In my usual daydreams, I am called upon – not to lead an army or to star in a real-life musical, but to give a commencement speech. Yes! Unlike most people, I dream of being asked to stand in front of 1000s of eager young faces and scatter clichés like cherry blossoms in the wind.
But while I wait for that to happen, I stumbled upon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s address to the Harvard class of 2018. In it, she shares an anecdote about meeting an established male writer at a conference, well before she herself was famous. She knew his name, but not his works. Despite that, she shook his hand and told him she was a huge fan. Then his wife turned to her: “So which of his books have you read? she asked. Adichie froze. “The one about the man discovering himself?” She lied and fled the scene quickly.
The beloved author of Americanah was issuing an imperative, to tell the truth. “I’m not asking you to tell the truth because it will always work out,” she said, “But because you will sleep well at night.”
And being an advocate for truth also means being able to recognise falsehood and call out lies.
Adichie described how mortified she was at the mistake she made speaking to the famous writer, and how, afterward she developed an admiration for the “fantastic bullshit detector” of the writer’s wife. She told the graduates, “So have a good bullshit detector. If you don’t have it now, work on it.”
I think this is my biggest weakness – not having a bullshit detector, and also not being able to call out lies when it stares me point blank in the face.
In the start-up scene, too many times entrepreneurs are encouraged to ‘Fake it till you make it’ – these tactics of empty cleverness may serve you in the short run. After all, start-up culture is a reflection of society – and for years, we have declared confidence and high-self esteem as the cure for all social and economic ills. Sometimes telling the truth may not be in your favour – you might have investors to please, employees to rally, and friends to impress. People can be remarkably resistant to the facts that they do not like.
But know that as cliché as it sounds, the truth will always reveal itself. Just look at the indictment of Elizabeth Holmes on charges of conspiracy for a company that was built on a pack of lies. Theranos’ downfall should serve as a warning to all over-confident entrepreneurs who overpromise and have little to no regard to speaking the truth.
Earlier this year I wrote about self-awareness, and how it is our ability to recognise our strengths but also acknowledge our weaknesses. It allows us to recognise how we fit in with the rest of the world.
It isn’t always easy to admit to our shortcomings, our fragilities, and our failures. It is hard to tell ourselves that maybe we aren’t as good as the people we work with. It is hard to tell ourselves the truth of our emotions and how we let them overpower us. So we lie – we lie on our resume, we lie about our company’s valuation, and we lie about the people we know.
But telling the truth will be an act of courage.
If the ‘changemakers’ of today take liberties to bend the truth, then entrepreneurship is an image of all the things that we aren’t, an exploration of values that feel increasingly difficult to practice in the actual world.
Adichie cautioned that telling the truth doesn’t mean loudly judging others or starting arguments, and it doesn’t mean that life always works out because it doesn’t. But that we must always protect and value the truth.