Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Allure of Foreign Truths

Today I decided to say no to something. 

That's a big deal for me.

I'm a pleaser, so I have gotten myself into quite a few projects that I quickly realized I should have declined. That tendency reminds me of an amazing quote from contemporary philosopher David Norton: 

"The great enemy of integrity is not falsehood as such but - ironically - the attractiveness of foreign truths, truths that belong to others." 
(Norton, D. 1977. Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. Princeton University Press. p. 9)

Norton isn't talking about religious truths here, but personal ones. "Foreign truths" are good things that aren't mine to do. In my case, that includes things like selling a product, engaging in public political debate, or playing basketball. I admire people who do those things well, and at different times in my life I've been persuaded that I ought to do each of them. But while I was doing them, I felt like an impostor. And if I had kept trying to be something I wasn't, it would eventually shred the fabric of my integrity (by which Norton means not so much one's honesty as one's sense of wholeness as a person). 

So, being a pleaser, I have unfortunately spent a fair amount of time pretending to be something I wasn't. That's no crime if you're genuinely searching for what your gifts are (which does require some trial and error). However, my concern (and Norton's) is that a lot of people spend their entire lives living foreign truths at work or in their personal lives -- trying to be what others think they ought to be, or what will make them the most money, regardless of their gifts. That's tragic, because it means you spend your life offering to the world something less than your best. And the world needs our unique personal gifts! (And we need to give them to be happy.)

If you're trying to figure out what your calling in life is, here's another thing or two to ask yourself: 

- What opportunities have I said "no" to? Why?
- What opportunities do I wish I had said "no" to? 

Sometimes we can learn as much about our unique gifts by the opportunities we turn down as the ones we accept.


  1. I LOVE this post. I heard recently that success is saying "No" strategically.

  2. I was all set to say, "I agree - so true!" when I realized that I really needed to hear this. I understand this intellectually, and can often pull this particular piece of courage out of my boots, but still fall consistently to the temptation to do more than I should. I love how this is phrased - I've never heard it characterized as doing *someone else's* work. In that light, I'm a little chagrined and embarrassed. It makes me realize that my calling may be to champion others in doing things that I've often done, stepping out of the limelight for their benefit.

    In fact, blogging may be one of my own particular things to which I should say "no," as my audience is probably too small to justify the time spent. And honestly, spreading ourselves too thin dilutes our impact where it should be concentrated. I'm going to think about this very critically today. Thanks.

  3. It's amazing how much discussion I have seen/heard/given about cultivating diverse experiences, lamenting missed opportunities, and wondering "what if." I think we should pay much more attention to the issue of WHEN to say "no." Does anyone have advice or observations about identifying when something is a "foreign truth" versus a legitimate growth opportunity? I always seem to discover this unfortunate reality after I have said yes and it is too late to back out. (and no, Jeff, I am not referencing our project--I am actually quite excited by it)

  4. "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go and do that, because what the world
    needs is people who have come alive."  
    - Howard Thurman, African American pastor, philosopher, author

    Very thought-provoking . All of your posts. I've come to depend on Ariel to tell me when to say "no."

    On another point, I will say that occasionally I feel like an imposter at work. I love my job and our work, but I am quite sure that it is not my ultimate calling. When do you think a person should arrive at their great calling; the sweet spot that provides the meaning, challenge, growth, and passion that we all look for? I'm sure it depends on the person, but if you have any insight or guidance into the personal calling continuum, I would appreciate it. Maybe a post in and of itself?

  5. Excellent question, Andrew. I'm sure I'll get to it in the blog at some point. Of course, I don't think there is a definite answer as to timing. But I have learned that it's all about the journey. I'm not really sure I buy into the notion of a "dream job" (though I feel like mine is awfully close). But I think if you are committed to finding your calling, you continually approach it over time -- whether that be with a new job or with reshaping your job to fit your gifts. More on that later!