It doesn’t always pay to be good.
There are huge stretches of human history where the only way to win has been to lie, cheat, and steal.
Luckily for those of us who suck at being bad, goodness is paying off.
It doesn’t always feel this way. We see people getting ahead by doing bad every day. Sometimes it’s in the news. Sometimes it’s in the office.
So, honestly, honesty doesn’t win in every situation or domain. And not every type of honesty wins either.
Nobody wants to lie. It just seems to be the only option sometimes. Especially when we’re feeling weak or scared.
But honesty is quickly becoming the best option in the most interesting and profitable areas in life and the economy.
Early on, all my chips were on honesty. It wasn’t a choice. It was a struggle though.
Common wisdom says that you should be honest to be a good person despite the general understanding that getting ahead sometimes requires lies and thus giving up your good-person status.
This assumption that you have to lie to be successful is not just poison for society but also ineffective in the long-term.
The lifetime of a lie is shrinking and the compounding effect of honesty is increasing. We’ll get into the mechanics of this later.
My goal is to prove to you that honesty is the best policy. Not just for being a good human, but to get ahead in business and life.
The remainder of this post will be broken down as follows:
- Honest Stories. I will tell you three personal stories to demonstrate how honesty plays out in relationships, networking, and business. These stories will help frame the rest of the post, especially the business story.
- What Honesty Is & Isn’t. This section will help us understand and define honesty in a way that is useful and powerful. A lot of people are confused about what is honest and dishonest behavior and so fail to be functionally honest. (Hint: Having no filter isn’t honesty.)
- Dangers of Honesty. We’ll look at some of the main ways people get scared off from being honest, and why most of the fear of these possible outcomes are unwarranted.
- Benefits of Honesty. Some of the most important reasons to be honest.
Time to tell some truth…
A long time ago I was in Vegas and drunk. I was drinking, but most of the intoxication was Vegas. There was also a girl.
I couldn’t man up and text her. She was older and a soap queen. People stopped her for autographs. Intimidating!
So a friend took the phone and did it for me. It was fun, lighthearted. The phone was passed to the next person, then again. Nobody crossed the line into rudeness. I thought the texts were absurd enough that she would know they were a joke.
She responded… positively.
We dated for a while. It was fun, lighthearted.
Then I told her about how our relationship started with a bunch of texts that weren’t from me.
She didn’t mind, “Yeah, I kind of thought that.”
We dated a couple more months. It was fun, lighthearted. No depth.
The relationship couldn’t overcome its initial lie.
For contrast, the first girl who saw me cry – maybe the most honest thing I could do – was the first girl I fell in love with.
A couple years ago I lied about why I was late to a meeting at a coffee shop. I forget what I said, but I needed this person to like me. He was one of those people that opened doors.
I told my lie and went to go get coffee (dark, black). While in line for coffee, I began to get nauseous. I thought I was nervous at first, but it wasn’t that kind of twist in the stomach. Then I understood.
I walked out of line and straight to the man who I wanted to like me. Our first interaction was a lie, our second would be a confession. This was going to suck.
“I’m sorry, I lied. I was actually late because…”
He laughed a little and told me to go get my coffee. The next month, he had me working with an Oscar winner. The month after that, he told me that my confession made him trust me fully.
In the last week, honesty has been worth probably more than $100,000 to StartupBros.
Let me explain how honesty has compounded to make this happen. We’ll start with the 3rd level and work our way to the 1st level. To help understand, imagine a snowball rolling down a hill. The outer layer is the 3rd level of honesty, and the core is the 1st level of honesty.
We’ll start with the 3rd Level of Honesty.
We are working with a select group of business partners to help expand and sell our flagship coaching program (The Importing Empire Jumpstart Group). These are powerful people who are constantly being sent requests.
The only reason they listen to me?
“You sound honest,” every one of them is surprised as they say it.
I’ve heard this in nearly every phone call. Like it’s this strange thing to be honest. Sometimes the trust is so deep they agree to partner without even looking at the program. (This is the 3rd level of honesty in action.)
Most want to see what they’re going to be promoting, though.
