Many moons ago, I worked as a pay phone operator. And I learned a valuable lesson about exaggeration.
(What’s a pay phone operator? Let’s just say that real live humans were your Siri.)
Every day, I sat in a cubicle sea and wore a headset to answer calls that came through a desktop computer.
I was not allowed to talk to anyone but the people who called my pay phones, and I was only allowed a pencil and a few sheets of scrap paper.
The computer did nothing but answer calls. No email, no internet, not even a pleasant beach-scene screensaver.
So…yeah, it was super boring.
One day, my manager asked if anyone spoke French. They occasionally got calls from French speaking customers and needed someone who could direct them to a French language help line.
I lifted my hand. I had taken French for several years in school, but I had zero occasion to speak it. Rusty would have been a nice way of describing my fluency at that point.
But no one else was available, so I volunteered. And, yes, it seemed like a good way to break up the monotony.
When they asked me if I was fluent, I said, “No, but I can carry on a basic conversation.”
Okay, wait. Did you hear that? I exaggerated right there. Basically, that was lying, right?
I was NOT able to carry on a conversation with a French person—unless the conversation was limited to how are you and my name is and do you know where the library is. I could understand quite a bit of what the other person was saying, but speaking in return was not my strong suit.
Then the first call came in.
During one of my shifts the following week, there was a Frenchman on the phone and I was called into action.
I have to admit, in that moment as I walked down the line of cubes with the other operators looking up at me as I passed, I felt like I was finally getting my shot on the battlefield. That’s how they made me feel—like the expert being brought in from the home office to win the war.
This Frenchman was very nice to me. I think.
I spoke French. He spoke French. I recited the phone number he needed to call for an actual fluent French operator. He repeated the digits back with some confusion and asked a question.
I glanced around at the three people staring at me with their eyebrows raised, including my manager who was hovering over the side of the cube.
I had no idea what this man was saying.
I repeated the stock phrase I had been told to translate and the phone number for the help line.
He repeated his question and a couple more.
At this point, I knew I was in trouble. I apologized and told him how bad my French was.
(I’m pretty sure he’d already guessed that part.)
Then I repeated the info I had to offer him.
That’s when the French cussing began.
I recognized a few choice words and felt my face get hot. More people had gathered around to watch me field this call and were starting to notice my concern.
For two full minutes – an eternity when you’re on a headset and can only understand every 14th word someone is saying—this man cussed me out, asked me questions, and yelled.
By the end of it, I had apologized in French AND English, given him the same stupid phone number he didn’t want about a thousand times, and started to laugh out of anxiety.
So much for winning the war.
Here’s the sad part about all of this: When my manager realized I could only speak a tiny bit of French, she still wanted me to field the calls. She just adjusted her expectations about what I could do.
This means that if I'd told her the entire truth from the start, I'd have avoided feeling so embarrassed and just done my best with that angry Frenchman while my coworkers applauded my gumption.
Do not exaggerate what you can do for your people. It doesn’t help them or you.
If you’re doubting yourself, I respectfully suggest to you that your perspective is off. Because you have a ton to offer someone who is just starting out in your industry. Even if you’re a beginner, you’re still a few months ahead of someone who never heard of what you do, right?
And you are no beginner.
Own who you are, where you are in your journey, and the value you can bring to the right people.
In this world of constant PR and tough competition, it’s tempting when you’re writing your bio or your website or your book to exaggerate a little, to make yourself sound like a bigger deal than you are.
Don’t get seduced into thinking that exaggeration or outright lying when writing about your results, experience, number of clients, or social media following will land you any more gigs.
In the end, exaggeration could ruin your reputation, destroy relationships, and even harm clients.
Instead, focus on all that you CAN do and write about that.
In one of my particularly down-hearted moments a while back, a friend told me:
“I believe in you. I’ve seen what you can do. You can create something out of nothing.”
It sounds mystical (or snake-oily, depending on your worldview), but we all do it.
Experts, coaches, consultants, entrepreneurs, artists—people with vision. People like you.
Because we’re not REALLY creating something out of nothing, are we?
When we serve at our highest, when we lift people up, when we create space for others’ creativity, when we show the way, when we light the path, when we pass down the hard-earned wisdom…we create something that can sustain them AND us.
We create income out of giving.
That’s the way it’s always been—teachers, poets, and caregivers, and prophets.
Like them, you’re making the invisible into something visible. It’s like a mission-driven alchemy in a way.
Turning good intentions and good works into gold.
I know that you’re not primarily motivated by money. Your strongest motivation is creating meaning, building legacy, and getting a front-row seat to your people’s transformation along the way.
At the same time, you love what money can do for you, your family, and your ability to fulfill your mission.
But you deserve to be paid for your service to the world.
Sometimes, we can doubt ourselves because making something out of nothing can feel like handing people air.
Often, what they NEED is air—space to breathe, a moment to readjust, a safe place to be themselves and learn. You’re helping to shift their perspective, move them out of stuckness, and provide them with a willingness to change.
These are profound gifts. You give them to people every day you do your work in the world.
There’s no need to exaggerate what is already so worthy.
Today, as you write that social post or blog, as you think about what needs to show up on your website or LinkedIn profile so you can attract clients, be real with yourself.
Show up as the real you—right where you are.
You’re capable of making something out of nothing. That is magic. And that’s more than enough.
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