Interpreting the Actions of Others

The late journalist David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun” is a memoir about his struggles with addiction and the untrustworthiness of one’s own memories. As he tried to piece together the truth about his past by interviewing the people in his life, he quickly realized that most of his memories and judgments about people were incorrect.

Some of it was the drugs, of course, but much of the errors in his memory were caused by human nature – we see things through our own filters, and create narratives that fit our needs at the time (usually making us look better in the process).

After interviewing dozens of people about his own past, he eventually learned that getting to an absolute, verifiable truth of what actually happened doesn’t matter all that much, because there’s a bigger truth about people:

“Most stories about one’s past could fairly and adequately be told in a single sentence, and a short one at that: Everyone did the best they could.”

This line has become something of a mantra for me. Now when I see someone act in a way I think is obviously wrong, I try not to swiftly write them off as either evil or an idiot. Maybe they don’t know something I know. Maybe they know something I don’t! They might be facing obstacles that I’m entirely unaware of. Regardless of the outcome, they most likely didn’t make a mistake on purpose but did the best with the resources available at the time.

Assuming good intentions in others is a liberating mindset when dealing with other people. It frees up the mental space I would have spent fuming about why that jerk cut in front of me in the grocery store line yesterday, and also lets me approach new relationships with trust and openness.

Related: If you haven’t heard it yet (or recently), David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” is a poignant commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College about this same theme. Highly, highly recommended.

Written by Mark Allen, who is currently open to new product management and design roles in Toronto or with distributed teams. Say hello on Twitter.

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