All progress starts with telling the truth
I was sitting on a chair in a senior partner’s office. It was my first week as a bona fide lawyer at a big firm. I was dressed to impress. I had my yellow pad ready. I was prepared to practice law.
I listened as the partner explained a huge project. I wanted to be a part of it. It seemed interesting and challenging, and I was excited to help. After what seemed like entirely way too long, the partner stopped, looked me directly in the eye and asked me a question. He stopped talking and waited. A long silence ensued.
I didn’t know the answer to his question. Do I give an answer, and hope that it’s right? Do I pretend to know the answer? Do I start talking and not stop, hoping to eventually wind up in the right place? Do I make up an answer? It was my first week. I wanted to make a good impression. No — I wanted to make a great impression. But there was only one correct answer.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Then, the partner said, “That’s exactly what I need you figure out. Can you get me an answer by Monday?”
I left his office, and walked briskly down the hall. The burden of weighing my options was gone. That’s when I learned the lesson. The cardinal sin was to tell a senior attorney the wrong answer. It was always okay to say “I don’t know,” as long as you can eventually find the answer.
Saying “I don’t know” is so much better than saying “I know” when you really don’t. It’s not ignorance that hurts us the most — it’s arrogance. A lack of knowledge is better than believing a lie. But it’s embarrassing to not know the answer. It’s humbling. And often, it’s easier to believe a lie than to claim ignorance.
Sometimes, we believe a lie because it’s convenient. Other times, we might believe a lie because we desperately want it to be true. There are some lies that sound enticing. They make sense. They seem so logical. Deep down, we believe the lies because we believe that is how the world should work.
Mark Twain is attributed with saying that it’s not what we don’t know that hurts us the most — it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
Here’s a list of seven lies that pop into my mind often — lies that I desperately want to believe. As Dan Sullivan says , “all progress starts with telling the truth.” Progress, for me, starts with telling the truth about these seven lies.
1. I’m Right
All of my problems start with this thought: “I’m right.”
They only disappear when I ask myself, “What if I’m not?”
Sometimes we’re blind — either completely or partly. It is easy to judge and complain about the faults of other people. It is hard to look inward and discover our own errors.
Often, our belief that we’re right blinds us from reality. We need to remove the barriers to the truth in order to see.
Even though I desperately want to believe that “I’m right,” often it is a lie.
2. It’s Okay to Have an Opinion Without All of the Information
Years ago, I had a conversation with a family member. This person was telling me about a situation — how bad it was and how the people involved were doing a horrible job making decisions.
I listened for a while, then asked: “Do you even know them? Do you have all of the information? Do you know what they knew when they made the decisions?”
He answered reluctantly, “No, I don’t.”
I then asked him, “So how do you know whether they made a bad decision? You don’t even know all of the information. You only know what has been shared with you, which isn’t much.”
I thought it was a rational question. How could someone have such a strong opinion without gathering all of the facts?
He didn’t budge. He still thought that his opinion was right. But what good is an opinion based on half of the facts, or none of them? Can an opinion be formed with half of the truth ever be right?
The conversation was enlightening for me. How many times have I stated an opinion without having all of the information?
Often, I desperately want to have an opinion. I want to take a side. I want to be right and be on the right side. I don’t want to look or sound stupid. But if I don’t gather information first, I cannot have an informed opinion, and I certainly can’t have the right one.
Even though I desperately want to believe that my opinion is justified, often it’s better to say, “I don’t know.”
3. Let’s Talk About It
I used to think that any problem could be solved by putting two people in a room and letting them talk about how to solve the problem.
Then, I started learning about deep-seated disputes.
And I started paying attention to politics.
And I got married.
And I started working.
And I started representing clients in disputes.
I was wrong.
A discussion can make problems worse. Sometimes, problems can be solved by a discussion. Sometimes, they can’t. I wish we could solve every problem by talking about the problem. But it’s just not true. We need something else first. We need to have the same foundation: the same facts, the same perspective, and the same level of respect.