I show them the inside of the program, even allowing them to explore the inside themselves. This isn’t common practice, but transparency is important to us.
Literally every single person who had doubts about our program before seeing it has come back to us ecstatic.
“You guys are ACTUALLY making this happen for people. This isn’t crap with a bunch of marketing around it.”
By being honest with our clients and creating the best possible program for them, we are now able to proudly show it to others who might promote it for us. When they look inside the program, they see extensive curriculum, useful resources, guest experts, people talking through their problems, and people sharing the successes they’ve had because of the program.
This is the 2nd level of honesty in action. If we weren’t doing our absolute best by our clients, then our transparency would actually work against us.
Now, we wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to honestly create that level of a coaching program if people didn’t want us coaching them in the first place.
We’re now at the core level of honesty. This is the 1st level, the place where you jump off the cliff and hope people catch you.
Early on at StartupBros we decided to do something different from what others were doing. We decided that we would give away everything. We thought if we provided an overwhelming amount of value for free, we’d eventually win in the end.
This abundance mindset allows us to be more generous with information than most. That’s why you get “how-to” information here that other people charge a ton of money for.
Will wrote about everything he’d do if he were to start an importing business from scratch. It was the first time anyone gave away details like that for free.
This generosity got us the number one Google search result for “importing from China” and similar search terms. People started flowing in, taking in all the information… and demanding to pay.
And so the Importing Empire Jumpstart Group was born.
To launch that program, Will put together a webinar packed with information. It, like the blog post, has everything someone needs in order to get going with building an importing company.
If you’ve ever been to a webinar, you know that the presenter usually spends an hour or two pretending to educate you while actually just teasing you in hopes that you’ll be frustrated enough to buy the damn thing. We hate that.
People responded like crazy. Every time we hold the webinar people tell us it’s the best one they’ve been to. They’re overwhelmed by the value provided. Some people come to every single one.
It feels good to provide that kind of value, but it really feels good when generosity pays. An extremely high percentage of people who see the free live webinar join us for our paid program. And, like you saw above, we make sure they don’t regret the decision.
This is the 1st level of honesty in action. Being honest before you know it will work. Doing the right thing even though you’re not sure it will put you ahead.
If we weren’t honest before people became our clients we may sold them on making a million dollars in their first month or something ridiculous. They may have joined but immediately demanded refunds. If we weren’t honest with our clients, they wouldn’t have any success. If they didn’t have any success then they wouldn’t want to stay with us, they’d spread negative things about us, and we wouldn’t have anything promising to show potential business partners.
These stories only touch on a couple aspects of the power of honesty. The rest of this post will be dedicated to the nuts and bolts.
What Honesty Is & Isn’t
Picasso realized that, “Art is the lie that enables us to tell the truth.”
A lot of people fall into bad business practices because they have a warped sense of what honesty is. For many people, it’s dishonest to make a profit at all.
It’s important that you have a solid understanding of what honesty is and what it is not in order to confidently build your business.
Honesty isn’t pretending you don’t have a great product to sell. It is selling the dream—as long as you can deliver.
Let’s take a closer look.
What Honesty Is Not
First we’ll focus on
1. Divulging everything.
Honesty has nothing to do with telling everything to everybody.
When two football teams go on the field, they don’t know what the other person will do. They’ve entered the field with an understanding that there will be secrets.
Apple isn’t going to tell you everything they’re testing out in their R&D department. No company would! The only reason to invest in R&D is to gain a technological advantage over your competitors. Microsoft doesn’t complain that this holding of secrets is dishonest.
In the same way, you don’t owe anyone else complete access to you. Not telling everything does not make you dishonest.
2. Withholding information to mislead. If you withhold information from a person when you’ve made them believe you haven’t withheld that information, you’re being dishonest.
Again, a football coach is withholding information from the other team. A lawyer will withhold information and try to lure the defendant into a trap with it. In a business negotiation, there is a certain type of information that everybody understands doesn’t go on the table.
These are instances of people misleading others while remaining honest. The other side doesn’t expect to be lead in the right direction.
3. Facts. This is what we mean when we talk about “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Facts, on their own, aren’t honesty. Just because all the facts are right, doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. You can organize data to say whatever you want. You can take words out of context.
