Honesty

I just read Sam Harris’ Lying, the neuroscientist and philosopher’s 100 page testament to honesty and truthfulness. It reaffirmed my own beliefs and opened my eyes to the wasted time that lying imparts on us all.

My first experience with the benefits of honesty came after an internship interview in college, my first interview with a Wall Street bank. I was confident walking to that discussion with two finance bros. I had the brains and the brawn. However, a few tricky finance questions left me doubting my own knowledge and I was quickly scrambling. Without a deep, confident understanding, I worked to figure out what they wanted to hear. That game produced answers I couldn’t stand behind. It wasn’t honest, it wasn’t what I believed. When there were openings to chat about hobbies and sports, I was too concerned with the game to recognize them. Rather than capitalizing, I had been broken and couldn’t recover.

A few weeks later, I had managed to score one second round interview and studied like my life depended on it. While I wasn’t asked more than a few technical questions, my confidence enabled me to relax and be in the moment. Saying I didn’t know wasn’t an issue, it became a strength because I was a part of the conversation, not defending myself.

I’m certainly a strong proponent of practice and preparation, habits fostered from an internal honesty. The only way to aggressively prepare is by confronting the situation. Had I told myself the initial interviewers were out of their mind for laughing at me, I wouldn’t have hit the books in the week following, or years following for that matter. Honestly, I couldn’t walk into the interview cold.

To really pass the sniff test though, I like to judge ideas against the people I admire. More often than not, these people seem to ask the best questions of anyone I know. It’s a topic that needs it’s own essay. I’m always impressed when someone just won’t stop questioning, not to point out flaws and poke holes, but out of pure curiosity. That moment when you tell someone about a trip or a job and they just can’t help themselves, needing to know more. Never pretending to understand. I do my best to replicate the behavior and a few other secrets have become clear. Specifically, in the pursuit of good questions, you’re forced to be attentive. This soon leads you to notice curious situations and listen more carefully. The old adage that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason doesn’t highlight the point enough. The best questions come from the best listeners because that’s how they know what to ask.

As anyone who’s been stressed, worried, or preoccupied knows, real listening requires one’s full attention. This is the biggest defense of honesty. Without being completely open there’s suddenly an agenda in every conversation and interaction. Rather than living in the current moment and situation, dishonesty leads to a focus on the past and the future. Constant maintenance. How could one ever expect to fully engage with a second story to manage?

Much of the difficulty people have listening comes both from a preoccupation with other thoughts and a general distrust. Dishonest people have trouble trusting. Knowing they don’t express their own true feelings all the time, toward restaurant choices or activity preferences, they believe I don’t express mine. These games are played regularly and lead to very few win-win situations. Often, they’re the only way to a lose-lose. Rather than saying we won’t be able to make it to the party, pregame, or golf round, especially when it means sacrificing a precious weekend morning, some form of dishonesty enters the picture. “I’ll let you know”. Why waste everyone’s time? Such procrastinations can be useful when the choice is actually unclear, but when it’s simply to avoid decision making, no one benefits.

I’m not 100% honest and it’s difficult for anyone to be. Relationships, hard to reach goals, and raising children seem to encourage some level of dishonesty. But after putting aside work to vacation or blowing off my detox period to have drinks with a friend, I’m honest about the choices I’ve made. It hurts to know I’ve let myself down, but that is how decision making improves. There are too many good ideas to discuss, too many problems to dissect, too many facts to learn. I only have time for the truth.