The ancient Greek philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said; ‘Why weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’ Though I do not agree with this particular quote, I must admit that the sentiment is useful. And when push comes to shove, that’s all that matters. In this piece, I will attempt to show you the use of honesty in leading an enjoyable life.
The point Seneca was most likely making, and was in fact moderately famous for making, was that most people have too high expectations for life, which inevitably leads them to become disappointed and view life more as a burden than a joy. We’re told as kids that we may be the next president, that we’re very smart, that we’re beautiful. In short, all children are told they are special in some grand way. Yet, most adults end up hopelessly mediocre.
So how do we combat this? How can we manage not only our own expectations, but also the expectations others have for us?
The first and most important point of discussion, is honesty. Not just towards others, but towards yourself. If we are to manage expectations, we must first realize we have to keep them at an acceptable median; our goals must be realistic, our expectation of achieving a goal should be no less realistic.
I’d say the key part is self-reflection. Before you commit to completing a certain task at a certain level, you should look back at previous tasks that are somewhat alike and ask yourself the following questions:
- Did I complete this task the last time?
- How did I complete this task the last time?
- (How) Can I improve the way I complete this task?
- Do I feel up to completing this task?
This will give you a more accurate reading of your qualities in different situations and allow you to assess your relative success in a better, more structured and thus dependable way, and in turn sync your expectations with your own qualities and abilities.
How do we use honesty to manage expectations others have about us?
Simply tell them about the results of your own assessment as described above. It’s actually that simple; let them know your weaknesses and own up to them.
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable toward others. A handful will indeed exploit your vulnerability, maybe even humiliate you, but most people will appreciate it and view you not as a vulnerable person, but as a person with strength and character. It takes some cojones to allow yourself to be vulnerable and most people can relate to that. More over, it is admirable.
But honesty to your fellow human being goes further than just telling people what you can and can’t do. It also exists out of being honest about your opinions, beliefs and desires. It also encompasses your fears, dislikes and history. All the above might lead to an extraordinarily vulnerable position within your social context. Of course, you might want to look out, because this might not be compatible with your specific situation. It seems, for instance, a bad idea to say you fear gunfire when you’re an army member. But aside from compatibility issues, it doesn’t hurt to be a bit more vulnerable.
And when you think about it, the fact that we are often taught to be invulnerable or less vulnerable, is counter-productive. It chips away at the honesty in society, which inevitably means trust becomes increasingly scarce, which leads to suspicion and lying to cover up ones shortcomings. Not only are suspicion and lies bad for business, it’s bad for your wellbeing, too. Having to juggle lies, checking up on every promise that has been made to you, it’s tiresome and takes valuable time better used for other purposes.
We can use honesty in curtailing our expectations of others and conforming them to the realistic. In other words, by being honest about our own capabilities and our expectations of others, we can incentivize others to be equally honest about their capabilities. In this way, we avoid being disappointed and can better plan our actions ahead.
Another way to use honesty to the same ends, is to be honest about your doubts. If you think someone is less capable than they say they are, you can be honest about this and tell them (gently, preferably). This will often illicit a more or less hostile, apologetic reaction, and rightfully so, it is a statement that can be considered an attack on the other person’s capabilities, or more often an attack on the other person in general. After settling this argument a more comprehensive and certain assessment of capabilities might be made.
Other reasons for honesty
Through honesty, there is a lot more we can achieve than just expectation management. First off, an honest person is a reliable person. This is true not just factually, but also perceptively, and being perceived a reliable person can have a myriad of benefits for both your professional and social life; people might trust you more and give you chances more easily. Honesty is also perceived to be a virtue by many people in modern society. This makes honesty an admirable quality within society, contributing to being perceived to be a great, morally gifted individual.
It’s better than lying. The weird thing about lies, is that we have trouble maintaining them, coming up with them and keeping them apart. Yet, when asked, most people say they lie to get ‘an easy way out’. Out of what? Mostly responsibilities or unsatisfactory appointments. It’s simply time that we realize the ‘easy way out’ that lying seems to offer, isn’t so easy and is actually a great bother.
Last but not least, it’s just the right thing to do. You might remember one of my previous pieces, called cognicism; a secular moral system, in which I advocated that awareness should be the main factor in determining the morality behind a moral event. To be dishonest, is to allow another conscious (i.e. aware) person to function on the basis of misconceptions or delusions. The consequences of this vary, but generally do not exceed the consequences of acting based upon honesty and real information. A case can be made however for certain cases, in which it is reasonable to assume that a little “white”, if you will, lie can help someone to function better.
In this part of the series “Enjoy your life”, we have spoken about honesty. A number of ways to help you in your professional and social life have passed review and we have examined moral, practical and individual reasons to be honest, as well as examine the possibility to use honesty to curtail false or baseless expectations across the spectrum.