View Sidebar

Post Tagged with: Thinking

Elevate the Conversation

Elevate the Conversation

I was recently introduced to a proverb:

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

It’s amazing how succinctly this quote (usually misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt) describes the way most of our daily interactions work. Look at the media. Find yourself reading People magazine? Maybe you’d learn more by watching the Events on CNN. And you would learn even more if you cracked open the Economist and read about the great Ideas in there.

When you are having a conversation, the first question you should ask is, are we talking about People, Events, or Ideas? And if it’s People or Events, see if you can elevate the conversation.

This is harder than it seems. We all are tempted to talk about people that we know. We are natural gossips. These are conversations we all have had:

  • He just got a new job
  • They just got married
  • I really don’t like her
  • Did you hear what happened to him?
  • Brad Pitt got engaged

Could it be because these are such easy topics? After all, it requires no intellectual engagement to discuss the petty lives of others. But people much wiser than I have said that such meddling makes the meddler even more petty in turn. So when you find yourself trapped in a conversation about People, what’s the solution?

Elevate the conversation. Talk about Events.

Conversations about Events are probably the most frequent. The litmus test for a conversation about Events is, “Could I be having this same conversation with someone else without changing it?” If so, you may be talking about Events, which again, are conversations we have all had:

  • The current election
  • The weather in Chicago
  • Something awesome that happened last night
  • A great movie you’ve seen

Events conversation require some engagement. They require both parties to understand the events in question and formulate their own opinions. But they do not demand that the parties interact with each other. Events conversations are safe, perhaps, which is why they appear to be so frequent. Have you noticed that all Small Talk is Events Talk, unless both parties have a mutual friend, in which case the conversation immediately devolves into People, the path of least resistance?

Next time you are having a conversation about People or Events, see if you can elevate the conversation. Talk about Ideas instead:

  • Is it in America’s best interest to be in Afghanistan?
  • Can capitalism cure poverty?
  • Do employees perform better when they can work from home?
  • What should Europe do to curb the debt crisis?
  • What is the role of religion in modern life?

It requires effort to turn People into Events and Events into Ideas, but it’s totally doable. For example, turn People into Events by asking and inquiring what People do for a living, then turn Events into Ideas by deconstructing the problem they are trying to solve and learning the foundational concepts that make that problem worth solving.

Most people like talking about Ideas. After all, everyone has them. But they may not be comfortable openly discussing them with casual acquaintances. Or perhaps it’s just easier to stick to well trodden ground, where the risk of confrontation is low and the social rewards may be high.

But I’ll tell you one thing: the people I remember the best are the people who want to talk about Ideas from the get-go, and who don’t care about the petty formulations of People and Events. If I meet an Ideas person, that’s someone I want to get to know better.

April 24, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More


I got a haircut yesterday, and it would seem to be just a normal everyday experience, except while I was sitting there staring at myself in the mirror it occurred to me that this was one of the few moments in my daily life where I am not being bombarded with visual or audio stimulation.

When I wake up, the first thing I do is check my email and morning social networks. When I am on the bus to work, I either read a book or play chess online. I spend a good ten hours out of each day on the computer. When I take a break, I am listening to or playing music. On weekends, if I am not socializing with friends I am talking on the phone or watching TV. When I eat, I usually do it in combination with some social activity or watching something or listening. Even when I am going to sleep, I often have a podcast playing in the background. In other words, there is hardly a single moment in my day where I am sitting silently, completely unconnected to any external stimuli. My haircut may be the only time that happens. This seems sad to me, and I’m sure it’s not a unique experience.

What has happened to me that I cannot abide any time by myself with my own thoughts? I don’t have anything particularly scary to think about, or anything that would prevent me from being introspective. I don’t usually feel lonely or depressed. Yet I always feel the need to be constantly engaged with, and when I am too lazy to do the engagement myself, I turn on a machine to do the engaging for me. Internet browsing and television are probably the worst distractions, because they provide no level of intellectual engagement. At least when reading, I am forced to exchange ideas with the author. Chess is a good game because it forces strategic thinking. And I enjoy educational podcasts like RadioLab and EconTalk. But even with educational engagements, I still am being led to think by something else, and don’t have the time to do my own thinking.

There was something about the experience of the haircut that made me think about all the thinking I *can’t* do when everything else is on.

When I was in middle school, I had a teacher that would take us outside for “sky writing,” where we were obligated to stare at the sky for 5 minutes and then write. It worked very well for me, as it gave me an opportunity to clear my head of distractions and even to change perspective for a second, to realize the vastness of the universe outside of my self. Perhaps it would benefit me to take 5-10 minutes each day to just meditate in the absence of distraction.

Or, I can just get haircuts more often.

February 24, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More