Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.”
The above three-part maxim has often been erroneously attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, wife to the 32nd President of United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In truth, it was historian Henry Thomas Buckle who was the originator of the maxim in 1901.
This week I am reminded of a story I heard more than 30 years ago about a large American multinational corporation involved in a diverse mix of undertakings.
The company wished to establish a nuclear plant in South Korea at a cost of $1 billion and a comprehensive proposal was presented to the board of directors. Within less than half an hour, the proposal was passed by the board without a dissenting voice.
The next item on the agenda was a proposal for the construction of a bicycle rack for the company’s workers at the headquarters in Illinois costing $10,000. Every board member had something to say and daggers were drawn. The meeting became so heated that this matter had to be adjourned until the next meeting of the board.
The paradox in this story is that an investment of $1 billion, which could easily bankrupt the company, was passed in the shortest time because nobody was bothered to study and understand the impact of the project while the expenditure of $10,000 on staff welfare was delayed because everybody thought they understood and wanted to make an input.
Returning to the maxim, according to Chris Oler writing in Everyday Power, how we treat others reflects how we feel about ourselves. When we criticise 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. The things that make me feel that I am not good enough or I don’t like myself are almost certainly externally rooted. However it happened, it caused guilt, anger or sadness to distort the way we feel about ourselves.
When we are hurting, we reach out but often not in a positive way. Many times, we do so by placing someone beneath us in an attempt to regain a higher feeling, but it is false. At other times we latch on to a celebrity. The celebrity ceases to be human and becomes more of an ideal diminishing the value the admirer places on themselves. Unlike criticism, this is an attempt to ignore ourselves and our poor sense of self by clinging onto a positive image.
There are no small minds. Rather, there are people who hurt and don’t know how to heal. Because the hurt is internal, they look to feel better by focusing on external things, including people and events.
Turning to the second part of the maxim, “Average minds discuss events”, perhaps the better way to put it is the “average person discusses events.” It is easy to get caught up in the events happening around us and these events affect people around us and even ourselves.
Many people are distracted by events because they do not realise the power they have. They focus on events and hope for things to happen because they believe that events happen to people, rather than people make events happen. Some people take a partial step and recognise indeed, people do cause events to happen but the people capable of these causes and effects, somehow, include just about everyone else but themselves.
You are responsible for the events that you experience. By setting the desired outcome and taking the necessary action you work towards making it come true. Your motivation to achieve the desired outcome is most critical, not the actions and subsequent events because these will change along the way. The goal will guide and inspire the actions which are required to get you there. Our responsibility is first to make ourselves happy because if we are not happy, we cannot make others happy.
Many of us grew up in an age where our parents believed the key to happiness was a steady job that you worked for 30 years plus and then retired. All of a sudden it was the employer’s responsibility to make you happy, not yours. If you rely on others to make you happy, you will be disappointed.
The last part of the maxim is perhaps the easiest to deal with, but it does not necessarily take a great mind to lead a great life and likewise a brilliant mind guarantees nothing. The only thing that is needed is a mind dedicated to realising the idea.
We should take our idea, our intent and through inspired action make it a reality. Perhaps the maxim can be rephrased to read “Hurting minds discuss people. Distracted minds discuss events. Engaged minds illustrate ideas.”
I feel that the foregoing is a microcosm of what is happening here in Kenya. It is true we are hurting as a nation, but are we too preoccupied with bringing other people down in a false attempt to uplift ourselves? Do we have the right role models to inspire us or are we beholden to idols of dubious distinction? Are we held captive by a low self-image of ourselves?
Are we looking to the State to make us happy instead of causing events to happen which can lead us to our goals?
Are we allowing good ideas to develop or are we too busy obfuscating and hobbling those ideas through court orders obtained on technicalities?
We must keep our eye on the prize and not be distracted by sideshows. Ultimately, our destiny lies in our own hands.