Just a few minutes ago, I was at the grocery store bagging up a few last-minute purchases for a dinner party we’re hosting tonight. I was enjoying a bit of small talk with the young lady running the register, when suddenly she transformed into a zombie and started rapidly muttering some nonsense that had nothing to do with our conversation:
Okay Mr. Mustache, you saved $3.12 today which is 15%, your fuel bonus is up to 120 points, and you are eligible to participate in a store survey at the URL provided on your receipt. Would you like any help out today sir?
I wasn’t overly surprised, because she had briefly run the same zombie script a minute earlier when the customer ahead of me was checking out. But I felt sympathy for her: here was an otherwise-intelligent college student being forced to recite a series of selling points that were dreamed up by a team of lame-brained marketing executives somewhere far off in Safeway headquarters. I knew her plight, because I was often scolded in my own minimum-wage jobs for not delivering the prescribed annoying marketing speeches when I thought the boss wasn’t watching.
The executives surely had their on-staff statistical analysts run some numbers, which indicated that customer conversions from grocery to fuel sales increased by 3.12% in the 90-day period after adding the fuel points reminder, and that Safeway discount card usage increased 5.55% due to the reminders about the fake savings. These executives surely congratulated themselves – “We’re making a killing just by forcing our young, powerless employees to recite our targeted messages a few hundred times each day!” Just as factory farms make a killing by pumping antibiotics, hormones, steroids, antidepressants, and even ibuprofen into their caged animals to increase growth speed while decreasing handling costs, and just as tobacco companies have made killings in the past by actively distorting evidence that their products are in fact killers.
Companies who run their business like that are indeed making a killing. In the short term, they’re generating killer profits. In the long run, they’re killing the goodwill of their customers, employees, and society as a whole. Because while they think they’ve thought of everything by running the numbers, they have actually forgotten to capitalize on the biggest advantage of all.
This advantage is often overlooked, because it is almost impossible to measure, but it’s still there. The name of this incredible long-term strategic tactic? Good Old-Fashioned Honesty.
The neat thing about honesty is that it can be adopted by large companies and individuals alike. In fact, it’s much easier to adopt it yourself, because in large groups the political jockeying often allows less honest characters to rise into power, where they are able to force a “shortcuts-only” methodology on the rest of the group.
To the untrained person, the benefits of honesty can be counter-intuitive and hard to grasp. On the surface, almost every business and personal decision can be optimized by being a little bit sneaky. The Safeway executives are certainly happy to increase gasoline sales. The plumber can definitely make a few extra dollars by exaggerating the number of hours worked on his customers’ projects. The tourist-trap operators have a good cackle when they count their profits from $78.00-per-adult admission prices and selling people overpriced photographs of themselves on the roller coaster.
Even I have been encouraged to be sneaky, by some of the companies that provide referral fees for this blog. “If you just write an article promoting this new credit card or that product, you’ll surely see your commission numbers go through the roof! No, it doesn’t matter if you actually use the product yourself – just write the articles and you will see!”
But there’s another way to do it, which is to turn down all the short cuts and try honesty instead. The bizarre thing about honesty, is that it actually makes you much richer than sneakiness, even while making you feel better about your work!
When the plumber or the tourist trap operator or the online writer turns down opportunities to sell out, they sacrifice some short-term profits, but they get something much more valuable (although not measurable) in exchange. The good will of their customers. At first, this good will is invisible. That’s the difficult period that loses most potential honest people. Then it might turn up in the form of a compliment or a smile occasionally. Gradually, it will manifest itself as repeat business from customers and referrals, or job promotions, and companies competing to hire you for increasingly desirable positions.
But after many decades of relentless honesty, the result will be nothing short of a small cult following. You’ll have an army of friends and colleagues who would trust you with their life, or their life savings. You’ll have the respect of your family. Most importantly, you’ll have the respect of yourself, which will be there for you whenever the external world takes one of its inevitable dumps upon your head. When you eventually expire, the story of your honest life will be your most valued legacy, as one MMM reader shared in Eulogy to a Great Dad.
Being honest with yourself can boost your productivity as well. The dishonest person is always in self-denial, blaming the world for his or her problems. “I can’t save more money and become financially independent, or physically fit, or happy, because the world has inflicted me with this or that problem, or it has forced me to live in this area far from my job, or it just has a grudge on me.”
There’s no doubt that not everyone is born with or given the same advantages. But there’s also no doubt that many people, with fewer advantages than you, have overcome them to achieve much greater things than you. So to be honest with yourself, you need to say, “I currently SUCK, compared to these more badass people. Sure, I’ve done some great things in my life, and I’m proud of them. But I still suck, which means I have an opportunity for improvement”.
The day you stop believing that you currently suck compared to your true potential, is the day you start blaming the rest of the world for not reaching it.
An honest company develops a cult following among its customers. They come back far more often, spend more, and spread the word much wider, than they do when they sense they are being duped. These companies tend to last for several generations, remaining highly profitable throughout the years, and close down only when the owners or their descendants decide to retire.
Meanwhile, I now avoid Safeway whenever I can, and mock it on this blog regularly – just because they have always had the big-company dishonesty about them. Besides the constant sales pitches, I’ll never forget the time they tricked me into paying $3.99 for a single red pepper by doubling the price overnight. That move may have brought Safeway an extra $2.00 of profit in the short term, but it will cost them many thousands over the long run.
Although his fame has brought him a few critics, one of the most prominent honest people I’ve ever studied is Warren Buffett. Calmly and through many decades, he has simply told the truth, and avoided sellouts and shortcuts while practicing his natural talent of investing in and managing companies. Despite constant understatements of his own abilities and cautious downplaying of the future performance of his company Berkshire Hathaway, he has consistently blown the doors off of his less honest competition, in both company performance and in respect.
The honesty has created such a snowball of credibility that his words alone can save or destroy companies. A series of relatively small investments he made during the 2008 financial crisis helped to stabilize the entire world economy, simply by lending his credibility to the financial system.
Imagine being so well respected, that even your symbolic gestures can save the whole fuckin’ world*. That is the utmost expression of the power of Compounded Honesty.
Although the examples above can be intimidating, getting started in riches through honesty is easy. You just have to stop caring at all about short term gain, and develop the ability to downplay, rather than exaggerate your own abilities.
“Although I’d enjoy building this $25,000 kitchen for you, Mrs. Smith, I’d still suggest you consider some other options as well. You might get just as much functionality by just adding an island to your existing kitchen. And be sure to get quotes from other contractors as well – I’ve bid this one a bit high, since some of the work is new to me and will take me longer. Other carpenters may be able to beat my price if they are more experienced in this area”.
“I’m sorry about the bug in the latest software release – that was totally my fault because I failed to catch it when designing my test cases. I’ve now got it fixed – and a big part of that came from the help that Rakesh provided me late on Thursday night.
Once you adopt the policy of honesty, it is hard to go back. The reduction of stress you will experiencing from dropping all pretense and salesmanship will provide an immediate boost in your effectiveness. And far from being expensive, it’s actually one of the the most profitable habits you can develop.
* My use of the F-bomb in this sentence represents my best effort at being honest as well. I was initially tempted to censor it, thinking, “Hmm.. Honesty is also a common religious value, and who knows, this article might get forwarded widely among churchgoers if the Internet decides it shall be so. But swearing would very much decrease its popularity among that group. Should I use a different word? No. Fuck it. The sentence sounds better with the wonderful expletive so I must be true to the Mustachians.