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?

Be a Workaholic for Today

Manic Monday. Hump Day Wednesday. TGIF.

We have all these expressions that connote one statement: work sucks, and you shouldn’t want to do it.

Of course, that’s not always true. If you play your cards right, you will most likely end up in a job that you enjoy on a career track that’s fulfilling. However, because life is life, we know that there’s no way a high can stay. What goes up, must come down. And the struggle through the down days can be really, really exhausting.

In a previous post, I touched on the concept of lying to get through a grind. That got me thinking about the different ways we lie to ourselves: self-lies make us feel good about ourselves, drive us to make certain purchasing decisions, and direct other aspects of our behavior. So, why can’t we take some of those lies, tweak them, and use them to make ourselves more productive?

“I Can Quit Anytime I Want”

Do a Google search on addiction, and you’ll eventually find some resources that talk about how much addicts lie. They use these lies to support and justify their addiction. Whether it’s gambling, alcohol, drugs, or anything else, many addicts are characterized by how untruthful they are—to others as well as to themselves.

So, here’s one thing that may work for you if you’re struggling to get through the workday: do a little bit of roleplaying. Pretend that you’re a workaholic. Try to visualize yourself not as a working stiff, but as a productivity-driven madman who can’t get enough, who needs to stay busy. Imagine what it would be like, and think the thoughts that would motivate such an individual. Below are a few suggestions:

“I can quit anytime I want”: this one’s pretty common, and it’s pretty powerful. Addicts often go for one more hit, one more smoke, or one more round at the table, telling themselves it’s the last one and they can then quit. So I believe pretending to be a workaholic involves the same kind of self-negotiation. Tell yourself you’ll just finish one more report, one more job, or one more task, and then set to it. Then when it’s done, tell yourself that again. Keep making incremental progress, and you’ll pretty much make it through.

“Other people don’t know what they’re missing”: Sometimes it’s easy to get affected by others’ opinions of a job. They may say that it’s useless, or fruitless, or otherwise a waste of time. Instead of getting bogged down by other people’s negativity and low morale, try thinking about the job as a fulfilling endeavor. Maybe there’s a rush you get from getting the formulas in a spreadsheet to add up right. Maybe you get some kind of high from spotting an incorrect use of a semicolon or apostrophe in a report or a piece of creative copy. The point is, if you look hard, you’ll probably find something about your current job from which you can derive satisfaction, and you can cling to it like no one else can.

“There are other people who do more”: A lot of addicts will use this defense, saying that they are not as bad as others who do more drugs, gamble more, or otherwise indulge more in the addictive habits that they are accused of submitting themselves to. They say that they’re still okay because they haven’t hit rock bottom yet. In the context of work, we can flip this by thinking about other people who have worked harder or achieved more. Compare what you have done with what others have, and see if you can match their accomplishments. On the flip side, if you respond more to negative, cynical viewpoints, maybe you can look at how much worse other people have it; maybe they have to do more work, or their tasks are more demanding, so you should consider yourself fortunate.

When Lies Don’t Work, Go with Mantras

If you don’t want to identify with addicts and their self-lies, that’s okay: there are still some thoughts you can use to get yourself through the ennui and tedium that work sometimes brings.

“Someone’s got to do it”: I have a colleague at work who describes himself as having a “Superman” complex, and I can see why. The guy basically does a lot of different tasks covering a lot of different functions. He’s basically a jack of all trades, and not a week goes by that I don’t admire his tenacity, and his determination to help the team. So that’s one thing you can tap into. Don’t do it for abstract concepts like KPIs, or distant targets like quarterly sales goals. Do it for your team.

“Work gives life meaning”: Realistically, it’s quite possible that you’re not engaged enough in your company to care much about your team. In that case, you can just try to convince yourself to ignore everything else, and just do the work for the work’s sake. No man should rely on the world to reward him unconditionally; one must channel his talents, skills, and knowledge into a worthy endeavor that adds value to the world. No matter how small your job is, believe that it contributes to society in some way, and doing the work adds more to your character than leisure or laziness ever will.

So, when you find your motivation waning, try changing your mindset. Pretend to be a workaholic, even if you’re not. Maybe you won’t believe it all the way, but then again, you won’t believe how far it can take you, either.