I didn’t realize how often I lied until I stopped lying completely.
It wasn’t an intentional decision. Two summers ago I did my first ten-day silent meditation retreat, and we were required to sign five vows to join the program, including a vow of honesty. I didn’t know this until I arrived. But when you’re about to begin ten days in silence, signing your name on a vow not to lie does not feel like a bold step. At the end of the retreat, however, we were told the vows, which also include no killing and no stealing, now apply to the rest of our lives.
I’ve always been a literal person, often to a fault. I have the opposite curse of a flaky person – if I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it, even if it no longer serves my interests. Having learned that I just agreed not to lie for the rest of my life, I decided to give it a try.
I wanted to see how my life would change if I lived without lying on matters both small and large.
It’s important to note that this was not a vow of radical honesty, which has you speaking everything that’s on your mind. This was a simple vow promising that whatever you do say is true. There’s no exception for white lies or lies to comfort someone. The only exception I allowed was to protect someone. I would, without doubt, lie to save another person’s life or my own. There would be no other excuses.
Before this vow, I think it’s fair to say I was pretty honest. I don’t excessively embellish, I never lied to my investors (really), and I don’t generally lie about anything important to friends or loved ones.
But under this new vow, I was shocked at how often I lied to people about little things, unimportant items that I easily could have been truthful about. It’s almost like I had a reflex to lie only about things I had no reason to lie about. Stamping this out was primarily logistical, like learning a new language. It wasn’t ethically challenging but more like focusing on conjugating verbs properly in Italian or French.
A typical lie I would say, almost unconsciously, would would be an explanation for why I was late. I might blame the subway when my ride was smooth, and it was my fault for leaving late. At a restaurant I might say I was allergic to fish, when I simply don’t like seafood. I might say I had been to London 30 times when the reality was more like 20. I have no idea why I did this. It was a bad habit but not insidious. I knew I could fix it.
The first step towards living without lies is complete honesty with yourself.
You absolutely must know when you’re lying and when you’re not. Small lies are still lies, which I had to accept to reach my goal of no lying at all.
I started by being mindful of my lies. This was shocking and humbling but also quite interesting. I had no idea how many lies I said during a typical day. I began taking note. And each day, for weeks, the lies would abate. I stopped lying about why I was late. I stopped lying about my experiences. Within two months, I was barely lying at all.
Surprisingly, this wasn’t too hard. I actually began to enjoy it. If you can’t lie about why you’re late, and then you’re late, you have to say something most people have never heard. I would say, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I didn’t manage my time properly, and I left late to meet you. I apologize, and I’ll try not to do it again.” People can’t quite believe it. As I gained confidence in my lack of lying, I found myself shortening the explanation. “I’m sorry I’m late. It’s my fault.” No one ever asked why.
There was, however, one class of lies that was challenging. It didn’t come up often, but when it did, it was brutal. I host a lot of events, and many of them are private. I host dinner parties and salons and group meditations for entrepreneurs and friends. A good friend once asked why he wasn’t invited to a dinner party I was hosting, and for this, I had to pause. If I weren’t under the vow, I would have come up with a host of reasons. Under the vow, I struggled to produce an answer that wouldn’t jeopardize the friendship.
I didn’t do well. At first, under time pressure, I said that I didn’t think he was a good match for the rest of the group. It was ugly. I had clearly optimized for truth over his feelings. I learned a year later that he almost ended the friendship.
But over time, I got better with the truth. I became accustomed to very simply and clearly explaining reasons for things.
There was, however, one class of lies that was challenging. It didn’t come up often, but when it did, it was brutal.
Two years later, my friend brought up the dinner party and asked for the real reason he wasn’t invited. Now I could explain, calmly, the reason. The reality was that it was almost exclusively a dinner for friends who are entrepreneurs. I was excited for founders to share their stories and experiences with each other. I explained to my friend, who works in finance, that I also invited a woman artist friend as a potential romantic interest for one of the founders, but that everyone else was part of the start-up world. It sounds like a convoluted explanation, but it was true. And he said it made sense. We’re closer than ever.
Speaking the truth sounds like a simple step, but I believe it has a profound effect on your life. Day to day, it makes conversations more relaxing. You have no choice but to speak honestly, so you become increasingly happy to do so.
And the reality of doing this is that it changes you internally as well. It’s tough to put into words except to say that you feel more pure. You start to like yourself more. You are effectively telling yourself that your actions are motivated by good values. Therefore, you can always speak to them, and explain them, with honesty. In many ways it is an act of self-love, and it becomes a moral barometer that affects other actions, too. Subconsciously, it holds you to your values.
You are effectively telling yourself that your actions are motivated by good values.
Another strong effect of honesty is that you become very conscious of other people lying to you. I’m a dangerous friend, because I will probably know when you’re being untruthful. I can’t explain how I know, but it’s almost tangible, and I find myself increasingly choosing to surround myself with people who don’t lie, even to be kind. It’s simpler to interact with friends and loved ones if you both have the confidence to state your honest opinion and then negotiate from there. It makes conversations and disagreements much easier and less tense. There’s no hidden agenda.
I love it. I think it’s all gain and no loss. Just don’t ask me if you look fat in something, because I’ll tell you. And if I ask, I want to know. Why go out in something you don’t look your best in? I’d rather know the truth.