Let’s say a CEO wants to boost his company’s valuation. He’ll have the PR department focus on spreading the word of a couple promising projects from the R&D department. Maybe using a couple experiments’ data to make some crazy claims about solar power and how this will be the only company truly able to harness its energy.
Meanwhile, the company really has no promising research, and it’s in the red. They’re desperate.
First, the price spikes dramatically due to the twisted facts. Second, the CEO sells a nice chunk of shares. Third, the company declares bankruptcy.
4. Cynicism/Pessimism. There was some study that claimed depressed people have a more clear understanding of how the world is. This could be true, but optimists are able believe in a more interesting future—and thus able to actually create change.
It feels more honest to be down on our own lives. To downplay what we’ve accomplished.
The hopeful person might be seen to have their heads in the sky. The pessimist, feet firmly planted.
Someone who says, “I think I can create this,” risks not being able to deliver. This opens them up to be seen as, among other things, a liar. Even if they didn’t guarantee anything, the audacity in wanting to create something sets them up to be called a liar.
5. Being perceived as honest. As we just saw, being honest and being perceived as being honest are two very different things. This is obvious to say, being able to actually tell the difference isn’t so easy.
6. Pretending you’re weak. There’s that famous line, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
I’m fairly certain that, whatever we do in life, we’ll figure out a way to measure a good chunk of it. (Maybe not the love part though.) Still, we hold back.
Why do we hold back? One reason: we think it’s more honest.
Honesty is more about effort than achievement or getting it right. It’s more about trying than hitting the mark.
7. Certainty or Explaining yourself. Having an opinion on something that is not 100% certain is not dishonesty.
Trying really hard to do something means pushing into areas where you can’t make promises. You don’t understand the situation enough to explain anything with real certainty.
It’s not dishonest to not know something.
Nassim Taleb’s general principle of antifragility is this: “[I]t is much better to do something you cannot explain than explain something you cannot do.”
If you fail and can explain yourself, we still don’t know for sure that you honestly tried.
In one case, we nod our heads, feign a smile, and never give you another chance again. In the other, we trust you and give you another chance.
8. (A wrap-up.) An eight is an infinity sign on its side, right? There are infinite other ways in which we confuse honesty. I’ll leave these to you.
Two important things to notice about these points:
What Honesty Is
You’ll notice that there is more to say about what honesty isn’t than what it is. This is because honesty is fluid. If you are able to get rid of the common things it’s mistaken for, you’ll go a long way in understanding the thing itself.
1. Revealing rough edges. Honesty includes “this isn’t for you”. It helps give a full view of the thing. It filters some buyers out.
At the personal level, this means being okay with, “I may not be for you.”
2. Selling the dream. If you can deliver it, and then some. A $500 bottle of wine isn’t 10x better than a $50 by most measurements. The experience of enjoying a $500 bottle of wine might be.
Cristal feels like more of a celebration than Korbel. That feeling is the dream: the fantasy becomes reality.
There are studies that show good news can make people with certain sicknesses have a better chance at healing. Is a doctor more honest for being factual or for giving his patient the best chance possible?
I don’t know, but I’d take the story and let my family deal with the facts.
3. A posture. An honest posture means that people can trust you to have their best in mind. It’s honesty based in actions, not facts. Like we saw above, facts are often dishonest. There are people who tell stories that have nothing to do with the real world and yet, we wouldn’t call them liars.
Tim Kreider says this about his friend Skelly: “It would never have occurred to any of Skelly’s friends to call him a liar. Despite his incidental falsehoods, he was a fundamentally genuine person. As his fellow fabulist Blanche DeBois once protested, “I never lied in my heart.” He was authentic, decent, and kindhearted.”
4. Playing by the rules or not. We talked about football earlier: it’s honest to make secret plans, they’re part of the agreed-on rules. One of those agreed-on rules is using a ball, not a deflated one you sneak in, that’s dishonest.
(By the way, this is the most I’ve ever talked about sports in any context before. I have no idea what’s going on.)
There is always an agreed-on set of rules. Honesty is playing within them.
