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It’s Better to Tell the Truth Poorly than to Lie Well

August 28th, 2007 · 4 Comments

There are two experiences in my life that have shaped my views on honest, both in the workplace and at home, more than any other.

The first experience happened in the first week of the first grade. By luck, I had the same first grade teacher as I had had in Kindergarten, Ms. Knockle (sic). Like any first grader, I was in love with her, in a pure first graderly sort of way, and she seemed to recognize me as a bright kid because she took a special interest in me (but, now that I write that down and think about teachers I know, maybe she took a special interest in me because I wasn’t that bright and she felt I needed help. At any rate, she made me feel bright.)

During the first week of school, we all wore name badges to help get to know each other, attached to our shirts with stick pins. I know, I know, you can’t give stick pins to six year olds. This was 1979 though, and kids could still get BB guns before they could spell their own names (as we’ll see in a moment). Anyway, several of the boys started to chase the girls with the pins, threatening to poke them. I joined in and was the only boy to actually succeed.


Justifiably, I was ratted out by the little girl who got poked and was sent to the principle’s office. He asked me if I poked little Susie, and I denied it. “Well, how did she get poked then?”

Of course, I was ready with a perfect explanation. “I lost my pin when I was jumping off the rocket. It landed in ground poking straight up, and she sat on it.” Brilliant.

Five minutes later I was headed back to class, my butt still burning from the smack of the principle’s paddle on my butt cheeks. I went back to my desk and tried to do my work, but I had a hard time not crying and only stared at the assignment.

After a while, Ms. Knockle called me back to her desk and quietly asked me to tell her the truth. She was kind, and gentle, and fervently wanted me to admit what had really happened so we could put the incident behind us. I thought I had found an ally, someone who would believe me and defend me against little Susie’s accusations, so I insisted I had told the truth. My stick pin really did embed itself in her bottom without any help from me, and it was unfair to spank me for it. Ms. Knockle sent me back to my desk. Halfway there I stopped and looked back at her. She had lowered her head to her desk, sobbing.

The second incident was a little more serious. I had been given a BB gun, my very first one, with the strict admonition that I would not shoot people, animals, or, most importantly, windows. It wasn’t long before I was showing off my new gun to my friends, including little Susie (in reality, it was not the same kid, but hey, it’s better this way). At some point, little Susie and I got into an argument over something or other, and she was standing on the top of a pile of dirt shouting at me.

“You better shut up,” I said, “or I’m going to shoot you.”

“You will not!” she yelled.

You know what happened next. Susie ran home, a welt on her stomach from my BB gun, a sympathetic and affirmative parent waiting. I ran home too.

An hour later there was a knock on our door, and my mother and I found ourselves facing a large, unsympathetic police officer. He wanted to know my version of events leading up to the pelting of little Susie. I was, naturally, quick to think up a completely reasonable explanation. It had something to do with that guy who would shoot apples off peoples heads with a bow, but I don’t recall the exact details. At any rate, the point of the story was that Susie had given me permission to shoot her, a complete fabrication.


I never owned a BB gun again, and some cop’s kid got a nice present later that day.

I now have a very strong aversion to lying. It is difficult for me to lie, even when it is clearly in my best interest. This frequently causes trouble for me, particularly when it comes to the way pants fit or whether I mind doing such and such. But it has also been a tremendous asset in my career. I am perfectly comfortable admitting I screwed up as a project manager and that it cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result. Yes, such an admission could get me fired, and it may be logical to try to obfuscate the truth to protect myself, but I don’t, as a general rule. I’m not going to claim I am perfectly honest all the time, but it is not natural for me to lie. I don’t do it well, a lesson I learned in the first grade. I think I just quit trying to lie, sometime after that cop walked off with my brand new BB gun.

Lying creates more problems than it solves. If you lie to cover up for a mistake, it increases your culpability for that mistake. If you get caught lying about something, the consequences are far worse than if you just tell the truth. Nobody lies well. I’ve watched hundreds of people try it, and it’s almost always obvious that someone is lying. Don’t bother with it. Instead, try something I wish I’d done, way back in the first grade.

“I did it. I’m sorry that I hurt somebody, and I don’t want this to happen again.”

It still works.

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Tags: Job Advice · Project Management · Stories

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Aaron // Nov 2, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    I learned a lot with your story. Got more?

  • 2 edmond // Dec 6, 2009 at 1:58 am

    I am a Nazi officer, do you have jews living in your attic?

  • 3 davidray // Dec 8, 2009 at 2:39 am

    You know the saying that the exception proves the rule? This is definitely one of those moments. If you have to find an example that extreme as an (apparent) argument against this post, it is powerful evidence that it's a good rule.

  • 4 robby // Sep 14, 2011 at 1:56 am

    lesson to be learned..last paragraph gave me lots of applicable advices too..like this story

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