The Wisdom of Jack

There is this scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie where Jack Sparrow tells Will Turner his father was a pirate.

Will experiences a bit of cognitive dissonance with the revelation.  This is not what he thought his father to be.  He reacts by drawing his sword and Jack responds by knocking Will off his feet with an adroit flip of a sail boom.  Will finds himself dangling over water with Jack now holding Will’s sword.  Jack proceeds to educate him: “…the only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do, and what a man can’t do.”

Jack expands his meaning to include will and won’t when he asks his captive audience, “…can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?” The idea being that squaring with the world as it exists is a matter of intent.

Unfortunately this is usually not easy in real life. We come equipped with robust facilities for self-deception to avoid engaging with unpleasant discoveries. Most of what we believe we either absorb from those around us, or develop as a result of intuitions or exposure to events with emotional content. And when confronted with contrary ideas we tend to back-fill our beliefs with information and reasoning to support holding them.

In “I told me so” Gregg A. Ten Elshof identifies this as rationalization and describes it as “…the most recognizable of our strategies for self-deception.” Elshof defines the process as constructing “…a rational justification for a behavior, decision, or belief arrived at in some other way.”* It doesn’t follow that a belief is wrong if arrived at through gut intuitions. But as Elshof comments we’re very reluctant to admit that as a basis and feel compelled to come up with reinforcing justifications.

Which is a problem if the belief actually is wrong — rationalization packages a powerful urge to create a false context to support the false belief. Such as a father being a law-abiding merchant sailor instead of a pirate, contrary facts notwithstanding. In Will’s case the contrary facts included a gold medallion with a skull on one side. A major theme in the movie is Will’s struggle to engage with those contrary facts.

Jack’s speech is a good personal reminder. I’ve worked for a couple of large organizations – on more than one occasion in my career history I’ve been yanked out of one project and dropped in another. The process is uncomfortable, particularly when there is a gut-level sense of personal investment. It’s hard not to back-fill that with reasons as to why what I’m suddenly not doing is still relevant to the broader organization.

But adapting to the changes comes far more quickly if I am properly engaged with practical realities rather than avoiding them.


*Elshof, Gregg. (2009). I told me so: Self-deception and the Christian life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. (p. 54. Kindle Edition).