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Why brutal honesty is a mistake — and the one time it’s not

Brutal honesty rarely works when we’re trying to get other people to change. But it can be extremely effective when we’re trying to make changes ourselves.

Ramit Sethi

Over the past 12+ years, I’ve had a lot of fun giving advice and sharing what I’ve learned. I used to get frustrated when people didn’t listen. Why didn’t they just follow my advice when I could objectively solve their problems?

Who else has tried to give good advice, only to have your friend, mom/dad, or boyfriend/girlfriend ignore it? Even when they genuinely wanted to change?

Brutal honesty rarely works when we’re trying to get other people to change.

But it can be extremely effective when we’re trying to change ourselves.

Today we’ll walk through the 4 truths about brutal honesty:

 

Truth #1: People don’t want to hear brutal honesty

It took me a long time to realize that information alone doesn’t persuade. If it did, we’d all be rich, fit, and in perfect relationships.

Take one of my favorite examples of how information alone doesn’t help people lose weight. The short story is that author Clotaire Rapaille was speaking at a university conference where the other speakers were talking about the importance of obesity education. He looked around the room and said this:

“I think it is fascinating that the other speakers today have suggested that education is the answer to our country’s obesity problem,” I said. I slowly gestured around the room. “If education is the answer, then why hasn’t it helped more of you?”

Insert an incredible awkward silence.

How can you be honest without being a jerk? Check out this 4-minute video where I share:

  • What happened when I tried to give people the “right answer” about their finances (1:22)
  • The factors that influence behavior change besides information (2:01)
  • One simple, easy way to drastically improve your communication (2:40)
  • How to walk the line between honesty and sensitivity (3:14)
  • What people REALLY want when they ask for advice (3:46)

Truth #2: People aren’t brutally honest with us

Because people don’t generally want to hear brutal honesty, most advice — especially online — isn’t very helpful.

For example, I was reading a women’s relationship-advice site. This girl was asking for advice about a guy she was seeing. They had gone on a few dates, but he hardly called her and mostly sent short text replies when she initiated.

“LEAVE HIM!” the other women on the forum yelled.

“Here is what you do,” one said. “You need to test him and make him work for it.”

Another said, “Let him chase you. You need to filter out guys like this and go for men who want you.”

Do you notice something funny about the advice?

NOT ONE PERSON TOLD HER TO IMPROVE HERSELF.

Instead, they told her about filtering men…and how HE needed to work to win her…and how she shouldn’t put up with the way he was treating her.

Yes, that girl on the advice forum should probably kick that guy to the curb (he’s just not that into her). But I guarantee she could improve herself — becoming more fun, getting more fit, picking up interesting activities, and overall working on her positive attitude.

This idea of actually improving yourself is advice NOBODY tells their friends. It’s politically incorrect and impolite, and it’s easier to tell them to DUMP THAT LOSER! But it also happens to be 100% true.

I want to show you what I mean.

A friend of mine had a crush on one of my friends, a big-name, top-tier guy. She was mystified that he didn’t seem to be into her, and she asked for my advice. I don’t usually give relationship advice (because people are weirdos and start hating you when you don’t tell them they’re the greatest), but she was persistent.

I said one thing: “What kind of woman does a man like him want?”

She responded with generic BS: “Confident, smart, blah blah.”

I said, “Ok, just stop. This dude is a high-caliber man. He is SWIMMING in women. Of course he wants that — but that’s just the price of admission. What else?”

She was stumped — and admitted she’d never really thought of what HE would want — because in her mind, for her entire life, she’d been the prize that men pursued.

It turned out there were a few things she COULD work on. She recognized that to attract a top-tier partner, she had to be at the top of her game.

(By the way, this is just as true for guys. It’s not enough to just coast by — improving yourself means becoming more interesting, fit, engaging, and entertaining. When you become the life of the party, women will be attracted to you, instead of you simply having to chase after whatever you can get.)

By the way, I’m not just talking about relationships…

We do the same thing with careers. We write about what WE want in a job…how WE want a flexible schedule, how WE need to make $X, how WE want to work from home on Fridays.

I call this “I, I, I Syndrome,” because average people spend so much time thinking about what they want…that they NEVER pay attention to what the hiring manager wants!

(BTW, on this site I detail how to do this for your dream jobstarting your online business, and your social skills.)

Truth #3: Brutally honest feedback is the key to growth

My friend was telling me about an event he attended a few years ago. A group of women were brought in to give direct feedback about how they perceived the guys and their clothing, their demeanor, the way they came across. These were grown men — construction workers, authors, professionals.

Try to imagine what happened.

“The guys were crying,” my friend told me. “Nobody had ever given us this kind of brutal feedback.” The women called them “creepy” and “dorky.”

My friend realized NOBODY HAD TAUGHT HIM how to talk to women. Worse, he’d been doing it wrong his entire life.

In his head, he was a nice guy. But the way he was coming across was terrible. The women weren’t being mean, and there was no reason to lie. He simply hadn’t realized how he was being perceived…for his whole life.

