Why the Three Worst Lies in Business Are the Ones We Tell Ourselves

Why the Three Worst Lies in Business Are the Ones We Tell Ourselves

“It’s faster this way,” my wife said. And she was right. But only by about three and a half minutes.

In my defense, rural Oregon doesn’t offer many roads to choose from, so my route to work isn't something I've given a lot of thought to. Except that it’s my route. (And what’s three and a half minutes anyway?)

I suppose I could have extrapolated.

Three and a half minutes, twice a day, seven days a week is 49 minutes. Multiply that by 50 — to exclude weeks I don’t head in — and that’s 2,548 minutes a year. Taking fuel into consideration, which averages 12¢ per minute, and I’m throwing away $305.76 as well.

Still, that's not particularly jarring. Until you look at the long haul …

Over a five-year stretch, those three and half minutes add up to 212 hours — roughly nine full days — and $1,528.80 of waste. (Plus, that doesn’t even account for what my hourly rate as a writer could generate in 212 hours.)

Here’s the thing: I crunched those numbers weeks ago and still drive the same old route … day after day after day.

What’s that have to do with business? Easy. My guess is you’re the same.

It might not be minutes and mileage, but we’re all creatures of habit, anchored inexorably to the status quo. Most of the time, that’s good. After all, it’d be impossible to navigate our daily decisions if each one was weighed out.

Sometimes, however, those defaults turn on us.

When it comes to business, three predictable lies crowd to the front of our minds and block the path to change.

The first is relational. The second, economical. And the third … we never say out loud.

1. “We Can Work Through This”

According to Jonathan Haidt — social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business — relationships trump “all other conditions” in the realm of personal happiness.

The good ones enliven us; the bad ones, devour:

“Conflicts in relationships is one of the surest ways to reduce your happiness. You never adapt to interpersonal conflict; it damages every day, even days when you don’t see the other person but ruminate about the conflict nonetheless.”

Often, the refrain “we can work through this” can be noble. Enjoying the good times demands slogging through the bad. What’s difficult isn’t just knowing when to walk away from the people dragging us down … but especially the tools.

Take something like reliability.

In ecommerce, uptime is everything. That’s why, when Brian Lim appeared on Shark Tank, he made sure EmazingLights was ready.

Why The Three Worst Lies In Business Are The Ones We Tell Ourselves

Unfortunately, thirty servers, simulated load tests, and $200,000 over an entire year added up to one thing: when the episode went live … EmazingLights went down:

Why The Three Worst Lies In Business Are The Ones We Tell Ourselves

“It made what should’ve been one of the happiest days of my life into the shittiest. I was on the phone with three service providers when the shit hit the fan, and no one could fix the site when it mattered most.”

Brian Lim, CEO and Founder EmazingLights

Of course, your site may not be facing such high stakes, but even nagging complaints like site speed add up fast.

Security is another factor. 

Ironically, the standard solution is to keep everything in-house. But that comes with its own set of risks. Dollar Hobbyz was just one year into their on-premise site when the hack occurred.

Why The Three Worst Lies In Business Are The Ones We Tell Ourselves

“That was an awful email to have to send out to our list of over 150k people. It broke our hearts, and frustrated our customers.”

William Harris, VP of Marketing at Dollar Hobbyz

To be fair, the breach wasn’t entirely their platform’s fault, but it was rooted in “the way our Magento site was set up. All of that data, all of that information – it was all stored on our own hosting server. If one area of the website security was weak, it opened up issues with critical pieces in our backend.”

In the words of The 2016 Trustwave Global Security Report:

“In the ecommerce space, the Magento open-source ecommerce platform was the target of choice for attackers, with Magento installations accounting for 85 percent of compromised systems.”

The majority of these compromises occurred on sites not fully up to date with security patches. In response, one of Magento’s own best practices probably says more than intended:

Why The Three Worst Lies In Business Are The Ones We Tell Ourselves

Unfortunately, that’s precisely the point: being in a relationship should never mean it’s all on you.

Worse, even for merchants who do keep their sites up to date, Magento will stop releasing security patches in 2018.

