[Life Back West] August 2013 – “Sometimes a Great Notion”

I could tell you that 23 years ago when I moved to San Francisco I figured out that my neighborhood in the Mission would be the hippest place to live west of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, if not North America.

Dictionary Series - Philosophy: trueI could say I predicted that the Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius would write “The vibe may be more Mission than Marina today” when talking about trendy neighborhoods in the City.

I could also say that sometimes you get a great notion and know Dolores Park would be remodeled and become a mecca for singles and families of all flavors, and that something called a “Facebook” would go public and that several Facebook execs, including the CEO, would be buying, building, and living in homes near me.

It would be a lie. But I could maybe pass it off as truth.

The fact is that what passes for truth can change over time, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. There’s solid research by people like Daniel Kahneman (great TED talk here on happiness and memory) to support why that happens (e.g. “recency bias” and “focus illusion”) but sometimes changing the truth is more intentional, less chemical.

The other reality is that sometimes the truth looks and feels a lot better when it’s been tarted up; “fact remodeling” so to speak. And time helps grease those memories to shape-shift the reality that you’d prefer to remember, and hope that others believe. And so the story we tell takes out the parts we want to forget, and accentuates or adds what we – or the organization we head –  prefers to communicate.

Examples are everywhere – here are an easy two:

  • Clif Bar (whose products I love) was co-founded by Lisa Thomas and Gary Larsen. They had a bitter falling-out when the opportunity to sell the company arose. Gary stayed and never sold, and Lisa cashed out and has been subsequently written out of the company’s history.

The list of truth-shaping goes on: Don Draper from Mad Men and his invented life, the schools founded in mid-century as a reaction to the 1954 US Supreme Court order desegregating public schools who honor their “spirited” founders looking for “alternatives to public education” rather than founding segregationists avoiding racially integrated schools, or business people trumpeting their complete success, not the number of times they’ve used bankruptcy protection.

The problem is that when we fact-shift we lose a part of our identify, the piece of us that’s genuine and authentic even though it may be less than admirable. It’s you, warts, beauty marks and all: claim it!

I don’t know if the truth sets you free but it does make it easier to remember who you are. When you alter facts you have to remember two stories; the one you know to be true and the one (or ones in the case of Anthony Weiner) that we’d like people to believe.

And as Weiner’s tale cautions, it can also be awkward to be truthful. But turns out the telling the truth promotes living a longer life, better health, trust, and confidence, and pushing through the awkward finds you in a much better place. Who really cares, after all, if you went to BU rather than Cal, Claremont or Cornell?

Practice with being matter-of-fact telling the truth keeps you grounded in the reality of you, anchored on your bedrock rather than the landfill of invented fabrication.

And the real truth about how I ended up living in one of the coolest neighborhoods in North America?

I got really lucky.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub. 


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