You Must Tell Yourself the Truth

I went golfing last weekend. I played twice, once with some friends, and once with my dad. 

The score came up during both rounds. That’s not unusual - most people keep score when they play golf (although I’m an advocate for not doing so - a story for another post).

It’s common in casual golf to take a ‘mulligan’, or to count a lost ball as a hazard ball. Or to kick it a few feet when you have an unplayable lie.

In both rounds, there were opportunities for me to take a lower score.

“Just take a mulligan, no worries.” “Ah, we didn’t look for long, just assume you’d have found it.”

I’ve always played this way, not thinking much about it. 

But it can cause problems.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is defined as “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.”

Like the belief that ‘I’m a good golfer’ and the reality that I just shot a 95.

Taking a mulligan, taking just a stroke for a lost ball, or bumping a ball out when it’s unplayable are all ways to ease cognitive dissonance for golfers.

When you come out with a score of 85 instead of 95, you can maintain the narrative that you’re a decent golfer.

The problem is that it doesn’t reflect reality. And while it doesn’t have large consequences when playing casual golf, it’s a habit that can cause problems elsewhere in life.

Truth = Improvement

Seeing things as they are is a fundamental concept among top performers, learners, strategists, and philosophers.

To improve in an area, you must be able to see reality. You must be able to see the truth. 

To operate a business efficiently, you must be able to identify strengths and weaknesses.

To maintain strong relationships, you must realize personal faults and mistakes, and empathize with others.

Ray Dalio, manager of one of the largest hedge funds in the world, has gone so far as to name truth as his most important principle (in his book called Principles): “My most fundamental principle: Truth
 —more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality— is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.”

Seeking truth is a requirement for successfully understanding and operating in the world.

Taken to an extreme, those who cannot see truth, and seek to reduce cognitive dissonance, are those who struggle most - repeat offenders, those who struggle to maintain relationships, those who do not complete anything. 

They tell themselves stories that do not reflect reality and suffer as a result.

What does golf have to do with anything?

Chess master and meta-learner Josh Waitzkin is partial to saying “the way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” 

In short, the habits you form in one part of your life are not compartmentalized - they spread across other areas of life.

Casual golf is low stakes, but if you fool yourself here, it makes it easier elsewhere in life.

Instead, next time you’re on the golf course, or participating in any casual sport, seek to find the truth. What is my true score? What is my true skill level right now?

Often, you’ll gain insights you wouldn’t have otherwise. 

I thought I’d played terrible on the back nine last weekend, but when I looked at the scores, the difference was simple - I’d lost 3 balls. My game hadn’t actually changed much, I’d just rolled a few drives into the woods instead of the rough.

Had I taken a mulligan, or just dropped one and not taken the extra strokes, I would have focused on other areas of my game that were less impactful. The same principle applies throughout life.

Physicist Richard Feynman perhaps said it best: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The good news is that good habits work the same as bad habits - once they’re formed, you’ll find they translate to other areas of life.

Aim for the truth in golf, and you may just find it elsewhere.