We can never find the truth using false assumptions. We can never resolve a dispute without first agreeing on the facts.
Often, we need more than a discussion. Even though I desperately want to believe that “let’s talk about it” is a great solution, we have to do the much harder work first: develop the same foundation.
4. I Don’t Need Help
“I don’t need help. I want to do it myself.”
I’ve heard my kids say this way too many times. Sometimes they’re right. Most often, they’re not. There’s value in being independent, and in being capable and self-sufficient. I often want to believe that I don’t need other people — especially when other people let me down or don’t perform how I expect.
I have the same thought as my own children: I don’t need help. I can do it myself. I wish that were true. I could have avoided so much pain. I want to believe that I don’t need help. It’s a lie, though.
My own pride makes me believe the lie. There are some positive aspects to pride. It can push us farther. It can motivate us. But it’s also dangerous. It’s intoxicating, and it can hide when we are wrong. Even the hardest worker can be outworked by a team of people. No one knows enough to know everything. Even the person with the best vision can’t see everything.
We will never go farther alone than together. I’ve found that the more I want to accomplish, the more I need the help of other people. I desperately want to believe that I don’t need other people to help me. But it’s just not true.
5. More Knowledge Is Always Better
Many have an insatiable hunger for information. We seek more knowledge because we want to understand more. But sometimes more knowledge is not the answer.
I recently watched a movie about a family who went to places like Burma, Iraq, and Syria to document atrocities and provide medical relief. The family didn’t fight. They served the people. I was inspired. The family was focused on serving people. I realized my own desire to keep learning had distracted me from applying what I’ve learned. More importantly, the hunger to learn new information has distracted me from using what I already know to serve others.
More information or knowledge doesn’t always make life better. Leaders make life better — not people in positions of leadership, but people who serve others without regard to position. Situations improve when someone is willing to serve. Just adding information to the mix doesn’t necessarily cause change.
I could read and study for the rest of my life, but still never have the experiences that the family had serving in Burma. The family decided to serve others because of what they believed and had learned.
At some point, we need to use the information that we gather. I desperately want to believe that more information will make life better, but it’s just not true. People who serve others make life better.
6. Preparation Is Always Productive
In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is speaking with Henri Ducard. Ducard tells Bruce that his parents’ death was not his fault — it was Bruce’s fathers’ fault. His father had failed to act to prevent the murder.
Bruce refuses to accept that his father had blame. He responds by saying that the murderer had a gun.
Ducard replies, “Would that stop you?”
Bruce pushes back, “I’ve had training.”
“Training is nothing. The will is everything… The will to act.”
Some people solve problems by acting first and asking questions later. They live by the mantra: fire, aim, ready. Others understand that preparation and planning can prevent pain and heartbreak. Preparation, though, is not always productive. Sometimes it distracts us from performing. We need more than preparation — we need the will to act.
I desperately want to believe that training and preparation is always productive, but often I need to realize that action and will are the next, best steps.
7. I Can’t Help Everybody So I Don’t Need to Help Anybody
My heart breaks nearly every day. I hear about causes that are just, wrongs that need to be righted, and people who are hurting. Life is hard. Sadly, though, we can’t help everybody. We are limited, by time, energy, and money.
I can’t help everyone, so I don’t need to help anyone right now.
I have this thought often. However, my friend Jerome taught me that thought is a lie. You can always help. There is always a path to do something.
Do for one person what you wish you could do for all people.
It’s a start. It does make a difference. It’s not enough to identify the people who need help. We need to actually help. The best way to start is to start with one person who needs help.
Progress Starts with the Truth
Even though I desperately want to believe these thoughts, they are often lies:
- I’m right.
- It’s okay to have an opinion without all of the information.
- Let’s talk about it is the best way to solve a problem.
- I don’t need help.
- More knowledge is always better.
- Preparation is always productive.
- I can’t help everybody so I don’t need to help anybody.
The most damaging lies are the ones we tell ourselves. The fight against self-deception starts with telling the truth.