Three Lies That Distort Life And Work (Part One)

The longer I live and work, the more in touch I am with my frailties. It’s not my favorite moment when I realize that I am not Buzz Light Year. I don’t do everything perfect. I screw up and have flaws. Many. I am a mixed bag of motives, virtues and vices.

Over the years, when I have these realizations, I’ve eased the blow by believing certain lies. These lies keep me moving forward, but in the end, disappoint me. In fact, at the end of each lie is the reality that I’m still me and the lie I believed just made things worse.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my life, my family, and what lies ahead. But if I’m honest, I also wish for something I don’t yet have. And at 52, I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever have it. In fact, I’m not even sure what it is. It’s this “elusive something” that will make my life fulfilled and create “real” success or happiness or you fill in the blank.

I’m not alone in this. In my work with leaders and organizations, I see the same dynamic at play. Leading, or working in an organization, is certainly a mixed bag of excitement, disappointment, and everything in between. If you lead, or care about an organization, you come up against moments where you’re in touch with organizational frailties. You’re just not the Buzz Light Year organization or team or leader that you thought you were.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that you don’t do good and important work. It’s not that your organization isn’t full of competent people. It’s just well…you’re not accomplishing what you had hoped to accomplish. Even though you’re successful, there’s a “nagging” inside that something is missing or not working.

It’s at this “nagging point”- where we realize we’re not what we want to be – that we often tell ourselves lies. Like any lie, these lies make things worse. They create greater disappointment and angst. They can depress us and derail us from the good we do. And, in a weird way, they prod us to work harder for something that is elusive and maybe even impossible.


Three Lies That We Tell Ourselves When We’re Feeling Vulnerable 

The three lies we’ll consider in this three-part blog warp our sense of progress because, when we believe them, we take our focus off what we can do and place it on falsehood. And that can send us into personal or organizational despair. In part one, let’s consider the first lie.


Lie Number One:

Things happen fast. Or, things should be happening faster for me/us because they happen faster for everyone else. 


Right at the outset of this first lie, I want to say that I’m not in favor dilly dallying around or

condoning a lazy pace due to a lack of courage or will. Strategic speed is an important quality in life and work. That being said, we have bought into the lie that things should go faster than they do. 

Projects take longer. Meetings take longer. Dealing with conflict takes longer. Building your business takes longer. Creating meaningful relationships takes longer. Helping your family takes longer. Creating new ideas and products takes longer. Selling things takes longer. Creating wealth and health takes longer. Everything takes longer.

If we buy into the lie that things go quickly, it causes us to do two things. First, we try to cram too much into our lives and work. We do this because we believe the things in our schedules won’t take as long as they end up taking. This creates a perpetual feeling of being behind. But to be accurate, it’s not just that we’re behind. It’s that we overestimated what we could accomplish in the first place. We try to do too much because we believe things will go faster, take less time and energy, then they do.

The second thing lie number one causes us to do is shoddy and mediocre work. Because we overestimated what we could accomplish, we hurry through work or life—not present to much of anything. We’re like pin balls bouncing from one station to the next. We give few things our best energies and end up with a trail of half-baked outcomes that frustrate us even more. A “crammed life” and schedule is a sure recipe for mediocre results. Doing remarkable work takes time—whether that remarkable work is a well-run meeting, a strategic sales call, an ingenious project, or a meaningful relationship.


Lie number one will keep you doing more and more with less effectiveness, puny results and growing unhappiness.


Margin: A beginning antidote for lie number one

I’m sure you can imagine several ways to combat lie number one. At work, you could reduce the constant back to back meetings. You could add time to a project to allow for the inevitable surprises that emerge. You might learn to slow your internal world down through meditation or mindfulness. You could take more time to accomplish chores at home. You could make more time for important conversations rather than cramming them in small sections of your day. On we could go.

All of these solutions though really come down to, margin. Margin is a powerful antidote for lie number one. By margin though I don’t just mean adding time in your day, or to a meeting, project or business process. Inserting margin into those things, and others, can be helpful. But it’s not enough by itself. Simply “adding time” to actions and activities won’t eliminate the first lie. In fact, it could frustrate you more. You first must add margin somewhere else. You must apply margin to your expectations. You must expect things to take longer.

OK now take a deep cleansing breath. I know this could sound like a bad idea. You might think: C’mon Dave, creating the expectation that things will take longer, will just make them take longer, right? Wrong. Remember the lie? The lie is that things go faster than they do. The lie tells you that you should be able to accomplish so much more because things don’t take long to do. Creating margin in your expectations is not choosing laziness, it’s choosing reality.

