The Lies & Stories That Determine Our Lives

Lies. Lies. Lies.

Lies are all around us.

We tell ourselves lies all the time. They form the beliefs we internalise & therefore guide our decisions & actions.

Others tell us lies. They want us to believe a certain story about their product, or about their lives.

We lie to ourselves. We get lied to.

 

This is because we need these lies, these stories we tell ourselves, to operate as a collective in a complex world. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens, without Homo Sapiens’ unique ability to form communities based around certain stories, such as religion, we would never have been successful:

“Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals. One-on-one, even ten-on-ten, we humans are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Any attempt to understand our unique role in the world by studying our brains, our bodies, or our family relations, is doomed to failure. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.

This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

 

Let’s use the example of money:

People believe that little bits of green paper are worth something. They trust them because they believe the government will guarantee them. They trust the government because they believe it has legitimate authority. If people started to stop believing in money, modern society would break down & cease to function.

Money is just a story we tell ourselves. It is a lie. It is not necessary a bad thing, but it is just important to be aware that we collectively tell ourselves a story about money that doesn’t have any inherent truth to it.

 

We Need Lies

We need these lies. Without them society wouldn’t function. I need you to believe what I tell you. You need someone to believe what you tell them. We need to believe what society tells us, or government, or our neighbour.

None of it’s true. We can never know what is really true. Every belief we have stems from our specific socio-political context.

We think slavery was barbaric. In two centuries time, they’ll think that eating meat was barbaric.

But don’t worry. You don’t need to go into a spiral of self-doubt, nor question your very existence. We have to believe something, or we can’t really operate.

 

Simplicity from Complexity

We live in an ever-more complex world. As a result, it’s become easier for us to tell ourselves bad lies.

Good lies would be those that are, to the best of our knowledge, help pursue your own, as well as society’s, interests. A good lie would be to recycle, because you want to protect the environment & feel good about it.

A bad lie are those where you are un-informed or mis-informed. Where you think you are pursuing only your own interest, or where somebody else has manipulated you into thinking something despite the facts. A bad lie would be buying an expensive cleaning product that is supported by fake scientific data, for example.

There are so many things. So many decisions. So many ridiculously complex things we need to do ever day that we simplify to cope.

We can’t read up the relative pros & cons of one shampoo, spending weeks reading into the scientific data, testing it ourselves, running peer-reviewed trials & studies, etc. We just want to buy some shampoo. Ideally in under a minute.

So we tell ourselves a bad lie. We make a snap decision based on appearance, based on first impression, on what someone said last week about it.

We follow the company’s lie: We believe the story they told us about their rigorous testing method, the fruity-ness of the ingredients, the foamy-ness of their foam.

 

The Pursuit of Better Lies

You can’t always tell yourselves good lies. But you can tell yourself better lies.

The world is complex. It’s only likely to get more so. You can’t inform yourself about everything. You can’t question everything.

But you can pursue the truth in things that matter. Maybe don’t worry about the shampoo, or the toothpaste brand.

But do worry about the big things:

Is the career path you’ve chosen based on bad lies?
What about that relationship?
The people you hang out with?
Your rampant consumerism?
That new car?

 

(Most of the lies I’ve written here come courtesy of the lies Seth Godin passed on to me in his thought-provoking book All Marketers are Liars.)

Mornings Can Make Or Break Your Day

Mornings determine how you spend your day. How you spend your day determines how you spend your life. So mornings are important.

In Tools of Titans, author Tim Ferriss interviews some of the world’s best, across a diverse range of fields. One commonality? Almost all of them follow a very strict daily routine, mostly applied to their mornings.

I won’t delve into what those habits are & how to incorporate them into your own lives. Other authors have already done a much better job than I could ever do.

Rather, I want to highlight how following – or not following – a morning routine can create a string of successful, or unsuccessful, days that can compound to lead your life in two very different directions.

One, the path of success & constant improvement. The other, a state of reactive survival mode, characterised by frustration & a lack of progress.

Follow a strict morning routine & you set yourself up for inevitable success in life.

 

“But I’m not a morning person”

What does this even mean?

We say it in such a matter-of-fact way that we rarely even stop to question it.

Does it mean you’ve had a bad morning? That you are in some way “bad” at mornings? That you tend to get up late? That you’re unproductive in the mornings?

There is some evidence to suggest genetics may play a role, affecting determining our natural circadian rhythm. However, for the vast majority, not being a “morning person” stems from bad habits.

