Recently, I caught up with one of our angel investors for lunch: Peter is a brilliant entrepreneur from England who has lived all over the world. He has built several businesses and now lives a dream life with a house on a harbor, a happy family and a broad smile.
As our conversation drifted from an update of my company to a deep discussion about life itself, I asked him what he thought was the secret to success. I expected the standard “never give up” or some other T-shirt slogan, but what he said took me by surprise. “The secret to success in business and in life is to never, ever, ever tell a lie,” he said.
That stumped me. I know that lying is bad and telling the truth is good — we learn that as children. But the secret to success? I looked at Peter, confused and skeptical. He nodded and assured me, “Complete honesty is the access to ultimate power.”
As we spoke, I started thinking about the little lies I tell every day — often without thinking about it, but not always. I have been guilty of exaggerating a metric here or there or omitting facts for my own advantage. Each time, there is a little voice inside my head that tells me it is the wrong thing to do. I have wondered whether everyone does this or whether it is just me. Could this be what has been holding me back?
I did some research and it seems most of us lie quite a bit. A study by the University of Massachusetts found that 60 percent of adults could not have a 10-minute conversation without lying at least once. The same study found that 40 percent of people lie on their résumés and a whopping 90 percent of those looking for a date online lie on their profiles. Teenage girls lie more than any other group, which is attributed to peer pressure and expectation. The study did not investigate the number of lies told by entrepreneurs looking for investment capital, but I fear we would top the chart.
Most people lie about little things to make them look good. A study by a film rental company found that 30 percent of respondents lied about having seen “The Godfather.” It’s a classic film, we assume everyone has seen it, and we lie that we have too, because we want to fit in. People lie to stave off the consequences of making a mistake, to buy more time or to spare someone’s feelings. Their hearts may be in the right place, but they are still telling lies.
Peter has invested in hundreds of businesses. Every time he sees a pitch, he waits until the end of the presentation before asking the entrepreneurs to go back through the deck and point out every lie they have just told. There are always plenty. As soon as the entrepreneurs open up with the truth, they can start managing what to do next.
Peter maintains that telling lies is the No. 1 reason entrepreneurs fail. Not because telling lies makes you a bad person but because the act of lying plucks you from the present, preventing you from facing what is really going on in your world. Every time you overreport a metric, underreport a cost, are less than honest with a client or a member of your team, you create a false reality and you start living in it.
You know the right path to take and choose another, and in so doing you lose control of the situation. Now, rather than tackling the problem head on, you have to manage the fallout from the lie. I know people who seem to have spent their entire careers inflating the truth and then fighting to meet the expectations they have set.
Like me, Peter reads Buddhist philosophy and applies it to business. One of its lessons is to remain in the present, a more peaceful, creative and productive place from which to operate. Every time I tell a lie, I know that I am no longer present. I feel a tightening in my chest and sweat on my palms — just a small amount because I only tell little lies. But lies they are. They place me in a false future, increase my level of stress and prevent me from being as creative as I can be when I’m fully present. Stress saps our energy and causes nasty consequences for our bodies. We know that lying creates stress; polygraph tests measuring blood pressure, perspiration, pulse and skin conductivity can pinpoint a lie with tremendous accuracy.
I recently discovered firsthand the corrosive effect of lying. For several years, I have worked as a director of a nonprofit organization. We do great work in the community but as a team we have always floundered. A few weeks ago, I caught the leader of our group lying — not whoppers, but a series of tales about why he was late, why someone could not make a meeting or why emails had not been read. I confronted him and he justified his lying, saying that it avoided unpleasant consequences.
It was obvious why our team wasn’t working: People didn’t trust each other. The result was a culture of obfuscation and backstabbing in which we achieved less than we were capable of achieving. Staff members and volunteers became disheartened and eventually left. The leader’s constant lies, no matter how insignificant they seemed to him, had caused a breakdown of integrity and trust in the organization, and without integrity and trust nothing worked.
