By the time children are 2 or 3 years old, they begin realizing adults don’t know everything. From age 4 to around 6, they learn to match their own facial expressions and tone of voice to their words—and their lying gets better. From age 6 to about 8, they’re lying more frequently, and they’re getting much better at it. By age eight, most children can lie successfully.
The naked truth is that some of our most verified leaders lie about things substantive.
Lying is generally viewed negatively. The common thinking is that people in authority — whether CEOs, politicians, principals or parents— are honest, credible and forthright. But history (and Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University) say otherwise. According to Pfeffer, the average person lies at least twice a day. He says, in fact, that the truth about people in authority is that they are actually great liars.
For example, to settle the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was not completely honest about where the Southern delegation was. And when James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was asked whether or not federal intelligence agencies were intercepting communications from American citizens, well, he didn’t quite tell the truth either.
There are gobs of current examples, too. Take this declaration President Barack Obama made in July 2009 regarding the Affordable Care Act: “Under our proposal, if you like your doctor, you keep your doctor. If you like your current insurance, you keep that insurance. Period. End of story.”
And if you missed this doozy: A tweet made by our newly elected Vice President Kamala Harris, in October 2020: “@JoeBiden will not ban fracking. That is a fact.”
Lincoln wanted to resolve the Civil War, so he had to make up some inaccuracies. Obama wanted to sell healthcare for everyone, so he distorted a little bit about some of his healthcare plan’s specifics. And, well, Harris, I presume, wanted to get elected.
Fiction: The surest way to arouse a reader lies in the vivid and imaginative detail.
What I know is, effective lying requires a vivid imagination. Whether it’s political duplicity, an attempt at hiding an awkward situation, or merely trying to get others to think better of you, bending the truth involves creativity. Where am I going with this? Creative thinking is a competitive edge in so many aspects of life and work—especially including the ability to write good fiction. It is about reinventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking the rules, making mistakes and having fun. They say that good fiction is a lie that tells the truth, but I’ve never been good at writing fiction. While I’ve told my share of white lies (and, perhaps on occasion, dark lies), writing fiction (and not that it’s worth mentioning, but writing dialogue) has never come easily for me. Fiction is my Achilles heel. My kryptonite. I’m hoping this means I’ve grown out of lying. But what I fear it means is that I’ve grown out of my creativity.
So I decided to test my ability to stretch the truth.
Ever start a new job, and your new boss makes you play the terrible game Two Truths and a Lie? Well, I’ve created my own spinoff. I listed (what I hope is) three convincingly false facts and one truth. My mission is to make you scratch your head in wonder.
- In 2019, one in seven drivers age 30-39 bought a Toyota RAV4 SUV.
- A cognitive neuroscientist at Stanford University, conducted modern research that proves creativity is genetic.
- Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, used cannabis for creative inspiration and focus.
- I brush my teeth four times a day.
I know this little exercise doesn’t begin to tap the well of good fiction (or solid creativity) (*a Toyota? Really??*) but I’m going to keep working at it. My real assignment is to write a story in which the reader (you) knows that every conversation between my characters, every action, is invented, made up — to be precise, lies. And yet, after finishing the story, readers (you) will email fellow readers (friends) saying, “read this story, it oozes with *it*, it resonates, it lingers, it makes you feel, it makes you sense a fundamental truth. It lets you see.”
And if I am successful, then really nothing is off limits. Maybe I, too, will one day be elected president of the free world. (And won’t that make a good story!)