The usual suspects:

1. Not sleeping enough: drinking a lot of alcohol before bed, staring at bright screens before bed, having your phone on loud by your bed, going to bed too late, worrying about your schedule the following day, etc.

2. Waking up late: Lack of sleep tends to mean you wake up later & you wake up tired

3. Rushing: You rush around, because you got up late, forgetting your keys, wolfing breakfast down & forgetting that report you need for work on the way out the door

4. Failure to plan & prioritise: You start work or whatever you’re meant to be doing that morning with no planning, no thought into it & a slightly muddled, bumbling approach to execution

5. Being reactive: You don’t look for tasks to do, but rather wait for tasks to be sent your way or for (apparent) crises to pop-up to immediately deal with. You put out fires rather than pro-actively building something yourself

To put this in perspective: Do you think somebody that has slept 5 hours, wakes up 10 minutes before they need to leave, rushes out the door to the metro, runs to work & arrives flustered & exhausted is going to be able to execute & prioritise effectively in the first hour or two of their morning? Are they going to describe themselves as a “morning person”?

 

Mornings are habits

A successful morning is one formed of a collection of habits. Our cognitive abilities wear out throughout the day, so many highly successful people try to put as much as possible on auto-pilot (I.E. convert an action into a habit).

By doing so, they are then able to spend their finite cognitive abilities on whatever is most important to them, whether that be prioritising for the day or creating unique content.

Rather than worrying about what they are going to have for breakfast today, for example, they just always eat the same thing. It’s just a decision they don’t need to – or want to – be making.

I’ve experimented with morning routines for a few years now. It tends to change a little every few months, but generally I try to stick to the following when in a full-time job:

  •  6am wake-up
  • Cold shower to really wake yourself up & get an endorphin hit
  • Meditation for 10 minutes using Headspace
  • No breakfast (I follow intermittent fasting), but always a coffee
  • Quick 5-10 minute journal (free-flow writing & priorities for the day)
  • Write one article to publish on Medium
  • Short break (maybe read an article or go for a quick walk)
  • 90-minute immersive block focused on my main priority for the day

Now that I’m self-employed, I tend to get up a little later & I will add another 90-minute block in the late morning on my priority tasks.

Routines like this may seem intimidating if you’re mornings are currently a mess. But it shouldn’t be. These are habits I’ve integrated over a few years. They are now automatic. I don’t even need to think about them. The only thing I need to think about is what I’m creating for my article & what my priorities for the day are. All the trivialities of my day are taken care of.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit your exact routine every day. Just aim for every day. I tend to hit mine 70% of the time.

 

Mornings are the Cornerstone to Success

I cannot stress this point enough: Follow a strict morning routine & you set yourself up

for inevitable success in life.

Society tends to promulgate the belief that success can be achieved overnight. People that are successful seem to get lucky, or suddenly just discover all of the skills & talents to make them successful. There’s no hard work involved.

This is a myth. There is always hard work involved. It just doesn’t make for exciting reading to talk about the thousands of hours put in, getting up early & sacrificing your social life to pursue your ambitions.

When, therefore, you have a goal for yourself, such as starting a business or changing career, it’s not just going to happen overnight. It’s not just suddenly going to happen in a year or two years when you snap your fingers & finally commit to that goal.

Success is built up over years.

 

It starts today by building robust systems into your day. By integrating & maintaining habits that will make the attainment of that goal inevitable.

Want to start a business? Setting aside an hour every morning to write about it will get you there at some point. It’s just a question of when.

Even if you’re only able to get 30 minutes of deep, focused work done before heading off to your 9-5 job, then that is already a successful day, regardless of what happens after.

It means that every morning you are building momentum towards whatever you want to achieve.

Because mornings determine how you spend your day. How you spend your day determines how you spend your life.

Lying Creates a Toxic Work Culture

Yesterday I realised for the first time that my manager had lied to me. Coincidentally, I had just finished listening to Sam Harris’ short book on the subject, Lying, & armed with my new approach to the subject, I decided that the lie did not sit well with me. It also had far-reaching implications.

The lie was not a clear statement that could be disproven. It was an idea calculated to deceive; an idea designed to intentionally deceive me & others where honesty was expected.

We were sold ‘the mission’, which was that we would revolutionise an industry & reduce the ecological footprint of millions through our work. This is just not the case. The case is that ‘the mission’ is to pursue lucrative funding contracts. The purpose of our work is, in essence, to unlock each stage of funding.