Since my meeting with Peter a few months ago, I’ve thought about truth and its relationship to creativity, peace, and ultimately success. I decided to test his ideas by trying to be 100 percent honest and transparent all of the time, even when I did not have to be. It was harder and more frightening than I expected. It is embarrassing to admit that I caught myself telling many more lies than I realized, most to protect myself. Telling the truth can be a tough option, and it made me feel much more vulnerable.
But the results have been striking. In an investor pitch six months ago, when I ran through our financial model and budget, I was open about where money had been spent poorly because of mistakes I had made — even though there was no way the investor could have found this out on his own. I was nervous, but the majority of investors I pitch say no anyway. So I decided to try an experiment: the total truth. At the end of our conversation, he said, “I really appreciate how transparent you’ve been with me, Rebekah. Give me a day to think about it.” The next day he called back and invested. I was stunned!
I’ve stuck with this philosophy ever since. It’s transformed my sense of peace and coincided with our company’s most productive period ever. Coincidence?
If you are reading this post and thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me — I never lie,” you are probably lying to yourself. If you try being honest and transparent about everything, I’m confident that you will find it both difficult and rewarding — and that it will make a measurable difference in your business.
“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.”—Bertrand Russell
POIPET, Cambodia— Srey Neth and Srey Mom were stunned when I proposed buying their freedom from their brothel owners.
”It’s unbelievable,” Srey Mom said, smiling with an incandescence that seemed to light the street. ”There’s no problem with taking pictures and telling my story. I want to tell it. But I’m a little afraid that if my mother sees it, she’ll be heartbroken.”
After I decided to buy the two teenage prostitutes, as recounted in my column on Saturday, I swore them to secrecy for fear that the brothel owners would spirit them away, rather than let them tell their stories. But the first purchase, of Srey Neth, went smoothly.
I woke up her brothel’s owner at dawn, handed over $150, brushed off demands for ”interest on the debt” and got a receipt for ”$150 for buying a girl’s freedom.” Then Srey Neth and I fled before the brothel’s owner was even out of bed.
But at Srey Mom’s brothel, her owner announced that the debt was not $70, as the girl had thought, but $400.
”Where are the books?” I asked. A ledger was produced, and it purported to show that Srey Mom owed the equivalent of $337. But it also revealed that the girls were virtually A.T.M.’s for the brothels, generating large sums of cash that the girls were cheated out of. After some grumpy negotiation, the owner accepted $203 as the price for Srey Mom’s freedom. But then Srey Mom told me that she had pawned her cellphone and needed $55 to get it back.
”Forget about your cellphone,” I said. ”We’ve got to get out of here.”
Srey Mom started crying. I told her that she had to choose her cellphone or her freedom, and she ran back to her tiny room in the brothel and locked the door.
In my last column, I described the sex trafficking in places like Cambodia as a modern form of slavery, and I believe that. But the scene that unfolded next underscored the moral complexity of a world in which some girls are ambivalent about being rescued and not all brothel owners are monsters. Some brothel owners use beatings and locked rooms to enslave their girls, but most use debts and ostensible kindness to manipulate them — and the girls are often so naïve, so stigmatized by everyone else and so broken in spirit that this works.
With Srey Mom sobbing in her room and refusing to be freed without her cellphone, the other prostitutes — her closest friends — began pleading with her to be reasonable. So did the brothel’s owner.
”Grab this chance while you can,” the owner begged Srey Mom. But the girl would not give in. After half an hour of hysterics about the cellphone, I felt so manipulated that I almost walked out. But I finally caved.
”O.K., O.K., I’ll get back your cellphone,” I told her through the door. The tears stopped.
”My jewelry, too?” she asked plaintively. ”I also pawned some jewelry.”
So we went to get back the phone and the jewelry — which were, I think, never the real concern. Srey Mom later explained that her resistance had nothing to do with wanting the telephone and everything to do with last-minute cold feet about whether her family and village would accept her if she returned. The possibility of rejection by her mother was almost as frightening as the idea of finishing her life in the brothel.
On our return with the phone and jewelry, the family of the brothel’s owner lighted joss sticks for Srey Mom and prayed for her at a Buddhist altar in the foyer of the brothel. The owner (called ”Mother” by the girls) warned Srey Mom against returning to prostitution.
