Lies Are Powerful… Especially from You to Yourself

If you happen to leaf through a copy of Seth Godin’s classic “All Marketers Are Liars” (that’s the original title; the updated edition has “Are Liars” struck out, and replaces it with “Tell Stories”), you may make it to the first chapter. If you do, you may come across the part where he discusses why people lie to themselves:

Everyone is a liar… The stories we tell ourselves are lies that make it far easier to live in a complicated world… We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works, so we embrace it.

It makes sense. You can’t go through the world knowing everything about everything, continually updating your data silos, plugging that stuff into your decision-making algorithms, and always expecting your decisions and outcomes to be corrected right away. You’re not a supercomputer, and you’re definitely not a god, so you’ve got to accept your limited capacity for knowing and correctness, and just get by cutting corners and drawing simple trendlines.

Telling ourselves lies, however, doesn’t always work out so well.

Lies that Undermine

Take the case of addicts. These individuals (through some fault of their own, or perhaps due to unfortunate and uncontrollable circumstances) basically let their obsession and craving for one thing control their entire lives. Whether it’s pornography, drugs, alcohol, or gambling, it’s not inconceivable that someone can get unhealthily addicted to something that brings pleasure or satisfaction.

The thing is addiction is not always physical; it doesn’t always involve a substance that acts as a chemical hook, or some other factor that is in and of itself irresistible. Many times, it’s a matter of mindset that drives the habit. It starts innocently, a way to escape, then little by little the person lets the cycle spin faster and faster, gathering momentum, tightening into one focus until it becomes like a drill that pulls them down into the deep underground. (It can be argued that an addict’s circumstances can affect his or her mindset or behavior, making him or her more prone to addiction; journalist Johann Hari delivers a great TED talk that touches on this idea).

Somewhere in the middle of that process, the individual builds a system of lies that justify the addiction. They know that what they’re doing is self-destructive; hardly anybody lives in an information vacuum anymore, at least as far as addiction is concerned. But because of their need to continue the habit, they have to concoct something to convince themselves that they’re still on a good trajectory (calling it a story is generous as it doesn’t have to have any consistency; more often, it’s a patchwork of lies). If you watch and listen long enough, you can more or less get the gist of the internal dialogue: “I may be going underground, but I bet there’s oil or gold down there somewhere.”

So here’s the question: How do you distinguish a useful lie from a self-destructive one?

Ditch the Deceit

I’m not a big fan of religion, but I am a big fan of gaining perspective. Whether it’s through prayer, meditation, travel, or advice from friends who know you well, there is always value in examining your life. If every day feels okay, but your life overall feels somewhat of a mess, it’s best to find a way to step back, go outside yourself, and try to find out what the truth is.

Metaphorically speaking, make it a point to face a mirror. Take a selfie. Ask someone how you look. Do something.

The truth may be inconvenient; it may sting; it may necessitate drastic, painful, amputation-level change. However, disposing of an ugly lie is better than letting it fester and rot you from the inside. Or, if you prefer the words of a famous writer, we can go with Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.

Of course, keep in mind Seth Godin’s input. After all, a marketing guru probably does a better job describing people’s behavior than a titan of literature does prescribing it, right?

The Importance of Being In Context: A Demonstration by Patton Oswalt

(Fair warning: most of the links in this post refer to content written by Patton Oswalt, whose opinions can be controversial and whose language is often profane. If you’re offended by swearing or politics, think twice before clicking.)

Patton Oswalt is one of my favorite comedians, if not the top one in my book. Not only is he a funny guy, but he comes out with some of the most insightful thoughts and gets them across in the most outrageous ways. For me, irreverence is not necessarily bad, if used correctly, and he’s one of the masters at this. Whether it’s through profanity or through some other form of verbal provocation, he makes people think. Don’t believe that a comedian can be intelligent? Let me remind you of his post on the Boston Bombing. Yeah, that was him.

But going back to my original point… he makes people think. Why? Because he’s a thinker. He’s a Big Fan of thinking. As a comedian, he says things that would give a lot of other people more than a minute of pause. And when he doesn’t say them, he posts them, writes about them, tweets them, or blogs about them.

Which brings us to July 15.

Actually, it starts before July 15 on the US news site Salon.com. The site had picked up on a joke that he made on his Twitter account, accusing him of being racially insensitive (actually, he was just making fun of a news station that did not check its facts properly before running a list of obviously fake names). This kind of out-of-context reaction to content published as a joke is not uncommon among Facebook users (I’ve been guilty of this myself), but to see a news site run with it is embarrassing, which Patton points out in an open letter published on his blog.

Among the points he drives home is the importance of referring to the original context in which a joke is made. Which, if we think about it, applies to a lot of other things. Context is often important in judging whether something is right or wrong, bad or good. But many people seem to disregard that once in a while. Why? I don’t know. The knee-jerk response is always easier than the thought-about reply, I suppose. Or maybe it’s too much trouble for a lot of people to look beyond what’s shared.

Fast forward to about a month, August 17. Patton Oswalt makes the point more clear on his own Twitter feed in a brilliant comedy bit/social experiment: basically, he writes two-part Twitter jokes whose second part, if taken out of context, are totally out of line with his typical declarations of opinion. Check out the number of retweets for the first part and the number of retweets for the second part of each joke. Amazing.

I could go on and on about how much guts that had to take, how fearless a comedian has to be to risk offending his followers, or how trusting of his fans he has to be to bet that they would resist the urge to go with first impressions and check his actual Twitter feed to see what the hell he’s actually saying.

Any way I look at it, it’s an act that makes him more deserving of respect, in my opinion. We all need that once in a while: the courage to say all that we want to, and the openness and diligence to hear the whole of what others say.