Sunday, June 13, 2010


What's Important?
The other night, Iris and I were having dinner with a friend whom we hadn't seen in a long time. As we talked, I commented on something she had said regarding her current focus and how she was spending her time saying, "Well, we spend our time on the things that are most important to us."

She, looked at me and said, "Well, that's just your belief!"

I paused, sighed to myself mentally pulling petals from a daisy, "Go there? Don't go there?, Go there? Don't go there?"

Although there was this voice inside me saying, "Just agree", I instead responded, "No, it's not a belief, it's just how I define important."

She looked at me incredulously. So, ignoring the little voice that was speaking ever so much more loudly, I proceeded to explain, saying, "Whenever someone asks me what's important to me, I look at where I'm spending most my time. That's what important means to me."

She said, "Well, that's just your belief."

Just agree. Just agree. Just agree….

I proceeded saying, "Look, you're a business executive who frequently must determine what tasks should be worked on and what tasks should be stopped. If you were sitting with your team determining the task list, you might call the process 'establishing priorities'. A priority list is simply an ordering of tasks by their relative importance."

OK, just stop now. Just stop. Just stop...

This time my internal sigh must not have been as internal as I thought it was.

She asked me, "Why did you sigh like that?"

Drop it. Drop it. Drop it...

I paused and against what most would call better judgment, I said, "Well, over the last couple of weeks, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't spend time explaining things to people whom I felt didn't really want to hear what I was explaining, but instead were just trying to prove something. The process is slow as molasses and it never seems to work."

From here everything went a bit non-linear. There were phrases like, "So, you think I'm slow as molasses." and "Do you know how that makes me feel?" and "You know, not everyone thinks the way you do." and "You're getting frustrated with me just because I'm not as smart as you are."

I'm thinking, "Oh crap, now we have the whole 'smart' thing on the table."

Just agree… just agree… just agree…

Rain Man
I've come to hate words like intellect and smart. They're vague and for many people, loaded. As for me, when I look at myself, I have this kind of Rain Man ability when it comes to logic. Some people have it with numbers, seeing math problems unfold before them in their mind's eye. Some people have it with chess, seeing all the potential moves and their outcomes twenty levels deep. I have have it with logic. I can look at a discussion or an argument or a software system or an algorithm, and in no time at all play out all the potential conclusions.

A byproduct of this is being able to easily recall all the threads and statements of a conversation. To the observer, it appears as good memory, but it's not. It's just a side-effect of organizing everything as you hear it. It's the mental equivalent of labeling your sock drawer. You just know where you put everything and therefore everything is easy to find.

I would consider myself to be more of an idiot savant, a logic savant. Any way, I run into this smart thing all the time, and I sometimes do get frustrated with people making being smart important.

Back to the Conversation
Just agree… just agree… just agree…

So at this point, now indeed with a bit of frustration on my part I said, "Look, if I got frustrated every time I had to talk with someone not as 'smart' as I am, I'd be frustrated all the time!"

Just shut up… just shut up… just shut up… sigh...

Even the little voice was getting frustrated with me.

It's taken me a bit of time to process all this, quite a bit of it spent feeling, umm, stupid. I still have lot of processing to do. But one of the things I woke up with this morning is this notion of blinders.

Take for example the notion: what I do is what is important to me. Adopting this definition enables me to better understand why I do what I do, especially when the motivations may be a bit removed from the actual task at hand.

For example, I've met a lot of executives who spend an inordinate amount of time at work while lamenting that they would rather be home with their families. This is the essence of victim-hood. I want A, but I'm forced to do B. B is much more important to me, but alas, I must do A.

By establishing this chasm between activity and priority, the executive precludes exploration of the paths that might lead to better understanding. By simply saying, "This is what I am doing, therefore, it must be important to me.", the executive bridges the chasm an opens avenues of exploration.

Indeed, being in the office on a beautiful Sunday afternoon may feel like you're not pursuing that which you find most important. However, if you decide that, by definition, being there is important simply because that's where you are, then you can start peeling back the layers of the onion.

