Lies have been in the news recently. Not the preferred variety or the everyday ones we all engage in.
We’re hearing more today about those whoppers that belong in the Liars’ Hall of Fame.
We construct false narratives to shape the future toward a personal vision, to survive in a challenging world, or to accumulate power and wealth. If we want to combat the destructive power of lies, individuals, institutions, and countries need to be clear-eyed about what happens when we allow deceits, half-truths, and false narratives to take over our stories.
Let’s start with the lies used to build individual myths.
Personal brands are everywhere in today’s working world, and they can help raise the profile of people and communities who have been traditionally marginalized. Like it or not, nonprofit and for-profit institutions offer little or no job security. For those with a worldview focused on building community, the idea of always focusing on one’s personal brand may seem distasteful. But a changing work environment requires new approaches.
Unfortunately, the lure to create a compelling and engaging story can easily slide over into our very human tendency to build unsustainable myths.
We see it play out daily in the business world, as in the myth of the good and smart billionaire. In America we have created a system that has its foundations in the myth of a meritocracy, one which rewards the few at the cost of the many. So we created another myth — that money makes people smart — to sustain the first.
As Amanda Marcotte wrote in Solon, perhaps we are finally beginning to see the negative impacts of such a corrupted belief system, getting the point that billionaires aren’t any smarter than other people and don’t deserve our praise. “Between Elon Musk, Sam Bankman-Fried, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Holmes,” she asks, “who still believes that money equals brains?”
Elizabeth Holmes remains in the news as she appeals her conviction on multiple charges of defrauding investors while begining a personal rebranding tour. * She is an especially timely reminder of the destructive power of deceit and the false narrative.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018 with a 2020 afterword) by John Carreyrou is the story of the building of the myth and the ultimate disgrace of Elizabeth Holmes. The Theranos founder dropped out of Stanford while still in her teens to focus full-time on the health tech startup which claimed to have invented technology that could accurately test for a range of conditions using just a few drops of blood. Theranos raised $945 million from a well-known list of investors and was valued at $9 billion at its peak. Yet her story began to unravel after a Wall Street Journal investigation in 2015 written by Carreyrou reported that the company had only performed roughly a dozen of the hundreds of tests it offered using its proprietary technology, and even in those few cases the accuracy of the results was questioned. Theranos was relying on third-party manufactured devices from traditional blood testing companies rather than its own technology, as it claimed.
In Bad Blood, Carreyrou takes the reader through this sordid story of how the thirst for money, fame, and control — “Apple envy,” he names it, in honor of Holmes’s pursuit to become the next Steve Jobs — wrecked lives, endangered patients, led to a man’s suicide, and wasted almost a billion dollars of investment. Holmes, along with her COO and secret lover Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, used lies, hubris, obfuscation, influential contacts, PR stunts, nepotism, fraud, bullying, and more to hide the simple fact that the empress had no clothes. Carreyrou is a riveting writer and detailed reporter, producing a book that reads like a crime thriller. It also resembles a fable with a clear moral about the downfall of those who traffic in deceit, lies, hubris, and unexamined blind spots in personal principles.
Cautionary tales about badly skewed moral compasses should lead to introspection, conclusions and responses. On the personal level, we need to understand the reasons why personal myth building can be dangerous. Guidelines for building personal brands usually stress authenticity, integrity, and trustworthiness. My experience in the nonprofit sector suggests it is all too easy for half-truths to creep into personal brand-building when describing fundraising prowess and program impact. Others will eventually discover that you’ve inflated the truth or taken credit for the work of others. It is more accurate and authentic to recognize those contributions. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a lesson worth remembering.
Some observers believe the tables are turning, and that we are finally beginning to see a rise in transparency in America just as happened in the early twentieth century. At that time, reformers expressed concerns about the concentration of wealth and power at the top of American society. But those concerns were ignored until investigative journalists at McClure’s Magazine and elsewhere …
… began to explore the specifics of political corruption and its cost to ordinary Americans. … [Those journalists] helped to shift the weight of social value from keeping secrets to spilling them.
When that shift happened, the walls protecting the country’s entrenched leaders crumbled fast.
Too often we are asked by those in power to look at life with the singular consideration of how much money can be made by those who own our businesses. That worldview ignores the remarkable nature of life and the redemptive power that comes from books, music, art, nature, relationships, and much more. We have dislocated the joy that comes from these treasures and forgotten what really matters.
Stretching the truth in your personal story may never reach the level of Elizabeth Holmes, but her cautionary tale is a good one for all to remember.
More to come…
* As I was finishing this book, the New York Times (predictably) wrote a piece white-washing Holmes’s white collar crime entitled “Liz Holmes Wants You to Forget About Elizabeth.” The fabulous New York Times Pitchbot parody Twitter account was having none of it:
The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Preferred lies image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay