Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. This is a quote commonly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. What does it mean though?
Let’s start by defining “ideas,” “events,” and “people.” Discussing people here means to talk about a person, typically in a negative, gossipy way. Discussing events means to talk about the events happening around the world. Discussing ideas means to understand the higher level messages behind an event, to understand human behavior, to look beyond what’s given, and to find solutions to help the world.
“Small Minds Discuss People”
When the quote says “Small minds discuss people,” it means that those who discuss people as an end to itself are shallow. Unfortunately, a fair segment of the media and our population today dedicate themselves to discussing people. You have tabloid magazines, celebrity gossip sites, and people who follow celebrity gossip like it is the central goal of their lives. Office politics are not uncommon. People backstab and criticize each other more often than we like. Even politicians make personal attacks and conduct smear campaigns. Online, it’s common to see people shaming/attacking each other, or worse still, others endorsing such behavior and joining in the attack.
“Average Minds Discuss Events”
When you switch from discussing people to events, there is an improvement because you look beyond people but focus on events. There is an element of objectivity as you’re now looking at facts, figures, and occurrences. Yet it is a logical fallacy to think that just discussing events makes us smarter.
Firstly, many news stories (depending on where you live) are heavily censored according to the publication’s ideology and alliances. In some countries, the government controls the media. So when you’re reading the “news,” you’re really reading news created/selected to fit what the publication wants you to know, along with filtered comments and angled statistics. Something to consider when you think that you’re being educated by reading a particular news channel — it’s more likely that you are being conditioned.
Secondly, news channels tend to sensationalize and report what is shocking. In internet terms, “clickbait.” As the saying goes, “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” Hence even though there are one billion possible things to report each day, including countless positive stories and consciousness-raising events, the selected stories are rarely the most important, but some of the most negative, fear-based stories you can find.
Thirdly, even though we may be shocked by a grisly murder that just happened, we have to bear in mind that murders, suicides, crimes, and even war happen every single day. But when you read the news, your attention gets directed to that one crime or that one murder. Or when a news channel repeatedly highlights the crimes that happen in a country, it creates the notion that the place is highly unsafe, when maybe 99.999% of its people get by perfectly safely each day.
In the process of being caught in fear/anger/shock, we miss the bigger picture. The irony is that by thinking that we educate ourselves by reading the news, we are isolating our minds and painting an extremely skewed image of the world and associating it with fear and terror, yet missing the whole point which is, “What can we do to solve the issues that we see?”
“Great Minds Discuss Ideas”
This brings us to the last point.
As someone becomes more curious about the world and looks beyond what’s immediately visible, they start to talk about not just people or events, but ideas.
- Why people do the things they do. What drives them;
- Why issues like murder, mass shootings, war, and crimes are happening. What we can do to prevent such violence;
- How we can uplift others;
- How we can improve as people;
- World issues, because we’re not just citizens of a country but a citizen of the world;
- Whether the direction we’re moving in, as a society, as a world, is actually good for us;
- And most important of all, ideas to improve the world.
Discussing ideas means not just taking what is presented to you, but digging deeper. Understanding root causes. Understanding how something came to be. Questioning realities. Identifying solutions.
This quote is of course meant as a generalization. People and events are often proxies to discuss ideas. We look upon people like Elon Musk, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King Jr., Buddha, Bill Gates, etc. as inspirational figures for change. We discuss people as a way to understand each other. Discussing events helps us grow in awareness; current affairs is a way to learn about the world. If something just happened in my life and I share this with a friend, that’s part of conversation, of relating to each other.
The problem comes when we talk about people or events as an end to itself. This quote reminds us that when we bad-mouth others, gossip, put people down, or follow the news reactively, it doesn’t bring us anywhere. Complaining or chit-chatting about people/events endlessly will not change our lives or make us smarter.
But focusing on ideas for change, it will. Assuming that we act on them, of course.
How to Have a Great Mind: 8 Tips
- Don’t rely on the obvious. Dig deep to understand what lies beneath the surface.
- Expand your mind. Don’t just follow the news. There is a world of knowledge out there. Expand your mind to soak in all kinds of information from every corner of the web, starting from Wikipedia to global news sites to content sites that raise your consciousness. Once you do that, you’ll realize how narrow in scope many news channels, especially censored ones, are.
- Stay away from gossip. Even though people may gossip about you, it doesn’t mean that you need to gossip about them. Always think about what you can do to help others. Talk about people because you care about them.
- Focus on issues. If you don’t like what your boss/co-worker/friend did, focus on the issue, not the person. Give constructive criticism without attacking someone. Read: How to Give Constructive Criticism: 6 Helpful Tips
- Seek out those with knowledgeable opinions. Follow them. Read their updates to learn from their way of thought. Bookmark articles that get you thinking. Reading an intelligent article 10 times is better than reading 20 low-level news stories (that are really informing you about nothing but creating an illusion of fear) any day.
- Understand world issues. We’re not just a citizen of our country but the world. Climate change is real. So is the absurd amount of waste we produce daily and the immense pollution we generate as a result. Same for cruelty in the meat industry. While these issues may not affect us directly yet, we need to draw the link between our daily actions and such global issues, because there is a link. As conscious beings, there comes a point when we need to think about life beyond just us, because at the end of the day, the world is ours to care for and protect.
- Don’t talk about events as an end to itself. Understand them. Why is this happening? When did this first start? What’s causing it? What can we do about this? For example, if there’s a mass shooting, beyond getting horrified, think about what you can do to change things. If you see news on a suicide, don’t just react and talk about it as conversation fodder, but learn more about the causes, overall statistics surrounding this, and why people in modern world today are turning to this despite having the facilities and resources that people in undeveloped worlds don’t. Dig in to understand patterns, rationales, and root causes.
- Focus on solutions. Finally, solutions. Ideas. Answers to change the world in a positive way. If the world is yours — and it is — what would you do about the problems you see today? What can you do to help others, make an impact, and save the world? Read: One Man’s Impact on the World
Reflect on what you talk about normally:
- Do you tend to discuss people, events, or ideas?
- How can you spend more time discussing ideas on how you can improve your life, help others, and change the world?
Also check out:
- You are the Average of the 5 People You Spend the Most Time With
- Why Mass Shootings Happen and What We Can Do as Individuals
- How Do I Deal with Disillusionment with Life as I Grow Older?
If you've found this useful, join my free newsletter where you'll get articles like this delivered to your inbox every week, plus updates I don't post on the blog.