Legitimate Excuses for Failure


When I was fifteen, I desperately wanted to learn the play the guitar, but had no money to buy one, and my family was so hard-pressed that I couldn’t ask my parents for a guitar or lessons. I imagined that I could build a guitar on my own, and reasoned that since I had never shown much aptitude for following instructions, I should invent my own system of tuning. From that thought came another, “why not have only one or two strings, which would greatly simplify things, and result in much dramatic sliding up and down the neck, which is the cool part of watching someone play the guitar?”

My cousin Steve, whose family was just as strapped financially as ours, agreed and we built a prototype out of plywood, with a phonograph pickup amplifying the twanging of the two strings. After horsing around with it for a few hours we realized our folly and gave up.

Five years later, when I was in college, Eric Clapton was God and seemed to have no shortage of girlfriends, so I went through another guitar phase. This time I bought an extremely cheap electric guitar from the Katz drugstore in Columbia, Missouri. I think it cost less than fifteen dollars. This is the same store I used to buy beer from, for eighty-eight cents an eight-pack. I didn’t have an amp, but I could sort of hear the strings as I noodled. The neck bowed immediately, and it became increasingly difficult to form chords. I taught myelf the ten-second lead to the Beatles’ song “Day Tripper” before giving up.

Over the years of my youth I went through similar spasms of wanting to learn the guitar, but each time the humiliation of the previous episode talked me out of it. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I realized that the boys who had stuck with it from when I first started were already proficient and so far ahead of me that I would never be able to catch up. So I never learned to play the guitar. I believed I couldn’t and dammit if I didn’t prove myself right.

The experience proved valuable, in that it taught me to recognize the voice of rationalization and justification in my own head. Now I don’t quite buy my own bullshit as easily, and I can see it in others as well. After forty-five years of practice, I play the piano almost as well as many seven-year-old Asian girls I see ripping through the classics on YouTube, but I still play well enough to sometimes engender envy in others. Someone watching me play will sigh and wistfully say “I wish I could play the piano.” I’ve tried saying “I’m sure you could learn if you really wanted to…” but then that person always counters with a legitimate excuse. “It’s too late, I’m tone deaf, my sister was better at that sort of thing than I was…” So now I say nothing.

Most of us who have enshrined self-limiting beliefs in our deepest inner sanctums are loathe to expose those beliefs to the light of day. Once we could no longer believe the legitimacy of our excuses, then where would we hide? Here in Thailand, most of the men my age are married to Thai women. These women speak various degrees of English, but the men have never learned any Thai. Some of these guys have lived here for fifteen years. To a man, they all offer the same excuse. “I have no ear for that sort of thing.” As far as I can see, the real translation is “I pay the bills, why should I have to learn her damn language?”

Whatever you believe to be true will be so.

here’s a link to the author reading this essay



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