Naturally, other reasons challenge “make it work” thinking. But there’s a second, far more deceptive rationalization you and your team might be facing.

2. “But We’ve Already Invested So Much”

In economics, it’s known as the sunk-cost fallacy. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains:

Why The Three Worst Lies In Business Are The Ones We Tell Ourselves

“The decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available, is known as the sunk-cost fallacy, a costly mistake that is observed in decisions large and small.”

“Imagine a company that has already spent $50 million on a project. The project is now behind schedule, and the forecasts of its ultimate returns are less favorable than at the initial planning stage. An additional investment of $60 million is required to give the project a chance. An alternative proposal is to invest the same amount in a new project that currently looks likely to bring higher returns.”

“What will the company do?”

“All too often a company afflicted by sunk costs [throws] good money after bad rather than accepting the humiliation of closing the account of a costly failure.”

That might sound extreme, but “humiliation” is the right word. Sure there are the financial calculations. And yes, walking away from all that time spent investing is tough too. But the real struggle is a bit deeper.

What drives sunk costs is loss aversion: our hardwired drive to avoid pain even at the expense of equal or greater gain. Loss aversion compels us to “throw good money after the bad” — not to mention good time, good energy, and good people — because it hurts to let go.

It’s what social psychologist Dan Ariely retroactively calls “the pain of paying.”

It’s also the reason I keep driving the same old roads. To admit that I’ve been doing it wrong hurts. It’s silly, I know, but that route is my route. Telling my wife she’s right would mean owning up to the fact that all the time and money I’ve poured into my route was a waste. To change is to absorb those losses … full force. 

Yet — as any Econ 101 class or introductory psych textbook will tell you — that pain is irrational.

How do you break free?

  • First, recognize that bad investments are inevitable. In fact, mistakes of all kinds are inevitable. Far from being a sign of weakness, accepting them, especially in front of your team, is a cornerstone of successful leadership.
  • Second, adopt “zero-base thinking.” Clear the financial, mental, and emotional balance sheets. How? By recording them, printing out the report, and then taking the symbolic action of writing “Worthless” over the top of your results. Past costs should have no bearing on present actions.
  • Third, in place of those deceptive balance sheets, focus on your goals for the future. You already know where you want to go. If current tools, relationships, or actions aren’t going to get you there, ditch them.

3. “It’s Easier to Do Nothing”

As uncomfortable and painful as accepting sunk costs is, it’s even more uncomfortable to face our final lie.


Because leaders and entrepreneurs aren’t the types of people who take the easy way.

As Ben Horowitz puts it in The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

Why The Three Worst Lies In Business Are The Ones We Tell Ourselves“Great CEOs face the pain. They deal with the sleepless nights, the cold sweats, and … ‘the torture.’ Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations.”

“The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say, ‘I didn’t quit.’”

Your own success hinges on that ethos.

And yet, outside circumstances that slam change to the surface, “easier” is there … pushing down the frustrations, patches, workarounds, help-desk requests, team complaints, internal delays, compromises, and even failures. The only way to know if your reasons are valid reasons — or if they’re just lies — is to look hard at both the obvious costs as well as the hidden consequences.

In all that, fear of conflict fuels silence.

To speak the truth risks hurt feelings: not just externally, but internally as well. It means finding consensus across departments and roles about the problem itself.

If you are struggling with your current platform, many team members will already be on edge. Adding one more conflict to their plates feels unfair. Those that lobbied for the choices that put you in your current struggle are apt to be defensive. And if it was your voice that pushed through the source of pain …

It’s easier just to do nothing.

Unless, of course, it’s not.

“Inaction,” wrote Dale Carnegie, “breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

Can you work through it?

Have you already invested so much?

Is it easier to do nothing?

In the end, those are all questions you’ll have to answer for yourself. Not surprisingly, so will I … to the tune of three and a half minutes.

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About the Author

Aaron Orendorff is the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus as well as a regular contributor to sites like Mashable, Lifehacker, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and more. You can connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.