This deception has consequences that do not permit it to be considered in isolation. The knowledge that I have been lied to makes me also think it highly likely that I have been lied to more than once.

It suddenly brought into question everything. Every decision & interaction. If somebody can lie to you once, then what else is a lie?

 

Why honesty is important

Without honesty, trust breaks down. When trust breaks down co-operation breaks down. Without co-operation, human relationships break down. Without strong human relationships & trust, society breaks down.

It seems pretty obvious, yet we rarely adhere to honesty, despite it being in our collective interest.

When was the last time you lied? Almost definitely within the last few hours. It was probably so small & imperceptible that you didn’t even notice it.

“Sorry, I’m busy this evening.”

“Sorry, I don’t have any change for you.”

“I think I’ve got a sore throat coming, so I’m going to have to cancel.”

 

In a company, the habit of lying is toxic. It starts small, but insidiously works it’s way into every aspect of our human relationships.

If you know – or even just suspect – that somebody has lied to you, then by extension everyone is capable of lying to you.

If lying is known within your company culture, then every activity becomes suspicious; that doctor’s appointment, that day off you took when you were ill, that afternoon you worked from home.

Mistrust does not tend to manifest itself overtly. It is, however, very much implicit in many practices you may find in your workplace. Some examples from my current company:

  • Refusal to allow employees to work remotely
  • Adherence to set working hours (you may have ‘flexible working hours’, as we do, but culturally this is essentially false & it is implicitly signalled by management that the expectation is to work from 9.30am-7pm)
  • A scepticism towards new initiatives from employees
  • A need to always be online on our communication channel, Slack

 

In your personal relationships, it is also toxic. If you lie to somebody successfully, Sam Harris suggests show you will then trust them less. If a friend hears you lying to somebody else, they will expect the same.

By lying you are not only bringing into question the trust of those closest to you, but in many cases you are preventing yourself & those you lie to from confronting a difficult truth.

If, for example, I say that I am busy to avoid hanging out with someone, the only moral option is to tell them why I am avoiding them. This is a difficult conversation to have. However, it may lead both of you to address whatever issue you might have had with them, rather than leaving them left in the dark & confused by your excuses.

 

But what about…

The knock-on effect of lying can be drastic, as Sam Harris convincingly argues. Therefore each small lie must be considered within a broader context. It must be understood that lying ‘just that once’ can have drastic consequences for your own personal relationships & for society as a whole.

I now see it as inexcusable in the vast majority of cases & struggle when attempting to justify such behaviour.

I don’t like this behaviour in myself & think that my excuses are almost always borne from a desire to avoid confronting a difficult conversation or a difficult reality.

I do not expect my lying to stop completely & to live a life of saintly virtue, however.

I’m just trying to be more aware of it & to justify it more consciously. Lying for most is such an ingrained habit that it is not something you can change overnight.

 

My biggest lie

Ironically, despite my changed beliefs on lying, I have consistently lied for over 2 months & still see it as justifiable in this case, on the grounds that I would likely lose my job for being honest (which says something in itself about our work culture).

I decided to quit my job 2 months ago & will be resigning in a month’s time. I think many people at the company must suspect something is up.

I am clearly not happy, I am clearly apathetic towards whatever task I am given & am trying to avoid any extra work so I don’t need to stay late.

My boss, who I would also consider a friend, pulled me over last week & asked if everything was OK.

“Oh yeah, everything is fine. I was just a bit ill last week, so not feeling myself.”

 

This was very slightly true (I had been ill for a few days), but was a poorly veiled attempt to justify 3-4 weeks of unusual behaviour. In essence, it was a lie.

Theoretically, I could have said the following:

“No, everything is not fine. I hate my job. I am depressed most of the week. I am waking up at 6am to spend 3 hours working on a new business plan so I can get out of this place. I will resign as soon as it’s financially viable.”

 

This would make sense if I thought there was something I could change at the company, but it’s too far gone. It has just become a case of making sure I am not fired before I have saved up enough & prepared my new business enough to be ready to leave.

I justify lying on the pretext that I am protecting my job &, more importantly, that I will be 100% truthful once I’ve handed in my resignation. My short-term lies, which do not sit well with me, will be absolved by my future honesty.

 

Takeaway

So next time you lie, stop yourself & think: What are the implications of this lie now? In the future? For my future relationships? For the person I am lying to? For my company culture? For myself?