Expect things to take longer and you will then be able to give them more time. But if you don’t start with your expectations, you’ll always be fighting the frustration that things are taking too long. Now, if things don’t take as long as you expected, then hurray. Remember, I’m not praising slackers here. But I am praising the application of margin to your beliefs and expectations about time and speed.

When we apply margin to our expectations, it puts the margin at the place where we need it the most. Think about something at work or in life that is taking longer than you want it to. Whatever it is, it’s not moving as fast as you’d hoped. Got it? Now think about that feelings associated with that thing. My guess is, when it comes to the slower pace, you might feel revved up, frustrated, exasperated, depressed or worse. The angst over the fact that something is taking longer comes from lie number one. When we enter a project or relationship or conversation or “whatever,” and we expect it will not take very long, we set ourselves up for trouble. Why? Because of lie number one. That is, things move fast; but for some reason “our thing” is not moving fast. And here comes the frustration, anger, anxiety or resentment.

When you add margin to your expectations, you will then be OK with margin in your schedule or your business development or your relationships. But if you don’t infuse proper margin into your expectations, you’ll constantly be fighting against the need to insert margin into your actions or activities.


Infuse margin into your expectations. Then infuse it into your life, work and schedule.


What if you did less, but did it better.  What would that be like? What might that yield?



  1. Roel Krabbendam August 6, 2018 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    Hi Dave,
    I like the ingenuity lab branding!
    In architecture we call margin “contingency” and apply it religiously to schedules and budgets. This is because we don’t just have our own expectations but also our many project stakeholders’ expectations to manage.
    My book is out by the way: did I ever send you the essay in which you are quoted?

    • Dave Fleming August 6, 2018 at 1:25 pm - Reply

      Hey Roel,

      Lack of margin in architecture seems like a really bad idea. My guess is you’ve seen architects that did not create margin. If you have seen it, what do you think keeps architects from creating needed margin?

      Congrats on the book and no, I’ve not seen the essay. Would love to see it.


  2. Tessa LeSage August 6, 2018 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Dave! Glad you’re back and sharing again!

    There is no doubt this resonates with me and I need more margin in all aspects is life.

    How do you overcome the margin challenge when expectations are held by a group or a team or a client or a boss? Would you agree that a lot of margin is tied up with other people?

    • Dave Fleming August 7, 2018 at 9:32 am - Reply

      Hi Tessa,

      Oh boy…that’s a big question. Here’s a beginning exploration of it:

      When Busyness Infects The Tribe

      It’s one thing to be individually infected with “busyness syndrome;” it’s quite another when a team, department, or organization has the virus. As with all cultural change, moving from busyness to critical and creative thought and action takes time, gentle challenges, permission giving, and modeling. It also requires that people recognize more value in the return that comes from creative and ingenious action, rather than scattered and hurried action. That’s easier said than done. Busyness does produce stuff; busy people do get some things done. So it can feel quite odd to even consider a different way.

      Important Distinction

      I would also say that there is a difference between busyness and consistent and significant productivity. The opposite of “busy” is not “unproductive action.” That perspective (believing the opposite of “busy” is “unproductive”) is what often fuels busyness on teams. People develop a bias that busyness somehow equates to productivity. Not a good bias to have. Busyness is a frenetic energy that hurries from one thing to another. The hurried and “back to back” pace of the day can slowly numb someone (or a team) – making it difficult to think critically and act creatively. We are simply surviving at that point—never actually applying our best energies to anything. Busyness blocks our best work because it keeps us in perpetual mindless motion. One of the first things a team must embrace is this different perspective.

      However, simply removing everything from one’s calendar (or the team’s calendar) isn’t the antidote to busyness. The antinode to busyness begins when I’m willing to add things to my calendar, and delete them, through critical and strategic thought about my life and work. I can truly say that I have worked hard to shun busyness while raising a family, running a business, writing four books, finishing two doctorates, and maintaining as much physical health as I can. I have done this inside organizations that didn’t value margin. And I’ve done it as an entrepreneur. I choose to be productive but not from a frenetic place of overwhelm that leads to poor decision making and a lot of rework.

      Finally, organizations often overcommit to outcomes that they absolutely cannot accomplish with the available team margin. Many organizations go in to “energy debt” — for many reasons — that diminishes the quality of their output and their outcomes. Again, this requires a team to stop doing things. That’s hard because busyness gets equated with productivity. The more I do the more I’m accomplishing. That’s not usually true, but it’s very hard to change.

      Teams have to commit to different perspectives and then hold each other accountable for different ways of behaving. Oh damn, that takes work and a willingness to change. Oh damn, again.


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Written by Dave Fleming