Believe it or not, this is financial advice.
When I was about fifteen years old, I decided to be honest always. It was a sudden decision, but quite deliberate. There were actually four reasons I decided to stop lying entirely.
First, I had read Malcolm X’s autobiography. It had impressed me greatly, especially the part where he broke from the Nation of Islam and admitted publicly that he had been wrong. I was amazed that anyone would be willing to admit publicly that they were wrong, especially since his admission endangered his physical safety. I respected him tremendously for it. And I figured that since I admired someone else so much for being willing to tell the truth, I should tell the truth too.
The second reason I stopped lying is that I was tired of trying to remember what I had said. It’s easy to remember what you say when what you say is true.
Third, and this is something most people don’t think about enough, I wanted to avoid white lies because I wanted people to believe me when I genuinely complimented them. I noticed that people generally didn’t believe me (or others) when they received compliments, and I concluded that it was because too many compliments are white lies. I knew that if I built up a reputation for honesty, my genuine respect and admiration would matter.
Finally, I wanted people to stop asking me questions when they didn’t really want the answers. And I knew I would only have to give a few uncomfortable answers before people got the message.
Now I’ve noticed, as many people have, that when people brag about their honesty they often are just making excuses for being an asshole. I wasn’t interested in that. I’m autistic anyway, and we autistic folks already have a reputation for a certain kind of rather aggravating honesty. I knew I needed a way to replace white lies, and over time I came up with four methods.
First, I thought up new ways of complimenting people. For instance, if I was at a friend’s performance and I really didn’t like their piece, I had to find something about it that I liked or that I could compliment. I had to be creative and pay attention. Training myself to do this paid dividends later on as I learned to generally be creative and compliment people on details that others don’t notice.
Second, I learned to take initiative. Let’s take the performance example again. If I attend a performance that is just terrible, the last thing I want to do is let my friend ask me how I liked the performance. Sometimes the best way to avoid a question is to take initiative and control the flow of the conversation so that the question does not come up.
Third, I had to learn to ask questions and listen instead of talking. People love talking about themselves. Often, I can avoid ever expressing my opinion by simply asking enough empathetic questions. As the conversation roams, it becomes less necessary to say anything at all about subjects that someone else might have felt compelled to lie about.
Finally, sometimes I just have to shut up. On some occasions, the only replacement for a white lie is to avoid talking altogether.
There have been some surprising consequences to gaining a reputation for honesty, and for being the person people go to when they want a real opinion. Successful people are often quite driven, and as a result they can attract a lot of yes-men, sycophants, and useless hangers-on. These driven people need results though, and often results require improvement. This point is worth harping on.
Results often require improvement. Improvement often requires input or even criticism. Constructive criticism requires honesty. Successful people often learn to surround themselves with honest people, especially if those honest people are also creative. As I have gotten a reputation for honesty, I have found it easy to attract successful people. Here is a secret: other than narcissists and losers, very few people want to hear white lies.
Now I am also the person people go to when they need someone they can trust. This has made my personal life a bit harder, honestly, because I know things that perhaps I would be happier not knowing. But it has been a great benefit in my careers. Why?
Here is another secret: everyone is so tired of blame. One of the inescapable results of requiring honesty of myself is that I have to take responsibility when I have screwed up and I have to admit when I am wrong. In a world full of pompous blowhards, complainers and blamers of all sorts, it is an enormous relief when someone can simply say, “I was wrong”.
People don’t like someone who is perfect anyway.
But people do like someone who is resilient, who is a character, who is memorable. In other words, people like someone who has a clear sense of self. A self is more attractive than a no-self. And I am not going to define what a “no-self” is, because I think you know in your gut what I mean. When you lie, you are acting like a no-self.
Especially in conflict, it’s easy to believe that people just want to win, and that if you bend over backwards to please them you will make them happy. But the truth is most people actually like you better when you stand up for yourself, because then they can respect you. Only toxic people dislike you when you clearly define your boundaries. People who want to be lied to are people you are better off without.
The only people I have lied to in the last couple of decades are people that, actually, I just wanted out of my life. I would have been better off just not associating with them than degrading myself with dishonesty.
This brings up an interesting point. Is lying ever justified? Yes, when you don’t want to have any relationship with the person you are lying to, I suppose it is justified. (Think of every example you can of when someone should lie, and you’ll see it’s true.)
Lying is the easy way out, but it’s rarely a good way out. Even white lies harm your relationships, because on some level, people can tell. They feel it even if they don’t know it. And there is always an honest way to tell the truth without hurting someone’s feelings.
In business, whether you are an employee or an entrepreneur, honesty will make you money, because a reputation for truthfulness will attract the successful and the ambitious. And your social circle will slowly transform you. This is financial advice: if you are in the habit of deception, drop that habit. Replace it with the habit of searching for creative and detailed ways to tell the truths you most want to tell.