April 19, 2021

Why Small Minds Discuss People, Average Minds Discuss Events, Great Minds Discuss Ideas

“Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.”

This is a quote misattributed to both Eleanor Roosevelt and Admiral Hyman Rickover. Regardless of the speaker it raises interesting ideas, but raises them in a manner which more or less defeats the implied judgment. If it is small-minded to judge people, is that not precisely the effect of this quote? Let’s take this a little higher.

There Are No Small Minds

The richness of our lives is in our connections with others. I don’t mean friendships or family. How we treat others is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. When we criticize others it is because something hurts inside. It is an attempt to alleviate the hurt, but it never produces more than momentary relief.

The underlying problem is our self-image. What made me feel I am not good enough, or why is it I don’t like myself? These things are almost certainly externally rooted. It could be as simple as modeling the behavior of parents who didn’t feel particularly good about themselves. However it happened it caused guilt, anger, or sadness to distort the way we view ourselves.

When we’re down on ourselves we reach out. It is not something often done in a positive way. We’re hurting and don’t know how to heal. So what do we do? Try to place someone beneath us. It is an attempt to regain a higher feeling, but it is false.

We just don’t know what else to do, right? There is no reason to feel bad. It is a wake-up call. Be thankful if you’ve talked about someone else because it is an effort to feel better. The way to do it is confront and let go of the feelings you have about you. There are a few thousand authors ready to help.

Celebrity Culture

Let’s touch on this briefly, because celebrity itself isn’t inherently bad, or good for that matter. It just is. What some people do as a profession puts them in the public eye and some of that public seizes on that famous person as, perhaps, an idol.

Role models aren’t a bad thing. Who didn’t have a poster of an athlete or favorite musician in their room growing up? Sometimes the intensity of the interest goes even further. It is easy when you don’t feel good about yourself to look at others and say, “I wish I were just like them.” The celebrity ceases to be a person and becomes more of an ideal.

This diminishes the value the admirer places on himself or herself. It also ignores the humanity of the star, singer, or athlete. Unlike criticism, this isn’t an effort to lift ourselves above someone else.It is an effort to ignore ourselves and our poor sense of self by latching onto a positive image. Just like criticism, however, any relief is temporary.

There are no small minds. Rather, there are people that hurt and do not know how to heal. Because the hurt is internal, they look to feel better by focusing on external things, including people and sometimes events.

Average Mind? Stuff Happens

Again let’s examine the wording from the quote, “average minds discuss events.” Does the speaker mean to disparage the mind of a person who discusses events, or does he or she mean the “average person” discusses events. That is much more palatable and there is truth in it.

It is very easy to get caught up in the events happening around you. Many of these events affect people around us, perhaps even ourselves. Sometimes we go so far and say, “I’ll be happy when…” a particular event occurs.

Many people are distracted by events because they don’t realize the power they have. They focus on events and hope for things to happen…because they believe events happen to people, rather than people make events happen. Some take a partial step away and recognize, indeed, people do cause things to happen, but the persons capable of these causes and effects—somehow—include just about everyone but themselves.

This pattern of thought is common. Even if it is plain to see how a friend affects change in her life, she may be unable to see it. It comes down to this realization: YOU are responsible for the events you experience.

When you received a promotion or raise, how did it happen? Was it magically bestowed, or was it earned? When focused on events we think the manager “gave” it to us. Reading it here and now, that logic seems flawed, right? “What do you mean? I put in the work!” Yes you did. You set a desired outcome and took the necessary action to see it come true.

Claim Your Power

Let’s graph it out just to be sure. The symbols are arrows:

Many of us only think in terms of events. I want to be well thought of, so I work hard. We don’t think of a larger picture. Sometimes we borrow intent from others, substitute their vision for our own. We let the company determine our goals. This is just part of the puzzle.


Your intent matters. Nothing can replace your desires in terms of motivation. Your intent and the desired outcome are the significant factors here, not the actions and subsequent events.

Why? Because we cannot always—or even often—prescribe what actions to take. What if your desired outcome is ownership of a yacht? Is there only one way to achieve it? Of course not, so it is your intention that guides and inspires action. Intention (your goal) is ultimately responsible for the outcome because it initiates every action taken to get there. Put another way, our intent determines every event that occurs on the way to our desired outcome.

Inspired action rarely occurs when we “borrow” vision. Think about it. Our dreams occupy our thoughts. We don’t sit and daydream about someone else’s vision. Is the purpose of your efforts to make others happy? No. Your responsibility is to you first. We cannot make others happy when we are not.

Don’t Get Stuck

We sometimes get stuck in the middle of the equation. How could we not? Many of us had an upbringing where our parents thought the key to happiness was a steady job you worked for 30-plus years then retired. See how that vision lets the individual off the hook? Suddenly, it is the employer’s responsibility to make you happy, not yours.

Except it isn’t an employer’s duty. An employer may do many things to attract a quality workforce, but they have no obligation to heed your hopes and dreams beyond how it affects your professional life. If you rely on others to create your happiness, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Your intent, your desired outcomes, your goals all give meaning to your actions. If you have difficulty articulating these goals, you are not alone. That is a challenge to overcome. When you do…that is when life ceases to be a series of events. It becomes something you direct and control. It becomes fulfilling and vibrant.

Great Minds

The last part of the quote, “great minds discuss ideas” is, perhaps, the least problematic. It doesn’t take a great mind, however, to lead a life that is great. Likewise, a brilliant mind guarantees nothing.

“Discuss” seems passive. Perhaps it is misunderstanding the quote, but the picture is one of a learned group sitting around talking. Maybe the ideas are great, but if they are not executed in some fashion—a scholarly paper or practical application—what happens to the idea? It simply fades.Thus are the great visionaries of our time condemned to anonymity. An idea needs form of some sort.

Let’s parse the quote a little more and replace “great” with “engaged.” We’re all in favor of greatness, certainly, but let’s not weigh down our efforts by attaching too much expectation. Nor should we saddle the hopes of someone who has the next great idea with the thought they have to be some sort of genius. They don’t. The only thing needed is a mind dedicated to realizing the idea.

We’re left with something along the lines of “engaged minds illustrate ideas.” “Illustrate” covers both the discussion of the idea and its execution. It seems much easier to be commendable, as opposed to great. Anything that diminishes our perception of what is possible is a limiting belief.

How does a commendable mind illustrate an idea? Reread the “average” section. It is all there. We take our idea—our intent—and through inspired action make it a reality.

Put It Together

The only problem with the statement, “Small minds discuss people; average minds discuss events; great minds discuss ideas” is that it is all wrong. Well, let’s say it is poorly executed. Here is our new version:

Hurting minds discuss people. Distracted minds discuss events. Engaged minds illustrate ideas.

This is true to life. It’s instructive. It is attainable.

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