This morning LinkedIn pointed me to an article in a business magazine entitled 3 Words That Guarantee Failure, written by one Geoffrey James. What are the words that, according to this article, guarantee failure? They are “I will try”:
People who say “I will try” have given themselves permission to fail. No matter what happens, they can always claim that they “tried.”
People who hear “I will try” and don’t realize what it really means are fooling themselves, by thinking there’s a chance that the speaker will actually succeed.
People who really and truly achieve goals never say “I will try.”
Instead, they always say “I will do” something–or, better yet, “I must do” whatever the task is.
As a wise (though fictional) guru once said: “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try.'”
The “guru” quoted at the end, of course, is Yoda. And the wisdom of this advice is also fictional, for the advice relies on believing a falsehood. The advice is nevertheless all too pervasive – I recall some New Age-inclined family members of mine in the ’80s trying (and usually failing) to purge the word “try” from their vocabulary, even snapping their wrists with an elastic band as a mild punishment when they said it.
What I’ve always found a far more helpful and important piece of business advice is “Underpromise and overdeliver”. To say “I will try” is to underpromise; and to underpromise makes it possible to overdeliver. By contrast, what happens when you refuse to say “I will try” and instead say “I will do”? Well: Human beings are not perfect. Every human being fails at stated tasks, and fails frequently. I guarantee you that that is true of Geoffrey James as well. If Geoffrey James follows his own advice, there will be many times when he says “I will do” something and does not do it. That means one of two things. One, he is delusional, even megalomaniacal: he sincerely believes in his own capacities so much that he genuinely does not recognize the possibility of failure. It does not take much practical wisdom to know that it is bad business advice to believe oneself a deity. Two, and more likely, he is dishonest: he says “I will do” when he knows that he might not succeed at doing it. In other words, he has told a deliberate lie.
Now Geoffrey James’s bio tells us that he works in sales, and writes about sales. This is no surprise either – for all too typically, sales is a profession built on deception. The figure of the slimy salesman who tells all manner of evasions, half-truths and bald-faced lies to sell a product is a cliché, and is one for a reason – such people often succeed at sales, at least in the short term. Honest selling is a real possibility, and a good and noble thing, but its success comes in the long term, making it much more difficult to measure. When one’s job description is selling, it is all too easy to focus on the short term. Former Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith recently made waves with his resignation letter published in the New York Times. He bemoans a corporate culture where the question most frequently asked is “How much money did we make off the client?”, and the employees most promoted are those who persuade their clients to invest in “the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit” – the ones that they do not themselves believe in.
They are, in short, relying on deception to sell. And when one deceives others regularly, it becomes very easy not only to deceive oneself regularly, but to pass off this self-deception as good advice – which is exactly what Geoffrey James does here. But the problem with self-deception is the biggest problem with all deception: those you deceive learn not to trust you. And it is a terrible fate to be unable to trust oneself.
As with most questions of philosophy or practical wisdom, there is a flip side to the issue. There is a truth in what James says. Especially: when one believes that one can and will succeed at a goal, that very belief typically makes one more likely to succeed. A false belief in one’s inevitable success does not make the success inevitable, but it may well make the success more likely. In that sense, James may turn out to be right: the people who acknowledge the truth of the situation – which is to say, the possibility of failure – are the ones most likely to fail.
Then, I think, we are dealing with another case of a problem I discussed before: where lying to oneself produces good consequences. I’ve often spoken of such a problem in the case of childrearing – even if having children makes one less happy, it would seem that a good parent should not believe that.
And I have waffled a little bit on the question of what one should do in such circumstances. I proclaimed that one should never lie to oneself, but then retracted the claim a few weeks later. I have regularly noted that truth has an intrinsic value independent of its consequences, and would continue to claim this; the question is what that value implies.
I suspect that the answer to this question is not something that can be resolved in the general case. Like so many cases of right action, it is a matter for discernment, for practical wisdom – for judgement based on a deep familiarity with the particulars of the current case. With respect to children, it does seem that most often the effects of one’s belief may well be more important than its truth. Whether one’s children actually make one happier or not, as a parent one should strive to believe that they do.
But is the same true for achieving goals? I don’t think so. Children’s effect on happiness is general. When your children make you unhappy, you can still think of those times when they did make you happy, and keep up the belief that in general they do make you happy. But each given goal is specific, particular. When you tell yourself “I will do it” and you fail to do it – and this is a matter of when, not if – there is no resolving it into the more general issue. The evidence is too obvious. You told yourself you would do this, and you didn’t. You lied to yourself, and if you think about your actions at all, you know you lied to yourself. It’s even worse if you told someone else “I will do it”, as James recommends. You lied to them; you let them down. Even if you do succeed at your goals more often, that success is purchased at the cost of dependability and reliability, to the point where your words cannot be trusted. As far as I can see, that is too high a price to pay.