I’ve been duped.
A few weeks ago, I bought Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, after hearing rave reviews from several friends and respected bloggers.
Imagine was an easy book to love.
Jonah Lehrer has a wonderfully engaging writing style, and I enjoyed his anecdotes, examples, and advice on how to use the “science of creativity” to cultivate more creative and inspired work.
The book made me feel inspired and hopeful about the future. As Lehrer wove stories about Bob Dylan’s songwriting together with tales about the invention of Scotch Tape, I discovered many ways that I could use his advice to get better (and more original) ideas.
And what writer doesn’t want better ideas?
Because I had enjoyed the book so much — and received so much value from it — I was devastated when the news broke that Lehrer admitted he’s a liar. Turns out that he had fabricated many of the Bob Dylan quotes in his manuscript, and when another writer challenged Lehrer to name his source, he panicked and lied again.
Turns out, there was no valid source — Lehrer completely made up at least one of the quotes in the Dylan section of the book, and spliced together other quotations (many of them out of context) so they supported the thesis of his book.
When the truth came out, Jonah Lehrer resigned from his prestigious post at The New Yorker and his publisher recalled his book.
And the 200,000 people who had purchased Imagine — including yours truly — are now left to deal with our own disappointment and frustration.
A growing trend?
Cases of writers who lie and fabricate sources are now frighteningly common.
Washington Post writer Janet Cooke won (and eventually returned) a Pulitzer Prize for a fraudulent story she wrote in 1980 about an 8-year-old heroin addict.
James Frey was unable to sell his writing as fiction, so he repackaged his story as a memoir. Most of his story was true, but there were sections of the book that were highly overstated, supposedly to increase drama and excitement. When Oprah Winfrey — who had helped Frey sell millions of books by naming his memoir as one of her Book-of-the-Month recommendations — found out he had fabricated some parts of his manuscript, she publicly (and by some reports, aggressively) confronted him on her talk show.
Then there’s the shocking story of Stephen Glass, who perpetrated one of the biggest and longest-running frauds in the history of journalism. In the late 1990’s, Glass cooked up at least 27 pieces for The New Republic that were based on fabricated quotes, sources and events. Some say Glass’s transgressions were a symptom of his almost pathological need to be personally liked and professionally respected by his peers and mentors.
Jonah Lehrer is only the most recent story of a long line of journalists and writers who lost their way.
And every time another story like this comes to light, I feel personally wounded.
I’m a trusting person. I have enormous faith in not only the ethics of authors and writers, but also the fact-checking process at magazines and publishing houses.
And that is why every time this happens — every time an author that I respect has a very public fall from grace, I feel disappointed and confused.
But when cases like these are such a common occurrence, why do I feel surprised and baffled every time another writer gets caught for lying and cheating?
Why we feel pressured to lie
Everywhere we look, we see supposed evidence that bigger is better and more exciting is best.
No corner of society seems immune — we see deceit from athletes who dope up before big competitions, from supermodels who starve themselves into impossibly thin bodies, and from Wall Street moguls who run Ponzi schemes to achieve unsustainable returns for their clients.
We are all trying to keep up with Joneses, but it turns out the Joneses are cutting corners, cooking the books, and making up quotes from Bob Dylan in order to get ahead.
As marketers and writers, we feel constant pressure to overhype and embellish. We feel a subtle-but-constant need to overstate our traffic numbers and exaggerate about the success of our online businesses.
We feel financial and personal pressure from our spouses, our peers, and our competitors to bring in more revenue, have six-figure launches, and quit our day jobs to become professional bloggers.
We often go to bed thinking of ways to grow our businesses so we can have better, richer and fuller lives, and at every turn, we get hit with marketing messages from questionable online marketers who flaunt photos of their sailboats and mansions. These marketers talk about how their get-rich quick schemes helped them build online businesses that made them a million dollars working three hours a week.
