It’s hard enough to get through a single day without telling a little white lie, so just imagine living your whole life without telling the smallest of fibs. That’s exactly what Keith Frankel is trying to do. Six months ago, the product design executive at Boston education software startup Firecracker was just like the rest of us — lying his way through life. Frankel realized that his friends and family who witnessed him telling untruths to others were starting to question his honesty. He decided to make amends by giving up lying for as long as possible.
Why have you decided never to lie again?
Well, there are really two answers to this. On one hand, you could say I was motivated out of a sense of urgency, brought about in large part by the current American political climate. In the last year, America has seen the rise of unqualified, harmful, yet hugely popular political candidates who succeed through a combination of misinformation and fear mongering. This, coupled with a deep polarization between parties, really got me thinking. My conclusion was that only through honest, measured, and well informed discourse can we ever hope to avoid a regressive future that seems right around the corner.
On the other hand, I was also motivated by something much more simple: curiosity. Or more specifically, by my curiosity around one very simple question: How much better would the world be if we all just stopped lying to one another all the damn time? So, I decided to try to find out.
What was the last lie you told?
It was December 30, 2015, and I was only a month or so into my commitment. Much of my extended family was converging on New York to celebrate the new year together, and everyone decided to meet up that evening for a mini reunion of sorts. When I arrived, I was of course greeted with the whole range of obligatory hugs, hellos, and how-you-doings. It was during one of these brief exchanges that I uttered my last, haunting lie: “It’s good to see you again.” Terrible, right? Now, hyperbole aside, I won’t deny that this lie may appear to be fairly trivial. The point is that it was entirely unnecessary. More interesting – and perhaps disconcerting – than this, though, is how quickly we are subconsciously committed to lying without even considering all of the alternatives.
Do you have any ground rules for not lying?
There’s definitely an important clarification to make that I find helps people understand how this can actually be sustainable long term: a commitment to honesty is not an obligation to exhaustive detail. That is, I haven’t removed the filter between my brain and my mouth, and I’m not required to say every little candid thought I happen to have, no matter what the damage to myself or others might be. Many people fear that it’s impossible to be honest without also being an asshole from time to time. I disagree.
Tact still plays a very important role, in particular in mitigating unnecessary conflict or avoiding damaging others’ feelings needlessly. With this in mind, you can think of what I'm doing as more of a commitment to not lying, rather than to exhaustive detail. I’m not forced to say everything, but when I do, there can’t be any falsehoods.
You’ve avoided telling fibs for six months already. Has it been hard?
Honesty is just like any other skill: the more you work it, the easier it gets over time. Most people believe that the really difficult part of telling the truth exists when you are consciously considering what you’re going to say and you are aware of its potential repercussions and you have to choose to still tell the truth despite those potentially negative consequences. Surprisingly, I’ve found this to be false. It’s much harder to avoid accidentally slipping up and uttering a lie when you’re not really paying that much attention. Through my commitment to honesty, I’ve realized just how much of our conversations are made up of unconscious, automatic responses. The real difficulty, then, comes with making myself slow down, be in the moment, and carefully consider the words I’m using, rather than just accidentally throwing out compulsory falsehoods in order to quickly fill the silence.
Were you tempted to lie sometimes?
Oh man, so often, and almost always for really trivial reasons. The most common by far is when I’m feeling lazy or antisocial and wish I could get out of something I’ve committed to. Because of this commitment to honesty, I simply cannot get out of plans or commitments for false reasons. I can’t tell someone “I’m stuck in traffic when I just left late.” I can’t say “I forgot I have another meeting” when I don’t want to turn off this "Game of Thrones" rerun. And because I can’t get out of commitments for false reasons, I’m either forced to admit that I just don’t want to, or I have to bite the bullet and actually follow through. In the end, I nearly always follow through.
What’s the benefit of not telling lies?
It’s been beneficial in so many ways that it seems silly to try to pick just one to discuss. But I will say this: when I first committed to an all-out embargo on lying, I half expected there to be a swarm of others who would jump behind the cause and follow suit. And guess what? It never happened. Yet while it doesn't seem that those around me have become substantially more honest in their own everyday lives, I have noticed that most have become conspicuously more honest with me directly. And that in itself has made the commitment worthwhile.
When will you start lying again?
My project has always been about the pursuit of uncompromising honesty; it has never been about the guarantee that I would absolutely never tell a lie again. Like everyone else, I’ve lived decades of telling lies every single day, and I wholly expect to accidentally slip up in the future. Fortunately, that’s okay. After having committed fully to this way of life, though, it is clear that I’ll never go back to the way it was before. You see, committing to honesty has become easy. Natural. Second nature… No, first nature. Being honest is how it’s supposed to be. How we should all be. It shouldn’t be a novel thing to be described as “noble” or “admirable”. The truth is, there is simply no non-selfish value to be gained by lying to anyone, about anything. Having seen first hand that not only is it possible, but even preferable, I couldn’t suddenly stop and revert back.