I hope that, as I have found, you find it pretty hard to justify.

 

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The Mission Fallacy in Start-ups

The last few weeks feel on a similar plain to the Matrix’s blue/red pill scene. The big difference, however, is rather than me consciously making a decision to ‘wake up’, someone slipped the blue pill into my drunk at a bar last night.

I have always been a strong believer that startups make a positive impact on the world. A company like Airbnb, for example, brings people from different continents together who probably would never have met. I have hosted myself, & found the experience richly rewarding.

However, I now realise that many are a farce.

The majority of companies – including my current one – insist on using the word ‘family’ to describe the relationship between employee & employer. This is a complete façade.

It is not in the interest of the company to even have a ‘family’. Better to automate as much as possible & avoid hiring until absolutely necessary. What business wants to deal with paying individuals & having to fuss over creating a pleasant working environment? It’s a drain on resources.

As soon as those in the ‘family’ are no longer required, any manager would not hesitate to fire that individual. What’s their purpose? They are wasting the company’s time & money. Send them packing with a P45 & the cute picture of their dog that sits on their desk. Get them to leave the company laptop on the way out.

Is that how a normal ‘family’ works?

“Hey, son. So… we’ve just had a new baby… I’m not sure we’ll really be needing you anymore. Close the door on the way out, will you?”

Yet who in the startup world questions this absurdity? Its usage is completely antithetical to the definition of the word &, quite frankly, an affront to our collective intelligence.

I’ll tell you what though, thanks to whoever spiked my drink with the blue pill, as I am no longer singing along with the choir.

I’m pretty sure we are not a family

I work in a smart home company. It has raised a load of investment & has high hopes. We are, as you might have guessed, a ‘family’. (If it were a sketch show, then I’d be seen as the sort of renegade, drunk, verbally abusive uncle).

Our mission, purportedly, is to save household’s up to 30% on their energy. That’s cool, right? That’s actually a big impact on the environment if it comes to dominate the European market?

However, our CEO clearly does not give a shit about that.

It is – & seemingly always was – an ego project in the pursuit of wealth & social status. The glories of our ‘family’ would be borne by our benevolent, omniscient leader. We, the faithful, were always doomed to bask in his glory.

Yet many at the company still fawn over – & aspire to – something that is clearly a myth.

How did I accept this opiate so unquestioningly? I consider myself fairly self-aware, yet I spent 3 months walking through a haze. I accepted unquestioningly the direction we as a company were headed & never voiced my concerns or opinions.

Looking back, it is clear that I didn’t voice anything because I didn’t care. Some part of me had already realised the paucity of purpose in my work. Some part of me had already realised that there was no point, because following someone with ego means accepting that they will always be right & that any attempt at persuasion is futile.

So, in this context, you understand why it pissed me off to core when our CEO said we were ‘a family’. I don’t think we could further from that.

What, I wonder, could ever merit using the word? Any attempt we seem to make to follow its definition are an affront. Throwing a few limes in the fridge, a litre of gin on the table & labelling it a ‘social, family event’ is being disingenuous. A weekly social drinking event is hardly an authentic attempt to create the strong, deep social bonds between those you work with.

It’s putting a Band-Aid over much deeper issues, such as the clear, almost tangible conflicts throughout the office & a general air of unhappiness & stress.

Waking Up

If you find yourself nodding along with what I have said above, then hopefully you as well are ready to take action.

Since my awakening a month ago, I have focused relentlessly on creating an alternative path for myself, by building a new business.

This started by starting every day with a question ::(see full article)::.

Every morning, create a note (whether on Notes, Evernote or Bear with the question, ‘What is the most important thing I can do today?

Spend 2 minutes thinking of the one thing that will get you closer to your goals and write down a short, concise answer. This can literally be one or two words – or even a paragraph if you want to clarify why it is important to do. Some examples from my journal: ‘Write blog post’, ’30 minutes learning to programme’ or ‘Be more present with friends later’.

There is also absolutely no way to excuse not doing this. You can write the note on your phone whilst commuting, it takes under 2 minutes & is not mentally demanding. By just stopping for a moment each day, you’ll find much greater mental clarity, however, and you will start a habit which you can build up towards a fully developed journaling habit in future.

By making a small step every morning, you are taking action towards changing your circumstances. These small steps start compounding & will help you too escape your 9-5 ‘family’.

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