Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lied.

At least, that's what the Nigerian author of Americanah, We Should All Be Feminists and other popular and critical works confessed earlier this week during her Class Day speech to graduating seniors at Harvard.

Lying -- or, more specifically, why not to lie -- was an important theme in her talk to graduates who are shortly and newly entering the global workforce. "If I were asked the title of my address to you today, I would say, 'Above all else, do not lie,'" Adichie said. "Or 'Don't lie too often'--which is really to say, 'Tell the truth.' But lying, the word, the idea, the act, has such political potency in America today, that it somehow feels more apt."

There was no mistaking her message in the general sense, but Adichie's advice resonated for me as an entrepreneur as well, not because I'm in the habit of lying but because of Adichie's emphasis on the important life skill of being able to detect flatterers and manipulators.

As entrepreneurs, that is always a gut check, particularly in the earliest stages of a new idea and nagging uncertainty about its validity, when we're especially vulnerable to false encouragement.

"Having that detector means you must also use it on yourself, and sometimes the hardest truths are those we have to tell ourselves," said Adichie. As in, when your best idea yet (in your opinion, anyway) is just not going to cut it. Or when you've made a very bad hiring decision. Or when maybe, just maybe, you aren't cut out for the entrepreneurial gig after all.

How do we keep ourselves honest? How do we hone the detect-flatterers-and-manipulators skill? How do we not lie, to ourselves or about our product? How do we tell the truth?

Here are three suggestions, courtesy of an exceptionally gifted writer and her advice to the newest vintage of fresh alumni to enter the workforce:

1. Acknowledge ignorance.

"Ignorance acknowledged is an opportunity," Adichie said. "Ignorance denied is a closed door." That's a very elegant way to say, know what you don't know, and seek out help to fill in those gaps.

It's a familiar refrain for entrepreneurs, but Adichie added a poetic twist: Whenever you wake up, that is your morning. (Or, in the Igbo language, Mgbe onye tete bu ututu ya.) Whenever our eyes are opened to a new idea or an innovative breakthrough, it is a fresh start. An open door. A new morning, so to speak, with the full day ahead of us to change the world.

2. "Make the human story the center of your understanding of the world."

That's the MacArthur-winning writer talking there, but Adichie's advice applies across industries. Most designers, for example, label the "human story" the user experience; making it central to product design is the pivot point of success or failure for most new enterprises.

Where Adichie might advise fellow writers to workshop their stories in a group, in order to gauge whether their human stories resonate, entrepreneurs solicit feedback in the form of reviews or ratings.

Where Adichie narrates the human story through character development and plot resolution, entrepreneurs seek to fulfill an unmet human need through the development of our mission and delivery of our services.

3. Read widely and voraciously.

We can centralize, and prioritize, the human story by "making literature your religion," Adichie advised. What she meant was to read widely -- that is, in the genres of narrative, fiction, and nonfiction -- in order to prepare us to err on the side of truth.

This advice makes sense particularly when spoken to an audience of new university graduates. As entrepreneurs, we can extend the advice to embrace more layers of "reading" to include reading the end user, reading decision trees, and reading the market. We can turn to any number of applicable "texts," from transactional data to observations of consumer behavior.

The common thread here is curiosity--at every step of our entrepreneurial journey.

Published on: May 25, 2018
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