How many of us have things our friends aren’t telling us?

Maybe you’re socially awkward. Or you have an irritating verbal tic. Are you always late? Do you smell, but nobody will tell you?

What if you have a trait that’s crippling your social skills, or your career…but you never find out?

I realized this after a few years of not getting what I wanted. I tried to improve myself (e.g., to gain weight so I wasn’t so skinny, to get less socially awkward, etc), but it didn’t work.

You know what happens after a while?

We start to think about ourselves in a terrible way: “This is who I am.”

“I’m the skinny guy who can’t gain weight.” (I used to joke about that. I didn’t realize the impact that insulting myself had on my own self-concept.)

“I’m just lazy.”

“I’m not the kind of person who can start a business.”

We start to think that we’re not the kind of person who can earn more, or throw parties, or improve our style/appearance, or even our career skills! Of course, it’s not politically correct to tell ourselves that we’re limited, so we rationalize it:

  • “Nobody’s perfect”
  • “Best to focus on your strengths and ignore your weaknesses”
  • “I don’t want to lose what I already have”

The truth is, it’s EASY to give up on yourself — much easier than forcing yourself to change! As we get older, it’s HARD to learn new skills. Just ask yourself: When was the last time you tried doing something new where you truly felt like a beginner?

This is the weirdest and most depressing part. At the moment when we accept our weaknesses and stop deciding to grow, we’re the BEST we’re ever going to be. It’s all downhill from there.

Or…we could take a different approach.

We could subject ourselves to uncomfortable situations where we take on the “beginner’s mind” and force ourselves to grow.

We could realize that ANYONE can get older…but few actually get “better with age” unless they’re intentional about it.

And we can pick a few areas of life we want to improve — just a few — and become masters at them.

Remember the men’s group I just told you about?

The friend was Michael Ellsberg. And I recently invited him into my NYC video studio to share his detailed story. I rarely get “shocked” by people any more, but his brutal honesty really surprised me.

In the interview, he shares:

  • His rags-to-riches story: How he moved to Buenos Aires because he had no money and he couldn’t make it in America
  • Now he makes multiple 6 figures/year (he named the exact figure on camera) and is a noted speaker on social skills
  • His formula for why parents are often so worried about us, instead of supporting us (“They want safety for their kids — not excellence”)

And he talks about how he went through a grueling 10+ years of self-development to work on improving himself…sharing the toughest lessons so I could learn from his journey.

If you’re interested in learning about the “blind spots” you might have in your life — like how those women told Michael he was coming across as creepy — I want to show you this video.

Truth #4: An “honesty bath” is the first step to create new habits

Just like people are rarely brutally honest with us… we often lie to ourselves.

So many of us start our day off with a lie!

  • “Ugh, I’m tired…I’ll go to the gym after work”
  • “Ok, for real, I’m not going to eat junk food tonight” (said while getting dressed to go out, knowing you’ll be drinking 5 vodka tonics and passing by that pizza place on 6th Ave. You’re DEFINITELY going to eat drunk food tonight. But you deny it)
  • “I’m going to wake up early tomorrow” (said while browsing Reddit and Facebook at 9pm…only to be doing the same thing 5 hours later)

This is where I take an honesty bath.

What I mean is, I get BRUTALLY HONEST about myself. This means I look back at the last month and say, “What did I claim I was going to do? What did I really do?”

And then, in classic GTD style, I do these:

  • Delete
  • Defer
  • Do it

Example: If I claim I’m going to wake up every day at 7am, but every morning, I just slap the snooze button until it’s 8am…I’m not going to wake up at 7am! DELETE!

If I claim I’m going to make my bed every morning, but I have a huge project at work and I haven’t made it in the last 3 weeks, I’m not going to make my bed while the crazy project is happening at work. DEFER!

This takes a lot of fortitude since you have to be ruthlessly honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and your past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. If you find yourself using the word “just” — “Ugh, I’ll just start next week” or “I’ll just try harder this week” — you’ve already lost.

The best part? Once you make the decision, you can live GUILT-FREE and use your energy to commit to things you’ll actually do.

Our struggles with self-improvement are really struggles with creating habits — which is why I put together the very best material on setting goals, creating habits that stick, riding motivational waves, and getting back on track (if you ever fall off).

If you’re ready to stop making excuses, break out of that rut, and make a major change in your life, this free guide is for you.


habits
 

Take a look at what’s inside:

  • How to wake up productive and get more done by noon than most people do all day (covered in Part 2)
  • “If I wasn’t so lazy, I’d ____.” I’ll teach you how to keep being productive even when you “don’t feel like it.” (covered in Part 3)
  • Ever spent a busy day filled with distractions — answering emails and putting out fires — and walked away feeling like you finished nothing? I’ll show you how to stay productive and eliminate distractions (covered in Part 6)

This free guide includes HD videos, downloadable worksheets, lessons from the world’s leading experts on behavioral change, and much, much more.

So check it out. Try out the techniques. And enjoy the results you get for the rest of your life.

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