The Importance of Being Earnest
by colbert | December 20, 2009
Earnest. It’s an old word, not used much these days. Perhaps it went out of favor with the horrifyingly bad Ernest movie series. Or maybe it’s because the lexicon of the average American has plummeted from 15,000 words (in 1965) to 5,000 today.
Regardless of the reason, the word doesn’t get much time in the sun any more. And ironically it may be the most important word we have to work with. Every relationship contains variability, an unspoken ebb and flow of expectations and desires, fulfillment and not. Marriages. Business partnerships. Retail transactions. Brand experiences. The variability is an inevitable consequence of the complex nature of people and their ever-changing feelings and thoughts about what they want and expect from the other party. The problem is that for most creatures, conveying those feelings and thoughts honestly is tough, earnestly even tougher. Honesty exposes us to the possibility that our demands or desires may be wrong, or to the responding honesty of the other, and that can hurt.
It assumes in effect that the other is a sort of competitor, or worse, an enemy, and winning (or not losing) is essential. Earnestness is honesty plus empathy. It is synonym for über-sincerity. And it’s tough to come by because people (and companies) are so afraid of losing. It is a fear that translates into a self-protectionism that translates into a lack of genuine caring for others. The leadership brands of the world understand earnest. They get that authenticity wrapped in a sensitivity for what it’s like to be a customer, for what it’s like to be a human being, is the right way, the best way to market share, to distinct and sustainable value. Think Zappos. They built an $800 million business selling shoes on the back of being earnest.