This doesn’t mean putting yourself at a disadvantage. Arnold Schwarzenegger has used psychological warfare to beat opponents in bodybuilding, politics, and business. He sent his political rival a metallic set of bull balls once, a symbolic way of saying, “Grow a pair.”
Schwarzenegger is open about these types of games, so he carries a certain type of authenticity. He is honest about his trickery.
Is this honesty? I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t feel dishonest.
David certainly wasn’t following the rules when he used a sling against Goliath. Nobody calls David dishonest though. He just did what he had to do.
5. Respect of your own experience. This is the counter to the dishonest cynicism we talked about above. If you’re honest with yourself, your life is just as interesting as any other.
We each spend all day fascinated with the problems and situations in our own lives. There is, by definition, nothing more interesting to us.
Yet we pretend that some celebrity or expert is the one truly living correctly. They get it. If only we could make our lives look a little more like theirs.
Your life is the most fascinating thing you’ll ever do.
When you’re building your business, you should admit to yourself that it’s the most fascinating thing in the world.
It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the thing you are doing. Put all your interest into it.
Don’t humbly lie to those around you that it’s boring or that they wouldn’t be interested in it. This will destroy your business—who wants to invest in something the founder isn’t interested in? Who wants to buy something made by someone who doesn’t care?
If you’re being honest, you’re a little narcissistic. This isn’t bad. Nobody wants to take a picture of you as bad as you want to take a selfie. Nobody wants to build your business but you. You, you , you.
6. Tact. Honesty often comes in navigating tense situations to a better spot.
Sometimes that means keeping some information off the table.
Sometimes that means using a tone that isn’t emotionally “true.”
Tact is important.
5 Dangers of Honesty
It’s time to look at some of the dangers of being honest. These are the things that scare us into lies. After looking at what honest is and is not about, you should already see these in a less “dangerous” light.
1. People will reject you. I’m sure some will. Yet there is nobody in history who has been universally rejected for their opinion.
Not a single one. Hitler, Stalin, and Charles Manson all had terrible, despicable opinions about how to lead lives, yet they found plenty of people to agree with them.
Of course that’s not the rejection you fear. It’s being disowned from your religious family for being an atheist or marrying a person of another faith. It’s being rejected from your friends for liking the pop song.
It’s the fear of looking arrogant or delusional for wanting to start your own business.
All these things may happen, but “The truth will set you free.”
When you allow yourself to be honest you become a powerful magnet for people. We are starved for authenticity. We are waiting for someone to say out loud what we silently believe.
It’s more about “how” you have your belief than “what “ you believe. If you are obnoxious about your belief, then more people will be turned off. If you carry your belief and respect those of others, you’ll find more acceptance and more truth.
“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but how it thinks.” – Christopher Hitchens
2. You’ll lose customers or clients. This is the same as the fear of rejection. Rarely are companies punished for honesty.
When a company says, “We screwed up, let us fix it,” we don’t blame them for the mistake.
When a company makes green claims through a thin façade of greenwashing, we all feel it. And it pushes us way.
3. People will take advantage. This is true. The world is full of people who are just waiting to take cheap shots, to take whatever they can when you’re not looking.
In relationships, this means creating a strong vulnerability. You have to leave yourself open for a punch or you can’t connect with anyone. It also means setting boundaries. You don’t need to let everyone see everything.
In business, it means being as generous as you can. For us, it’s giving away all of our premium content with a 30-day no questions asked money back guarantee. Some people come in and steal everything, some even take it all and start their own programs, but most don’t.
We leave ourselves vulnerable to be taken advantage of and some people do. But it still does us more good than harm.
4. You’ll show the world you’re weak, stupid, or whatever the hell. We think that if we’re honest, we’ll expose the worst parts of ourselves when, in reality, people can feel them already.
When a business tries to cover-up a mistake, they just look dishonest. It doesn’t matter if they’re trying to fix the situation.
