Secrets secrets are no fun. Secrets secrets hurt someone.
From a young age, this little rhyme teaches us that being secretive is a negative trait. Secrets can only lead to pain.
And experience and history would seem to bear this out. A spouse keeps a secret affair, which leads to divorce. Abuse in a family continues for years because those who know it’s going on don’t say anything. A president secretly spies on his opposing party, and is impeached. A medical tech company keeps its methodology and technology so secret that inspectors are fooled, employees are terrified of making a wrong move, and ultimately the company goes bankrupt in a cloud of disgrace (i.e., Theranos).
Certainly, the examples of secrets leading to negative consequences abound. But that doesn’t make it a hard rule that secrecy = bad.
Secrecy can actually be incredibly valuable and powerful. That is, in fact, the reason people often fight so hard against it and for transparency; they fear and resent the power of secrets and wish to level the playing field. That’s a noble impulse when the secret-created power of some entity is being used in an immoral or nefarious way. But the power of secrets can also be used in morally neutral, and even virtuous causes, and imparts benefits that can be crucial to developing strong group cultures and reaching personal goals.
Below we unpack the amoral, often unrecognized, and highly potent advantages of secrets.
The Benefits of Secrets in a Transparent World
Secrets Maintain a Strong Culture
All strong cultures are premised at least partly on an us-vs-them dynamic and elements of exclusivity. Think of the Amish, or the military, or even criminal gangs — there’s a powerful sense of belonging and group identity amongst “tribes” that share a set of practices, beliefs, lingo, and rituals that outsiders aren’t entirely privy to. Secrets create boundaries, and boundaries create a “container” that can hold a culture’s “content” — the stuff that makes it feel distinct and lends it tangible significance.
Once the container becomes a porous sieve and outsiders are let in on all of a tribe’s secrets, its culture seeps out, becoming the watered-down possession of the wider world. This isn’t always a bad thing — a closed OODA loop can lead to stagnation and ultimate collapse — but purely from the perspective of a culture’s identity, cohesion, and strength, the loss of secrets is a weakening force.
This principle is true not only regarding communities and institutions, but small social units like marriages, families, and friendships.
A culture consists of shared norms, customs, values, knowledge, rituals, symbols, goals, stories, and so on, and these things — and thus a real, bona fide culture — can exist in intimate interpersonal relationships the same way it does in the larger world. And just like macro cultures, these micro cultures thrive on the inclusion of special secrets.
While you’ll often hear that you shouldn’t keep secrets from your significant other, you should in fact readily share secrets with them.
This is an idea endorsed by psychologists Suzann and James Pawelski, who argue that swapping secrets builds trust and a strong culture between two partners. Particularly, they advocate sharing secrets that are either childhood experiences you’ve never relayed before, or ideas you have and dreams for the future that you haven’t made public. (See below point about experimenting with bad ideas.) The sharing of such secrets makes you vulnerable, and in showing your partner that you trust her with the hidden recesses of your soul, greater intimacy is created.
A couple’s secrets can also include not-so-serious traditions and even inside jokes that they don’t expose to the world, and share only between themselves. Such special traditions, memories, and schticks obviously also extend to one’s children as well — and help provide the glue that makes for a thriving family culture.
Friendships likewise grow in intimacy through the reciprocal exchange, and safekeeping, of secrets.
When you broadcast everything about your life on social media — sharing it on an equal level with mere acquaintances and long-time friends alike — it de-values this information, and only makes people feel marginally closer to you.
When you keep some things reserved for real-life interactions, however, a sense of true intimacy forms with those you disclose to. Even a text is far more personal than a status update on Facebook. You’ve formed an exclusive channel of communication with the other person, and by relaying something to a friend that you don’t post on social media (or that they can tell you share with few, if any, other people), they feel a little extra special and close to you. As you do to them.
The bottom line is that in large and small cultures alike, secrets create exclusivity, and exclusivity creates trust, and trust creates intimacy and solidarity.
Secrets Are a Crucial Strategic Tool
There’s a reason that no sound military commander will ever broadcast his battle strategy to the enemy, that excruciatingly careful measures are taken to keep top secret wartime information under wraps, and that traitors are considered the worst kind of criminal.
