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Earl R. Smith II. PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

Many of my mentoring engagements start out covering fairly rocky ground. When people come to me for help, they are in some sort of distress. Often their tendency to diagnose their challenges rather than prospecting for their future – and that presents a real problem.

In this self-help world, there are lots of authors who specialize in diagnosing your problems. They approach the process from a truly mind-numbing array of directions, reach an astounding array of conclusions and field an amazing list of recommendations.


“Keep your eye on the ball, nose to the grindstone, ear to the ground, shoulder to the wheel … and then try to get any work done in that posture!


Here is the problem with diagnosis – it leads to accepting ‘reasons why’ in a negative way. I don’t want to come across as someone who dismisses the value of reflection. Certainly human’s ability to look at themselves critically is one of our best traits. It is the foundation of all self-improvement. But I am reminded of the two proscriptions at the entrance of the temple of the Oracle at Delphi

“know thyself”           “nothing in excess”

A friend and mentor loved to put it this way, “Moderation in all things as long as you don’t overdo it.”

Saul Bellow once dryly observed, “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. But the over examined life makes you wish you were deal. Given the alternative, I’d rather be living.”

Gridlock: The lesson here is that excess is the enemy of the value of self-reflection. Analysis-paralysis is the mind-numbing, career-killing, opportunity-missing tendency that can cost you and your company so much more than you can imagine.

Many of my mentoring clients come to me locked in behaviors that they are only marginally aware of – and certainly not aware of the costs. These behaviors have created gridlock. They are moving in the same small circle of attempted solution and unsatisfying results. The question becomes ‘how to break those cycles and set upon a new path’.

Excuses are for victims: Most of my clients who are experiencing this kind of gridlock have spent a lot of time thinking about how and why they behave in a self-limiting manner.


One client – a CEO of a growing government contractor – had a recurring problem. He couldn’t keep a team together. Randy had a good understanding of why the various ‘A-level players’ had left his company. He thought about those reasons constantly and tried to come up with ways around them. But he was unsuccessful at changing the dynamic. It shocked him when I suggested that he was in the ‘excuse business’. “How can you say that”, he almost yelled at me. “I spend a lot of time thinking about these things”. “Yes”, I offered, “but your thinking is merely an excuse – a reason for not addressing the real problem.” When he asked me to explain, I pointed to a mirror.


It’s a subtle point and may take a bit of thinking before you get it. How can thinking about the situation block your understanding of the way to resolve it? The answer is that is can if the problem you are focusing on isn’t the limiting behavior. The key point here is that excuses can become the enabler of self-limiting behaviors. Once you understand why you do something, you may be seduced into living with it.

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