At the end of the day, there is no covering it up. There is no lie that lasts a lifetime. If we don’t know exactly what it is, we see the shadow of it. Remember Tim Kreider’s friend Skelly? He has more to say:
“What someone’s lies about them (aspirations to being an accomplished writer, fantasies of an exotic history and a cosmopolitan family) are always sadder than the fact of the lies themselves. These inventions illuminate the negative spaces of someone’s self-image, their vanity and insecurities, and most childish wishes, as we can infer from warped starlight the presence of a far vaster mass of dark matter.”
He goes on to discuss the “Soul Toupee”:
“The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves that we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us.”
Of course, the things that we are most scared about revealing to the world are usually not a big deal at all to others. They pretend not to notice because they see how desperate we are to hide them. They’ve already accepted the thing we’re scared to show.
This is all a very long way of saying: You’re not tricking anybody.
The world isn’t hungry for perfection; it’s hungry for authenticity. For someone to trust—not worship.
Be professional, know your shit, do your best, and then be human.
5. It will make you vulnerable. Yes it will. This one only feels like a danger, though.
People buy from people who are vulnerable. People fall in love with people who are vulnerable. People trust people who are vulnerable. People want to help people who are vulnerable.
Because people know that invulnerability isn’t for humans.
The Benefits of Honesty
Here we are, time for the good stuff.
1. Honesty begets honesty. We all want people to be honest with us, there is no better way to achieve this than being honest with others.
“Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.” – Emerson
This does a couple things:
- It short-circuits their paranoia and thus creates a more effective relationship.
- It actually makes people more honest. We naturally want to meet the expectations of others. When we are honest and expect honesty, we are likely to get it.
2. Honesty compounds. Being dishonest in the short run can put you ahead, but it’s a one-off thing. You’ll burn bridges and be seen (at least by someone) as untrustworthy. If you try really hard, you can make this work for a long time. Eventually though, you’ll get tired of finding new people to screw over. You have to constantly fight and backstep and make things up.
Honesty builds on itself like a snowball rolling down a hill. Honesty builds momentum.
If you are honest to friends, they will continue to be your friend and want to build a closer relationship.
If you are honest to your customers, they will keep buying from you and recommend that others buy from you.
It can feel like dishonesty has the upper hand early on. In the long game, though, there’s no stopping the compounding of honesty.
3. “Speed of Trust.” There is a business book with that title. I haven’t read it, but I see the title every once in a while and remember how important trust is.
Nothing happens without trust. No relationships can be built or fun had. No sales or growth of any kind.
Trust is necessary. Trust in ourselves, in others, and in the world; therefore, the single best way to gain this trust is to be honest with ourselves, others, and the world.
4. It makes everything richer. Honesty makes life more interesting. You don’t spend time skirting subjects, so you get to the thing you actually want to be talking about.
Honesty is scary, so it forces you to push outside of your comfort zone.
Honesty is less constrained, so it exudes energy.
5. Honesty is more profitable. Ben Franklin said that honesty is the best policy, not the best moral decision. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger took that to heart early on at Berkshire.
They built a reputation not only for being competent but being honest. That meant that owners preferred them over other investors.
The legendary tech investor Paul Graham has said that the same rule applies in Silicon Valley: the good guys are winning. He says this is because of (1) transparency and (2) unpredictability:
“It’s obvious why transparency has that effect. When an investor maltreats a founder now, it gets out. Maybe not all the way to the press, but other founders hear about it, and that means that investor starts to lose deals. 
The effect of unpredictability is more subtle. It increases the work of being inconsistent. If you’re going to be two-faced, you have to know who you should be nice to and who you can get away with being nasty to. In the startup world, things change so rapidly that you can’t tell. The random college kid you talk to today might in a couple years be the CEO of the hottest startup in the Valley. If you can’t tell who to be nice to, you have to be nice to everyone. And probably the only people who can manage that are the people who are genuinely good.
In a sufficiently connected and unpredictable world, you can’t seem good without being good.”
6. It just makes life better. Unless you’re a psychopath, you can feel it. Honesty makes everything better. Dishonesty makes everything bad.
I’ve written nearly 5000 words about honesty now. I could keep typing. I’m like talking about simple things ad infinitum.
But maybe now it’s time to do some honesty. To tell some person that thing. To be honest about what you thought of that movie. To take a peak at your Soul Toupee.