As children, we’re taught to always tell the truth. But somewhere along the way to adulthood, society has a knack for incentivizing its own variant. You tell the truth when it doesn’t hurt, when it doesn’t jolt, when it doesn’t threaten upheaval.

I first learned to tell the truth — the real truth — at 19 years old. The person who taught me was Sheila Nevins, the greatest documentary producer of our time who led HBO to 103 combined Academy, Emmy, and Peabody Awards, and who herself has won 30 Emmys (the greatest of any person, ever).

Sheila built her career by telling the real truth. The one that makes people squirm, squint, and even change the channel. Her documentaries covered every controversial subject, from drug addition to homeless children to pedophile priests to sexual taboos. Her work was never gratuitous; she simply told raw, unvarnished stories that few had the courage to touch.

I met Sheila because she was the aunt of my college boyfriend. At the time I was far too young and naive to understand just how important she was to her industry. I knew her work, and was exposed to many famous people in her inner circle, but my naiveté served me well — it allowed me to genuinely see and love Sheila for who she was as a human being.

And Sheila was the first person to truly see me.

Coming from the sticks, I’d never met anyone like her. She was a cosmopolitan New Yorker, and had a view of the Brooklyn bridge from her Manhattan living room. She had a strikingly elegant demeanor, with feathered, sandy blonde hair and intense brown eyes that bored right into your soul. She is wickedly intelligent, wonderfully brash, and could take one look at you and instantly know your story.

For some reason, my story was fascinating to her.

Every time I would visit, she would usher me in and dive right into the sordid and at-times heartbreaking tales of my family. Like many families, my parents went through a really rough divorce, but it was way more complicated than most — partly because of religion, partly family pressure, and mostly dishonesty. Until I recounted it to Sheila, I’d never told anyone my real truth. I also never realized how unusual my story was, nor how much I’d held in until that moment. Looking back, I think Sheila was the first person I could actually talk to, who wouldn’t judge, but instead saw truth as humanity in its most beautiful state.

And more importantly, she knew truth was the only way forward.

Sheila dignified my truth, and in doing so, taught me invaluable lessons that I’ve carried with me in my own life and career.

Truth is the only vehicle for progress. You simply cannot build sustainable relationships or partnerships or organizations without it.

The real truth isn’t pretty. It is by definition complicated and uncomfortable and, at times, painful. It can be incongruent with much of what we are taught growing up — in school, in church, at work, and in society.

Truth takes courage. It requires taking a risk — sometimes perceived, sometimes real. It requires one to abandon righteousness in pursuit of selflessness, to forego what’s expected of you in pursuit of what’s possible from you.

If you want to make a dent in the world in any way, it all starts and ends with truth.

Sheila taught me to question others even when it makes them squirm, and never to edit the unsavory parts. Whether its an uncomfortable conversation, an interview I’m conducting, or a story I’m writing, I’ve learned to recognize the truths without judgment, and zoom in.

By telling the real truth, Sheila changed an entire industry and arguably the cultural fabric of America. She pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, and in doing so, brought us closer to our truths.

I think of Sheila everyday, and am forever grateful to her for teaching me the value of truth — the real kind, the one that is not savory, and not pretty, but actually paves the way forward.