Honesty is more difficult than you think, and the naive approach to honesty will sink your business. Lie to get ahead.

It was painless and it only took 15 minutes. The only disturbing part was watching the smoke rise from my testicles while an early-20s blonde trainee watched everything. Dr. Stein had pulled my vas deferens out of a small incision in my scrotum and used a red hot clamp to bisect and cauterize them. The rising smoke meant I would never have children.

Mine was the nearly 17,000th vasectomy Dr. Stein had performed, not including the 30 he performed the same day he snipped me.

I don’t know how many men had lied to him like I had.

The thing about vasectomies is that they are considered irreversible, so no doctor who wants to keep his license will perform them on a man under 30, especially not one who has no children.

At 23, I had been married for nearly 5 years, and I had two kids. That they are step children is an irrelevant detail to me. My mother and her sister were adopted by my grandparents, so half my family isn’t genetically related to me (or to each other) anyway. Those boys are mine, sperm or not.

As rewarding as raising children can be and has been, I do not want more. I dodged more (genetic) bullets than Keanu Reeves in a trench coat. Although I am personally fit, healthy, sane, and capable, I am carrying enough genetic crud to populate an asylum. Pathological addiction, clinical depression, schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder, liver disease, and crooked teeth. The list continues. The ability to get a gnarly tan doesn’t make up for that. I have no interest in playing genetic roulette.

I told Dr. Stein I had two kids, but didn’t mention that they are my step kids. I capitalized on my receding hairline to add 10 years to my age, claiming I was 33, and of course I “forgot” my ID that day. I had cash, so they didn’t ask questions.

I don’t consider my actions dishonest in a meaningful sense, even though they share superficial similarities with dishonesty.

What is Honesty For?

Honesty is marvelously useful. In many ways the ability to establish trust makes our history as a species and current society possible. It’s such a useful concept that we’re all indoctrinated into believing it’s a fundamental good, so we do it by default, which normally works well in aggregate.

The reality is that honesty is useful because it fulfills specific purposes depending on the context, not because giving everyone completely accurate information is always better.

Dr. Stein doesn’t care how old my testicles are or how many children they’ve spurted out. Dr. Stein is constrained by regulatory pressure to only treat men in a certain demographic because if he treats the wrong person, he can be sued later. I talked to him in some detail about this while he fondled me: he believed he was saving the world. That every baby he stopped from being born was one less baby destroying the environment. In a vacuum, he would be delighted to snip a 23 year old kid before he had a chance to inflict his crotch fruit on the world.

The only reason he would decline to treat me is because of the liability he faced. By materially misrepresenting my age and paternity status to Dr. Stein, I had relieved him of that liability, fulfilling the underlying purpose that honesty would normally serve in that context, while getting what I wanted in the process.

No kids for me, no lawsuit for him.

Information vs. Message

You agree with me even if you think you don’t. You may feel guilty about it, but you lie all the time in order to tell the truth.

Information-level Conversation
Her: Do these ’80s leggings make me look old?
You: Of course not dear, you haven’t changed since ‘82.

Message-level Conversation
Her: Will you support my ego by affirming my continuing attractiveness?
You: I think you’re attractive, I love you, and I plan to continue loving you.

The interesting thing about the exchange isn’t that the information was a lie while the message was the truth. The really interesting thing is that if you chose to answer the information-level question with accurate information, the message-level conversation would become:

Her: Do you still desire me and love me?
You: No.

Which is a hurtful lie, and you’re an asshole for saying it. Where’s your “simple” truth now?

Honesty in Business

You absolutely must tell the truth in business. If your partners and customers can’t count on you to deliver, then you won’t last more than a transaction or two. However, if you deliver accurate information you will stagnate as an employee and fail as a business owner. What you need to deliver is deeper, message-level truth.

The saying goes that you should never see a professional sweat. Everyone agrees with that because it sounds noble, but actually it means you need to lie to your customers. And you should still agree with it.

It means that even if you’re barely holding things together and you have no idea how you’re going to make good on your contract or if the lights will be on in your office by the close of business, you need to tell your customers that everything is under control because what they need is peace of mind. When you deliver (like you always do) all will be well. You’re a professional, so don’t let them see you sweat.

There are people who can’t figure out the difference between information-level and message-level honesty. They are the gray beard programmers who are proud to be “blunt,” but who stagnated in their career 15 years ago, and now maintain legacy systems from the boiler room. They are the naive entrepreneurs who write boring drivel on their ghost-town blogs and make a pittance before giving up on business entirely in favor of a paycheck from Acme.

Stop “saying it like it is” and pretending that’s a virtue.

Honesty has its uses, but use it wisely.

Photo Credit: Honest Ed’s by Stewart C. Russell