Unreliable narrators

“… leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top.

That’s from Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power. If we take it to be true, we can’t trust what people say about their own lives. They’re directors of their own movie. They cut up and edit the story with half their mind on the viewing audience. The other half of their mind is charged with satisfying the image they have of themselves.

What about what other people say about other people’s lives? It depends. Historians and biographers of the highest calibre can give us a mostly-accurate portrayal of someone’s words and deeds. But even they cannot reconstruct the thought processes and emotions of their subjects completely. They can’t comprehensively answer the question of why someone did or said this and how they reacted to that event. They have to fill in many gaps.

And normal people? People who aren’t historians or biographers? What of their opinion on other people’s lives? Often it’s negligible. Based on second, third, fourth generation information. Deformed by emotion. Distorted by distance from it’s subject.

What about our own lives? How we narrate our own lives to ourselves? Surely that’s the one thing we know? The one thing in which we can see all the intricate, interconnecting threads that make up the tapestry of life? But even our own memories are unreliable. We’re at the mercy of cognitive biases. Like the victim of an unprovoked assault, we’re too immersed in the situation to consider and analyse it. We fool and fraud ourselves when we reconstruct our journey in our minds.

So if we can’t rely on what others tell us about their lives, and we can’t trust what other people say about other people, and we can’t have confidence in what we tell ourselves about our own lives, who or what can we have faith in?

I don’t know.