Secrecy constitutes one of the most powerful strategic tools someone can wield, and this is as true for a military commander as it is for a private citizen.
Entrepreneurs, executives, creatives, and the like are frequently asked something along the lines of: “What are you working on next?” Our culture craves these inside hints about what’s in the pipeline. Author Ryan Holiday had an insightful comment on that question in a recent interview with Brett:
“Why would I tell? Unless there was a clear marketing purpose . . . why would I want to alert my competition of what I’m working on and give them a chance to beat me, or give them a chance to undermine my argument or be prepared to undermine it?”
Letting people in on your plans and secrets allows your “enemies” to make countermoves of their own — to copy you, block you, thwart your ambitions. Better to let it be said of you what biographer Ron Chernow said of John D. Rockefeller: “His remoteness frustrated opponents, who felt they were boxing with a ghost.”
The surprise wrought by secrecy not only throws your competitors off-kilter, but also works to your advantage regarding your customer base as well. Uncertainty and anticipation catalyze dopamine, and dopamine keeps people interested in what you’re up to. Further, when a product no one saw coming makes its debut, it creates much more surprise and a bigger splash than something that’s been telegraphed and promoted to death for months and months.
In business, you’ll learn that not only is the customer often not right, they don’t know what they want until it’s in their hands. Holiday mentioned the classic example of Apple (particularly under Steve Jobs):
“Apple, for instance, is a very secretive company, and that’s part of how they manage to surprise us with all of these amazing products . . . news isn’t getting out as it’s happening, and so we don’t have super high expectations each time. We’re kind of caught off guard. We’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know that I wanted that.’”
When your new product or idea is ready to launch, you’re obviously going to want to shout it from the rooftops. But before that? Mum’s the word.
Secrets Create a Charismatic Allure of Quiet Power
Throughout time, people have been fascinated with secret societies — the Templars, Freemasons, Skull and Bones at Yale, etc. The fact that outsiders aren’t allowed to know the intimate details of the organization of course creates a strong desire to know those details. Whenever there’s a closed box, door, or organization, everyone is crazy to know what’s inside.
The allure created by secretive organizations also operates among individuals who play things close to the chest. Someone who broadcasts their every belief and desire becomes a known quantity, and known quantities are boring and banal. Familiarity breeds contempt; who among us hasn’t thought that we liked a certain friend, only to have our favor curdle when assaulted by a daily barrage of their head-slappingly stupid social media posts?
If familiarity breeds contempt, secrecy breeds fascination. A quieter, more mysterious person benefits from the same anticipation-breeding, dopamine-drip-inducing effect just mentioned above. Secrecy creates interest not only from uncertainty, but from the absence of information; the less someone knows about you, the less reason they have to write you off, and the more they’ll tend to project their own hopes and insecurities on the blank slate of your persona — deciding you’re either better or more intimidating than you actually are.
George Washington is a perfect example of this dynamic at work. In the Second Continental Congress, delegates from the thirteen colonies formed the Continental Army to take on the great British military. A leader had to be decided upon among the crowd of willing, ambitious colonists.
Picture the scene: a group of rowdy, profanity-laden men in a tavern with beers sloshing, each arguing for someone or clamoring for themselves to take on the role of Commander in Chief of the newly formed army. Washington, however, keeps his ideas shrouded in a cloak of discretion. He isn’t spouting off about his accomplishments or opinions or ideas on how to secure victory. He isn’t trying to talk over everybody and dominate as the loudest voice in the room.
Instead, he emerges as a mysterious presence of calm, quiet authority. While he isn’t necessarily the most qualified, people are drawn to his unflappable confidence and unbreakable Stoic demeanor. These same qualities will ultimately gain the loyalty of his troops to an extent few other generals have enjoyed in the annals of war. As Chernow (who was also Washington’s biographer) noted of the man who would unanimously be voted commander, “The less people knew about him, the more he thought he could accomplish.”
The same types of things can be said of Steve Jobs, or of Rockefeller, who cultivated a sphinx-like demeanor and counted this maxim among his favorites: “Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed.”
Secrets Allow for Greater Flexibility to Experiment With Beliefs and Ideas
Secrecy is the ultimate realm of creativity.
When an idea is yours and yours alone — it can take any shape or form, and be infinitely tweaked, changed, and reworked.
