles,” Musk recalled inWired:

What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around 2% of the typical price—which is a crazy ratio for a large mechanical product.

Rather than taking anything for granted, Musk went to the core of rocket construction, evaluating the very materials themselves.

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