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.)

Seeing things for what they are

It’s easy to be naïve; to accept what is said to you at face value, rather than probing the ulterior motives.

It makes it easier to deal with a complex world with complex people. So we trust people we probably shouldn’t trust. We are naïve even though somewhere inside of us is a voice telling us to get our guard up.

Trust is great. Society is founded upon & maintained by trust. But it’s wrong to trust when you know somebody’s true character.

When you know somebody is untrustworthy, do you naïvely think that this one seemingly kind act reveals their true character? That all the other unkind acts were exceptions & this is the rule?

Yet one act is enough sometimes. It sows the seeds of self-doubt. It stops you in your tracks. You start to think, /“Maybe they are a kind person. Maybe their actions are actions of pure generosity. Maybe I was wrong all along…”/

They know that. They know that because untrustworthy people are not as naïve. They know what the darker side of humanity looks like & imagine deception at every turn. They imagine every person is always ready to seize on opportunity, so they seize on any opportunity themselves.

So don’t turn around one day, surprised that you have been deceived.

There is an ulterior motive. There always is with some people.

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.

 

[mc4wp_form id=”4520″]