By Steven John
Before I began writing full time, I worked in the film industry in Los Angeles.
After graduating from film school, I settled in LA and found work on a number of productions, working on the sets of TV shows, a few television commercials, and music video shoots. Within a year or so, I found a steadier job at a major studio and worked in marketing and acquisitions for the next two years.
After that, I moved to a talent and literary agency, where I would work for three and a half years until finally making the switch to self-employment as a writer.
It was during my time at the agency that I got a piece of advice that has stuck with me and helped me greatly ever since precisely because I outright rejected it. The advice was this: “If you want to be good at this job, learn how to lie.”
Learn how to lie.
That was the guidance my boss gave me in his attempt to act as a mentor. And he said it with pride and conviction; indeed, the advicewas coming right from his own former boss, a venerable, respected agent in his own right.
To tell you the truth (which is kind of the point here) lots of people working in Hollywood really do lie all the time. Every manager has read the script that client is asking about. Every talent agent watched that actor’s audition tape. Every producer has the funding secured and the director signed on.
In the years I spent working in various areas of the film and TV industry, I heard more misleading statements, half-truths, and outright lies than I could possibly count.
But I had never heard someone take ownership of the dishonesty so directly. This wasn’t someone recommending a lie, but lying writ large; lying as the modus operandi whenever it served.
I can’t recall exactly how I reacted in that moment, but I know I neither agreed nor protested, at least not in words. Likely I gave some sort of half nod of acknowledgement (that may well have seemed like tacit approval, frankly) and went on with things. I was in my late 20s at the time and far from naive, but I was also not so jaundiced by life that I didn’t immediately albeit internally recoil from the counsel. What I did not immediately realize was that the exchange would become a touchstone for me.
In the months and years that have followed, that moment has flashed into my mind on multiple occasions when a challenge has faced me in the course of my work.
When presented with a situation where obfuscation might serve as a quick fix, I have heard the “learn how to lie” mantra echo in my head and had a commitment to honesty and ownership of the issues refreshed. While a lie often temporarily gets us past the problem at hand, in doing so it creates yet another problem that will also have to be confronted: the lie itself.
Beyond helping me establish a clear boundary between integrity and falsehood in my professional life, my former boss’s career advice gave me one other benefit, repugnant as the implication may be. If he could so proudly, almost gleefully advise me to be dishonest, how many other people were being more subtly deceptive?
I try to be a trusting person, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to take everything at face value. And trust me, that’s a wise approach.
Originally published on Business Insider.
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