“The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.”-Socrates
One of the most important things that separates the human species from other types of mammals is our incredibly powerful and adaptable intellect. As young children, we all had an insatiable curiosity to know everything. (If you are a parent, then you have suffered through the at first cute, then later obnoxious “Why?” stage that your children went through right after the “terrible twos,” where the word “why?” was asked a couple dozen times a day.) You started school and for a while it was the greatest thing that ever happened to you, as your teachers had no choice but to provide answers to some of those questions that you had. But, alas, somewhere around fifth grade things got competitive, you began to learn things that you had no interest in, you began to become aware of your peers and what they thought of you. By seventh and eighth grade you became very concerned about how you looked to others, wanting to fit in and maintain a kind of cool and aloof persona, completely unaware that all of them felt exactly the same way. You slowly and subtly began to exaggerate when speaking about your abilities and possessions. It is one of the ways that most of us try to feel better about ourselves. We weren’t trying to deceive anybody and the outcome of most of these white lies were not harmful. We just wanted others to feel good about us and, as a result, feel better about ourselves.
A 2002 study conducted by Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts found that, on the average, people tell two or three lies in a typical 10 minute conversation. Subsequent studies show 90% of four-year-olds intuitively grasp the concept. Most of the subjects in the U-Mass study were in denial of their lying until confronted with videotaped evidence. Monitor your conversations for the next 24 hours notice how frequently you also exaggerate, embellish, or come up with an answer when you simply don’t have one. Also notice the number of times when “I don’t know” would have been a more appropriate answer.
My first career was as a high school history teacher. Early on in my teaching career I got some great advice from one of the many mentors that I had at that time. He told me that if a student asked a question that I didn’t know the answer to- and as a 22 year old, right out of the box teacher, this was the case more often than not- that I should answer with, “You know what, I don’t know the answer to that. I’ll find out and get back to you.” I proceeded to do this despite the fact that it went against my instincts and appeared to be counter intuitive. After all I was the teacher and wasn’t I supposed to have all the answers? I found, over time, that it was some of the best advice that a teacher, or anyone else for that matter, could follow. It never failed that the next day when I started class by answering that question for a student from the previous day that I had created an interested student who liked my history class and subject because I gave an honest answer and the student and I developed a shared interest in some obscure, sometimes irrelevant, point of curiosity.
Studies indicate that when people lie, they are usually lying about meaningless and insignificant things in an attempt to be more interesting, tell a better story, or come across as more likable. Research indicates that 86% of people lie to their parents, 75% to friends, 73% to siblings, and 69% to spouses. A study done in Great Britain show that 30% of respondents lied about having seen the classic movie The Godfather, and, if you are someone who is involved in online dating, be aware that 90% of people lie in their profiles.
Fortunately, most of the fibs alluded to thus far fall into the “white lie” category, harming no one and, in some cases, even making someone else feel better about themselves or even boosting the self-esteem of the fibber. Perhaps the most serious lies that people tell themselves are those that are never even spoken. People often engage in self deception on a variety of topics that they think they should be fully informed about and an expert in, feeling sheepishly stupid about asking others for help or advice or even admitting to themselves that “I don’t know.”
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”- Plato
Plato, Socrates and a host of other brilliant minds throughout history were considered to be thoughtful and deep thinkers because they took the time to ponder carefully over questions that were posed or presented to them. They took their time to think things through and were willing to admit when they didn’t know. Thomas Edison claims to have failed over 1000 times in the development of the light bulb, the Wright brothers, both high school dropouts, crashed two planes before their successful flight, and Albert Einstein struggled in a traditional classroom setting. The reality is that people believed to possess that intangible which we call genius struggle like the rest of us. One of the things that makes them different is they know enough to know that they don’t know and, like many things that need to change, acknowledging a behavior is the first step towards changing it.
All too often poor decision-making is a result of making a too quick decision rather than admitting that we are not aware of all we need to know to make that decision a good one. How many times have you said to yourself, “If I knew now what I knew then…”? Of course, we can not speed up the passage of time in the acquisition of knowledge, but we can perhaps slow things down a bit, admit that we don’t have the necessary information, and proceed from there. Think about how many decisions you feel pressured to make hastily because of some self imposed feeling of inadequacy or because you can’t admit to yourself that you just don’t know and don’t have all the answers. Slowing the decision-making process down and asking yourself some questions can lead you to make a better choice. Questions like:
⦁ Do I have all the information I need to make the best decision?
⦁ Is there someone or something that I should refer to for more clarity before deciding?
⦁ Have I done due diligence in as many areas as possible?
This entire process of self reflection may take a matter of moments or it may take a matter of days, depending on the kind of decision and the time frame that your answer requires. There will, however, come a time with many of life’s questions were you simply have to make a decision and stick with it. I’m not encouraging you to be a tire kicker, I am suggesting that all this probably could make better choices if we slowed the decision-making process down and admitted that we did not have all the answers. Once you have answered the questions satisfactorily, take that leap of faith, burn the boats, and take some action. Don’t look back or second-guess yourself. Very often a new choice or important decision takes some time to get used to and get comfortable with. If you’ve done your homework before you decided, then there is no reason to “woulda, coulda, or shoulda.” You made the best decision you could have with the information that you had at that time. People often surprise themselves when they push forward despite their reservations after a decision has been thoughtfully made.
But what about those white lies that many of us tell routinely? These kind of lies are essentially harmless, but it does make sense to know what our motivation is. The first step is noticing how frequently exaggerations, hyperbole, or embellishment enters into our conversations. Some questions to ask yourself are:
⦁ Who am I trying to impress with this white lie, the listener or me? If the answer is yourself, then take a good look at why you feel you are lacking in a certain area
⦁ Is there any harm to anyone else because of this white lie? If there is then the lie probably does not belong in your conversation regardless of its color.
⦁ Does this white lie make somebody else feel better about themselves, perhaps raising their self esteem? If it does, then it’s probably okay and maybe it’s even the right thing to do. It certainly is a good idea to agree with your buddy from work that you think his new girlfriend is gorgeous, or that your wife’s new hairstyle looks great, and of course that new dress doesn’t make her look fat. These are definitely times where, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you,” are not the best ways to win friends and influence people.
Knowing enough to know that you don’t know can be complicated, but can save you a lot of aggravation. Taking a little time before making significant decisions and recognizing when you exaggerate during conversations can make your life a little more stress free and even a little more interesting.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln
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