Honesty, as it seems, isn’t always the best policy. Or at least it seems that honesty CAN be a best policy if it has the right PR spin.
Years ago I learned a HUGE lesson: ‘fake it until you make it’ has a cost and, if the gamble doesn’t pay off, you’ll be saddled with more than you can handle afterwards. It was my first business and everyone advised me to look more experienced and more established than I was. Since I didn’t have an official office, I needed to pretend that I do. And since I was new, I needed to come on the scene with a bang. So I spent a whole bunch of money I didn’t have up front and didn’t tell anyone that I was going in debt for it. Long story short, it seemed to work for a while, but when the market fell out beneath me, I was saddled with more debt than I could bring in income. I had to get a real job in order to pay for my previous ‘faking it’.
Lucky for me, the social web rose up and radical transparency became all the rage. Now everybody was talking about how they worked from home and coffee shops, how they don’t always know what they are doing and bootstrapping became an honorable way to start a business. Where I once needed a rent-an-office space, brochures, fancy website, answering service and other expensive collateral, I could now merely have a blog, a laptop and a bunch of Moo Cards. This no longer seemed amateur because everyone was amateur and amateur was the new professional.
But something has shifted back over the past 5 years or so since then and there seems to be a resurgence of the ‘Fake it til you make it’ battle cry. I’m not sure if it’s because we could get away with our scrappy little amateur web businesses when we were still on the bleeding edge and now we are part of a serious money-making industry or whether it’s just a natural pendulum swing to counteract the ‘We Live in Public‘ viewpoints of the world that were hyperbolically transparent (and even shocking to an open advocate like myself).
Either way, Faking it is the new transparency and I don’t think its resurgence is a good one. Why not?
- By faking it, we fail to share our struggles – I know that’s kind of the point of faking it and all, but if nobody shares they are struggling, nobody will know anybody else is struggling. That results in a whole bunch of people feeling quite isolated and scared and thinking that they must be big, fat losers because they are the only ones in the whole wide world that struggle. Funny thing…I shared my struggle at TEDxConcordia (6,000 views) and at NXNE Interactive (167,000 views) and both were passed around like wildfire. I’ve never received so many thank you emails. This struck a nerve. People were thankful I shared because they no longer felt alone.
- By faking it, we fail to learn what it takes to REALLY make it – the amount of advice posts written by failing startups that other startups followed and promptly failed by is astonishing. Same with speakers at conferences who delve out advice for ‘how to do it right’ when they know full well that their community is crumbling, they are running out of money and their days are numbered. This is just wrong. People wanting to do startups look up to people doing them. And they aspire to be them. Let’s not pass along our mistakes, only our lessons.
- By faking it, we ignore reality. I recently read 10 Facts About the Condition of American Families that Will Blow Your Mind at Business Insider. Wow. I think it’s time for America to stop faking success (“Look at how Wall Street is recovering! Look at how much money is being invested! People are working/buying again!”) and start facing reality. There is something fundamentally broken here. Admit it, grow some humility and fix it so we can achieve REAL successs. Because the longer you lie to the world, the more you will believe it yourself and the longer you will struggle. You only increase your chances of success when you admit your reality.
- By faking it, we perpetuate a culture of lies. It’s the viciousest of vicious cycles, really. If we all just admitted we struggle, nobody would feel like admitting it would make people think they were a big loser. By ‘staying in the closet’ about our fears, doubts and stumbles, we keep that closet closed for future generations.
- By faking it, we are just plain lying. If it was my money on the line, I’d want to know what was going on with the companies I invested in. 100%. I wouldn’t want to be surprised at a board meeting that the company I see as doing amazing things is about to close down because of legal battles, especially if those legal battles had been going on for ages and I could have helped. I’ve heard this story and many others from advisors, investors and employees who had no idea the company they worked for was in trouble. Yes, yes…revealing every little thing isn’t good either. You need to help people feel like you can handle the small stuff. But when you are running out of money or being sued or discover you were on the wrong path or whatever is a bigger deal, it’s time to reach out and get help.
Now, this being said there IS such thing as TOO MUCH INFORMATION. I would never name names (even thinly veiled), give specific details in a legal or financial case, talk ill of anyone who wronged me (not naming names – but you can talk about lessons learned…how to avoid situation X) or personally attack anyone. You have to use your judgement. The way I approach transparency is: “This is how I am struggling. This is what I’ve learnt. This is what I’ve done wrong. This is what I did right. This is how things are broken. Please keep in mind this is my perspective. Anyone else want to add/share?” Sometimes I wait until this can be told in retrospect, sometimes I talk about lessons as I’ve learned them.
Of course, this is also changing for me as time goes on. I find myself clamming up more and being less involved in discussions that are heated in this area. I’m aware that my own behavior reflects on my company, which means the other people who work with me have to bear the brunt of my sometimes misguided opinons. So I stay away unless I have something personal to share that I think will help others. Mostly I speak of my own mistakes now.
And I’ve had friends in the industry advise me to keep quieter in general, but as I said above, this won’t help anyone (even though I know their intention is to protect me). And I don’t think it will help me (or anyone else) in the long run. I’m not stupid or reckless (mostly!) and I’m more than happy to admit it if I make a mistake. Feel free to tell me when I’ve crossed the transparency/TMI line. :)
I know that we had a special luxury in the early days of the rise of the social web business when we were the scrappy revolutionaries and now that we are starting to make bigger impacts and affect real lives, we need to think about how our behavior touches other people. It’s no longer about a revolution (was it ever?), it is now about changing the world to be a better place. But I do believe that transparency can grow up with us, too. It doesn’t get left behind, it just evolves to be central to the way we interact. It’s a better way and it’s definitely better than faking it.