Many online marketers also live with the constant fear that if they slow down — if they publish once a week instead of every day, or if they get off the treadmill of ambition and overhype for a little too long — they’ll be left behind, and will never be successful.
One of the major fears is that those who can (supposedly) handle the intense and constant pressure will leave us in the dust. Those competitors who can continually function on three hours of sleep a night, keep up with a manic pace, and reach impossible standards in pursuit of the next big book deal or hugely successful product launch.
How our inner voice gets drowned out
I think the real reason that people have trouble resisting the pressure to achieve at any cost is that they lose their connection with their internal compasses — the little voices in their heads that tell them that lying is wrong. The angels on their shoulders who remind them that cheating to get ahead will actually hurt them (and the people they really want to connect with).
And when we lose touch with that voice — whether it’s from exhaustion, blind ambition, or a desperate desire to be loved and admired — we have a hard time seeing the right path.
Rebecca Self, PhD, a corporate leadership trainer and consultant who has taught media ethics to students and professional worldwide, observed:
Each of us has a moral center, a true north, a compass to guide us. Under normal conditions, we feel when ethical lines are being crossed. They’re different for each of us, but we know they’re there. The real challenges arise when we get off track, away from our own guiding principles. That’s when we don’t notice the transgressions around us, when we overstep, when we make terrible, sometimes even tragic, errors in judgment.
People are so busy, worried, and pressured these days that it’s easier to lose track of who we are and what’s important, easier to act out of necessity or desperation. That’s when otherwise good or normal people make bad decisions.
I would love to say that when one makes bad decisions — when one lies and cheats and hypes oneself to the hilt — that one’s transgressions will always come to light. I’d love to say that in all cases, the truth will win out.
But I don’t think that’s actually true. I know there are authors, reporters, athletes, executives, and online marketers who have lied and haven’t been caught.
But here’s what I do know — lies make us miserable and ruin our relationships. In his brilliant e-book, Lying, author Sam Harris says:
Lies comes at a steep psychological cost … Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work out our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of.
Harris also says that on top of the regret and shame that come with lying, continual deception — even when the lies are small — causes people to distrust us. And trust, once lost, is difficult (if not impossible) to regain.
This is especially true in content marketing, when our authentic connection with our audience is often the most important business asset we have.
How to tune in to our inner compass in the face of incredible pressure
So what practices can one put in place to make sure one doesn’t lose touch with one’s own conscience? What can one do to slow down and remember that there are things that human beings should never do (and things one should always strive to do, even in the worst of circumstances?)
There is some evidence that humans are trying to move more slowly, that some of us are attempting to step out of the rat race of constant competition and hype. There are movements that encourage living simply, clearing our physical and emotional spaces, and savoring our meals with friends as well as making real connections. There are steps we can take to move more slowly and allow ourselves time to connect with our inner compasses.
I think we can also reconnect with our best selves when we take care of our bodies and minds. I think we can try to eat good food, get a little exercise, and try to get more sleep.
I also believe that human interaction can help. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak (nicknamed “Dr. Love”) recommends consciously raising our oxytocin levels in an effort to make us a happier, more socially responsible society. His recipe for doing that? “Dr. Love” prescribes eight hugs a day for each and every one of us.
That’s right. More hugging.
And as much as I love watching the Olympics right now, I can’t help but think that we can all clear a little more brain space for our internal Jiminy Cricket if we turn off our televisions and burn every fashion and self-help magazine in our homes.
This is a problem we can work together to solve
I truly believe that if we start thinking of these problems as ones we can fix — whether it’s with eight hugs a day or trying to get more sleep — that maybe the Jonah Lehrer situations in the world will happen a little less often.
And maybe — just maybe — we can all get a little bit closer to center again, one blog post, one article, one book at a time.
Since I don’t have the answers to this question, I want to hear from you — what can we do to step back from the madness and reconnect with our inner compasses?
What are your practices for making time to listen to your inner voice of reason and truth?