Will Bachman: Thirty years ago, I stood at attention and shouted, “This midshipman has no excuse, sir!” Hey, welcome to Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is produced by Umbrex, and I’m your host, Will Bachman.
Thirty years ago, I went to an abbreviated version of Basic Training at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. It was before my freshman year of college, where I had an ROTC scholarship. Regular Basic Training for real soldiers is eight weeks long, but we, midshipmen, had a kinder, gentler 10 days at Fort Devens.
During those 10 days, I learned one of the most useful lessons of my life. Whenever we made a mistake, we had to stand up and shout, “This midshipman has no excuse, sir!” I don’t know the reasoning why we had to refer to ourselves in the third person. Actually, at the time, I thought it was funny. Maybe it was just to give us another chance to mess up, and maybe they thought we’d say, “I have no excuse.”
Nevertheless, I messed up a lot, so I was given many chances to shout that line, multiple times per day. Belt not shined properly … No excuse, sir. Bunk not properly made … No excuse, sir. Shoes scuffed … No excuse, sir. Not standing at attention, or didn’t get to the line in time … No excuse, sir.
In one case, I remember distinctly, I think it was the second day, I referred to Marine Gunnery Sergeant DuBose as Gunnery Sergeant DuBois. Now, we had not been formally introduced, and I hadn’t caught his name previously. He came up to me and said, “Do you think I’m French, boy?” Of course, I had no excuse, and some pushups were called for to remedy that mistake.
The point I think we were supposed to take away from all this no excuse business was that, in the Navy, excuses just don’t matter. If you’re the captain of a ship, and your ship runs aground, it doesn’t matter that the instrument you were using to take soundings was miscalibrated, or that the GPS was off, or that the charts you were issued were missing the latest nautical knowledge, or that the lookout was asleep. As the captain, you should’ve made sure that the instruments were calibrated, that you constantly checked GPS against other independent fixed sources. You should’ve ensured that the charts were up to date. You should’ve ensured that the watch standers were alert and rested.
In the Navy, even if you had excuses, they just didn’t matter, so don’t even bother bringing them up. The translation of “No excuse, sir,” is not “Oh, I can’t come up with any excuses. Nothing comes to mind.” The translation is, “I recognize that I’m ultimately responsible for this mistake. While there may be extenuating circumstances, and maybe some other people had some role to play, you should hold me accountable for what went wrong.”
I feel fortunate that I got this lesson at the age of 18, because somehow that message got embedded in my brain. Since then, when things don’t go the way I wish they had, well, before I got to Fort Devens, I might’ve been looking to blame someone, even in my own mind, my instinct since then has been to imagine myself at attention, in uniform, shouting, “This midshipman has no excuse.”
Hey, I’d love to hear your thoughts on excuses and how you’ve learned that lesson and implement it in your life. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you go to our website, umbrex.com/unleashed, you can sign up for the weekly Unleashed Email, where you’ll get transcripts of every episode, as well as bonus features available only to subscribers. If you would be so kind as to leave a review on iTunes, that would be awesome. Thanks for listening.