Finally, Srey Mom said goodbye to ”Mother,” the owner who had enslaved her, cheated her and perhaps even helped infect her with the AIDS virus — yet who had also been kind to her when she was homesick, and who had never forced her to have sex when she was ill. It was a farewell of infinite complexity, yet real tenderness.
So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We’ll see.
Like clockwork, apple introduces an upgrade to its iconic iPhone each year. Sometimes it’s thinner or less curved, but much like a new Porsche, you can look at it and think nothing’s changed. And yet, like Porsche, a lot is different—if you peer under the hood.
When I got my hands on the iPhone 5S, I marveled at the material science behind that bit of glass and metal. The big surprise was the A7 processor—a 64-bit chip—powering that tiny device. And perhaps no one was more shocked than Qualcomm, whose main gig is to make chips for mobile devices.
The A7 neatly sums up the new reality of our always-connected world: Every market is ripe for upheaval, competition can come from anywhere, and today’s customer could very well be the one who knocks you from your perch.
Think back to just 15 years ago when the likes of Cisco, Dell, HP, Intel, and Oracle got big supplying the backbone of Internet computing. Their incumbency meant they had to serve the needs of a lot of customers, which slowed them down. And as the metabolism of change in the Internet era has sped up, they couldn’t keep pace.
When Facebook was in its megagrowth phase a few years ago, it realized that the big server companies couldn’t make what it needed to serve up all those cute baby pictures and endless event requests. So Facebook set up a skunk-works project and designed its own servers specifically to make Facebook services zoom at the lowest possible cost. It sent the plans to an Asian server maker named Quanta to build these streamlined boxes cheaply.
Facebook didn’t have designs on the $55 billion server market. It took matters in its own hands and ended up creating a competitor that Dell, HP, and IBM didn’t see coming. Facebook, thanks to its sheer size and complexity, is the standard-bearer for the data-rich, highly networked future of information. When it designs machines to handle its workloads, it’s creating the next-generation server. The big-hardware makers let the tail wag the dog.
As with Facebook, Apple’s main business isn’t making chips. But it had to craft its own processors once it realized that the major semiconductor manufacturers simply weren’t going to push the envelope on performance fast enough to meet the company’s development timeline. Setting up an engineering team and paying $278 million in 2008 to buy a microprocessor design firm is a bargain if it helps you produce quarterly profits in the billions.
Unsurprisingly, both Google and Amazon, the other two dominant companies of our day, also have stories of taking their technology destiny in their own hands. Amazon Web Services is a classic example, and Google invented something called MapReduce Framework, which allowed it to process many terabytes of data across a cluster of thousands of low-end computers.
That work eventually led to the creation of the open-source Apache Hadoop project at Yahoo, which Yahoo released free to the world for anyone who needs to munch massive amounts of data. (Sorry, Oracle.) Facebook, too, open-sourced its server designs so anyone else could copy and adapt them for their needs.
Why would Yahoo and Facebook take what looked like a competitive edge and set it free? The hacker ethos is part of their business thinking: Sharing is in, and, hey, if people tinker with your idea, that’s free R&D. In the case of Facebook’s web-server design, as more companies adopt its plans and enlist Quanta and other Asian manufacturers to build them, economies of scale kick in and Facebook’s costs to buy new servers only come down further.
The strategy today is simple: In order to move fast, build what you can’t buy or risk losing control of your fate and becoming the next Palm, Motorola, or HTC. And if, in the process, you disrupt an Oracle or a Qualcomm? So be it.
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial. Tom Stafford, a professor at the University of Sheffield, says, “It might well be a real thing, but it’s inherently difficult to research.”
A commonly reported stimulus for ASMR is the sound of whispering. As evident on YouTube, a variety of videos and audio recordings involve the creator whispering or communicating with a soft-spoken intonation into a camera or sound recording device.
“San Francisco is a great city to raise children, but I was very happy to leave it. There’s no style, nobody dresses up—you can’t be chic there. It’s all shorts and hiking boots and Tevas—it’s as if everyone is dressed to go on a camping trip. I don’t think people really care how they look there; and I look like a mess when I’m there, too.”—Danielle Steel