Once the outside world is privy to it, however, your idea becomes subject to feedback and expectations. This kind of public evaluation can be valuable at a certain point in the creative process, but premature exposure to scrutiny can shrivel up an idea before it ever has the chance to grow into something great.
The freedom and flexibility granted by secrecy operates on two major levels.
First, keeping an idea or opinion a secret can allow you to work out its weaknesses before it makes its debut. In terms of the launch of a product, oftentimes not all of its literal or metaphorical bugs can be found until it’s made public; but you do want to resolve as many of its kinks in private as you can. Otherwise, your launch will be a real failure and you’ll wind up with egg on your face.
The same thing applies to going public with a potentially unconventional or unpopular opinion. As Holiday told Brett, “The way to have good ideas is to have lots of bad ideas.” But our current culture, in which every new idea carries the risk of instant backlash from the PC police, doesn’t allow the proper space for playing with those bad, but creatively necessary thoughts. If you’re quick to share an idea or opinion on social media and receive torrents of criticism in return, you’ll likely drop that belief like a hot potato.
If, on the other hand, you keep your opinion secret for a time, patiently building a case for it, checking and marshaling evidence, then the outcome may be that 1) you realize it wasn’t such a sound idea after all, though it may prove a launching pad for a better one, 2) if you do go public with it, there’s more of a chance that people will be convinced by it, and, even if they’re not, you’re more likely to stick to your own guns, or 3) the time lapse will make you realize that there’s no need to share the opinion publicly — that there’s no point, that it won’t take you any closer to your strategic goals, and that it’s better to keep it to yourself. Just because you have an opinion on something, doesn’t mean you to need to run to Twitter to share it with the world instantly. Or ever. There’s no takesies-backsies on the internet, and there’s a certain power in the public having absolutely no idea what you actually think about things — in keeping people constantly guessing.
As Peter Thiel argues in Zero to One:
“Unless you have perfectly conventional beliefs, it’s rarely a good idea to tell everybody everything that you know.”
The second reason that keeping secrets gives you greater flexibility is that it allows you to pursue a project on your own time. If you spill the beans, you’ll probably be kept to some sort of timeline, even if it’s just an implied/assumed one. This happens all the time on social media, which is ripe with teaser posts about someone or some company working on a project that will be announced “very soon” and is sure to be a “game changer.” How many times have you seen “Big announcement coming soon! Exciting stuff happening!” only to have no announcement ever materialize, or for it to happen months later? In making even those types of teasers, expectations are being set by followers. So then if something happens and you get off track, there will inherently be some disappointment, even if the end result is great, and even if it wasn’t on their radar before you brought it up. Keeping a project to yourself ensures that setbacks and lags are kept private and don’t dampen your brand and the perception of its quality.
When you reveal a goal or project prematurely, its evolution can become trapped by the expectations of others. When you keep it a secret, you’re free to pivot and change course at any time.
In the modern age, we are enamored with transparency and suspicious of secrecy. But these two forces are not mutually exclusive, and the best cultures and personal strategies incorporate both.
An institution which wishes to be strong — whether a gang, tribe, or church — ought to strive to maintain some secrecy from the outside world, while also being transparent to those on the inside. To have its own traditions, practices, and lingo that the public isn’t privy to, while sharing secrets between individual members, and between many of the layers of its hierarchy as well.
A business or the government itself should be transparent about a great many things with customers and constituents. But a company can’t create an alluring brand, or fend off competition, while simultaneously showing everything about how the sausage is made. The government should make the most of its workings a matter of public record, but needs to keep some things secret in order to maintain security.
On a personal level, you want to be transparent with those you love and respect, while also realizing that the maintenance of that love and respect — of trust and intimacy — is premised on sharing your secrets with them exclusively, rather than with the world.
Sometimes transparency garners trust; sometimes secrets do. Sometimes secrets weaken; sometimes they strengthen. There are rarely hard and fast rules when it comes to where to draw the line between the public and the private, between the hidden and the exposed, and the issue obviously garners much debate and strong opinion.
The placement of the line will ultimately come down to your own beliefs and goals. In drawing it, simply know that transparency and secrecy both are powerful tools, and the latter may very well be the one missing from your strategic arsenal. That, perhaps, is the ultimate secret these days.