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?

Three Cases Where “Defying Your Limits” May Be a Super-Bad Idea

I’m a runner. Or at least, I’d like to think so. With the number of hours I’ve spent just running on my own, plus the number of running events I’ve joint, I’m pretty sure I’ve earned the designation.

When you join a race or marathon, you generally get a race kit, which could contain any variety of running-related items. Among the stuff I’ve collected is a lanyard that says “defy your limits”. Now, this is great, motivating stuff for those with a sports mentality. With taglines such as “Impossible is Nothing” or “Just Do It”, sporting goods companies tap into the psyche of their target audience and earn their loyalty through an “I totally get you” kind of social proof. Whether this ends up as a prescription for on top of being a description of their audience’s attitude is anyone’s guess, I suppose.

As we are bombarded with images of successful athletes pushing themselves to an almost self-flagellating degree in order to be the best in their arena, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the “no limits” mindset. However, if one takes a second to think, one will realize that this is not always helpful.

Some Physical Limits Are Real and Unpushable

Let’s start with the obvious: the very reason they are called “limits” is that you could not or should not go past them. Consider what you have to invest when you train: you invest time, money, and energy. There are only 24 hours in a day, and the body needs a certain amount of that for rest and food intake. Obviously, you can’t train if you’re not properly refreshed and fueled up. So basically, “eat food” and “sleep” are some non-negotiables.

Also, you have to accept your own personal physical limits. A heavyset person will probably not have a good chance as a sprinter, just like how a skinny person will probably not do well in Highland games. Short people usually don’t have a good chance of making dunks in the NBA. Of course, you may talk about people who defy the odds and set physical records in spite of physical limitations. I’ve been guilty of seeing a news item about a disabled person running a marathon and telling myself “what’s your excuse?”, and some short basketball players would want to point out players like Spud Webb or Nate Robinson and expect themselves to do as well. However, I’d like to think my comparison is more reasonable: all I care about is that if a person with physical challenges can push himself, so should I. I don’t expect myself to set dunk records because of some exceptions to the rule about short people not dunking.

The problem is that people often don’t remember the basic principle of “ceteris paribus”, meaning “all other things being equal”. So while it might be fair to point out that other people have overcome physical limitations to set records, you shouldn’t expect yourself to do as well as they do because, let’s face it, they may just have won a genetic lottery to get where they are. Not accepting that could lead to serious consequences.

Some Limits Can Be Pushed at Your Risk/Expense

People often admire athletes for their ability to override their pain and their fear. In a stressful, high-pressure situation, we admire those people who, with odds stacked against them, channel the most ruthless, cold-blooded sense of competition they can muster and will themselves to perform beyond limits and pull off a victory. Heart, guts, nerves, backbone, stomach: all parts of the anatomy, all what we expect from a real competitor.

However, pain and fear are there as controls to keep you from acting like a suicidal maniac. In fact, the brain is wired to respond more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. This is called negativity bias, and this is what allowed many of our loinclothed ancestors to avoid getting killed and make babies. Despite this evolutionary tendency, some people still deviate and develop a higher appetite for risks. They want the rush, the thrill, and the excitement, to the extent that they might get themselves hurt for not much good reason.

And this point is not all about fighting or contact sports. Consider our earlier point that people need rest and food, so you can’t do without it. If you’re a smart aleck, you’d probably ask “How little food and how little sleep can I do without? Maybe I can push it down to two hours’ sleep a day and just one meal to max my training time”. And to you I’d say “Have fun with that, you crazy anorexic insomniac gym junkie”. Like most people, you’d probably train yourself sick, injure yourself, or burn yourself out. You can push the limits, but the more they’re pushed, the more your choice becomes a dangerous tradeoff.

But again, there are exceptions. Consider Randy Couture, whose body basically says F.U. to lactic acid buildup, or crazy/lucky SOB Dean Karnazes, whose body has developed to the point that pounding out a marathon causes it no more stress than walking down a hall:

There are other examples of exceptions, and these should come not just with a “do not try this at home” disclaimer, but also possibly a “try body-swapping with these guys first” disclaimer.

Pushing Some Limits Doesn’t Make You Better

Imagine you’ve got a friend who’s simply insufferable when it comes to running. He talks everyone’s ear off about his training regimen, he always brags about his personal records, and he doesn’t let you forget that you’ve never, not once, gotten a better time than his in an official running event. Wouldn’t you want to shut him up? Wouldn’t you want to do anything possible to get yourself to the point that you can beat him and tell him to go suck an egg?

Not that you haven’t tried: you’ve trained yourself to the limit, you’ve tried different drills and workouts and routes, but you still can’t outdo him. And it’s eating you up.

Some elite athletes, those with an extreme “whatever it takes” mentality, will feel the exact same thing, only much, much worse. And they’ll resort to unethical means to perform better. They’ll do anything to get that edge, whether it’s through performance-enhancing steroids or some other non-training-related enhancement like blood doping:

Bottom line, they resort to dishonest tactics to push their limits. That’s not fair to the fans, that’s not fair to their competitors, and that’s not fair to the sport they’re a part of. And even discounting the moral angle, these methods can also cause significant harm to the user: the side effects of steroids are well-known, and there are also risks associated with blood doping.

So basically, like any type of advice or word of wisdom you encounter, take this with a pinch of salt. Feel free to defy your limits, sure, but consider carefully which hurdles to take on.

Worse than Thieves

I saw a news article regarding an unconscionable scam. Some people, seeking to exploit the heartfelt sympathy the world feels for Japan, have set up fake sites claiming to be collecting funds to send to the disaster victims.

This is an act of twofold theft. First, obviously, comes from the fact that money meant for the victims never reaches them. Second, however, comes from the fact that well-meaning people are discouraged from donating altogether, thinking to themselves that their money will likely be stolen anyway. One bad apples spoils the bunch; one ersatz fund-raising site discredits the honest ones. Ones that are well-established may have no problem–surely everyone knows about the Red Cross–but if there are websites set up by con artists who claim to be collecting proceeds on behalf of said organizations, then there is an equally possible, if not greater danger of deception.

I wanted to learn more about these incidences, and came across this article warning people not to be fooled. One recommendation it makes is to check whether the charity meets certain standards for accountability set by the Better Business Bureau. I’ve never even heard of that organization before now. The thought of having to read a set of 20 standards and comparing a charity to said criteria before feeling secure in making a donation is disheartening. It must be equally disheartening for honest charities, who then have to focus part of their attention and resources on assuring sponsors of their good faith and intent. It just makes the donating process confusing, and likely causes some delay in getting the donations to those who need them.

These scams are being implemented so easily because of the power and convenience of the Internet. Anybody can set up a website, and they do not have to make it traceable to themselves. They can claim to provide certain services, using online users whose glasses are tinged with the idea that global connectedness necessarily leads to altruism and a shared desire to lend a hand. Faceless and nameless, they can set up a stage to divert the financial aid of countless cyber-samaritans into their own pockets.

I have no numbers on how many people are doing this. I have no idea how many such sites are up right now. But I’m struck dumb by this harsh reminder that it is not just familiarity that breeds contempt: anonymity does too.