You might need to peel many layers before you get to the core. As you begin peeling, you simply ask yourself the question, "Why is this important to me? Why does it matter?"
Why is it important to be here today?

"I'm here because I have to make a major presentation on Monday and I'm not prepared."

Why is that important?

"There's a lot riding on this presentation. If I do well, I may get a promotion. If I don't, I may get the axe."

Why is that important?

"Well, I'm not sure that I could get a job that pays as much as the one I have now. If I lose this one, I won't be able to afford the house I'm in."
And so on…

For those of you who know anything about formal dialogs, you'll have noted that there are many ways to enhance the exploration with questions that lead to clarification, greater specificity and understanding of motivation. However, the main theme is this:
By redefining 'important' to mean 'where I spend most of my time', I take off the blinders that preclude me from understanding why I spend my time there. The former being a definition, the latter being a belief.
It's simply a case of changing lenses. It's also a great reason to hang out with people who are really different from yourself.

Blinders for All
There are plenty of blinders that we use quite frequently:
  • I really want to do XYZ, but…
  • I can't get ahead at work because so and so…
  • If only I had thus and such, I'd…
  • It's impossible for someone my age to go back to school and learn…
  • There's just no one around who…
  • I just hate that I…
Some blinders fall into the area of beliefs, some are simply definitional, but all have the same effect. They preclude us from even looking into the storage rooms that most likely to hold the answers we seek.

One of my favorites of late is something common to practitioners of IT, martial arts, yoga and religion. It occurs when adherence to the method or discipline or principles usurps the goal or intention of the method, discipline or principles.

To that end, we often blind ourselves in the pursuit of happiness becoming more focused on method than result.

Do you have any blinders? Or perhaps more usefully, does anyone you know believe that you have blinders? What are they?

The cool thing is that you can always put the blinders back on after you taken a look around with them off. You don't even need to tell anyone that you peeked.

Happy Sunday,


  1. she's right: It's just a belief.

    You believe that you can define what is important in your life. You also believe that you have a free will - even if everything that has happend since big bang can be decucted as a logic consequence...
    - and that these things happend because people believed they had a free will...

    BTW: Friday morning I thought that playing golf or going to the woods would be the most important thing to do this weekend - later I decided that working was more important...

  2. I really like that definition of important! I'll plagiarize it...

  3. Joy, I was going to say, "I agree"

    However, defining something and believing it are quite different. I can define "free will" as being the ability to make choices completely independently of everything that has ever happened or will happen. I can also believe that free will (as I've defined it) doesn't exist.

    I can define important as meaning the the activities on which people spend the most time. I can also believe that people never do what is important. They're independent of one another.

    You might define important to mean the things for which you have the strongest feelings. I might define it to mean the things where I spend most of my energy. Someone else might define important to mean, whatever they feel like doing in the moment. It doesn't particularly matter what we believe. However, if you're trying to communicate, it can be useful to be clear about what you mean by "important".

  4. Tef, I don't see the difference. It sounds like what you mean by "defining" is "stating your belief that...."

    It is a fact/observation that you have a particular definition that you use to determine what is important to a person, and the next guy has his own definition that he uses to do that. But you guys are still both believing in your definitions. I don't see the difference between saying "You define this as...." and "You believe this is...."

    My mother defines the love of her children as directly proportional to the number of times they call her in a given month. It may be a fact/observation that my mother holds such a definition, but I don't see a useful difference between that and saying that my mother believes that if her children loved her, they would call her xx times per month.

    It's particularly squishy because you're dealing with the term "important" which is typically used to denote value, and value as far as I can tell is always wrapped up in judgments/beliefs.

    Whaddya think?

  5. Kristoof, I guess I'd respond by first asking you to consider the question from the perspective that there is in fact a useful difference between how you define a word and what you believe, and then asking yourself to explain the difference. Just try it on.

    I'd love to hear what you come up with approaching it from that starting point, and then I'd love to share what I think.

  6. Okay, I'm gonna talk this out like I'm splainin it, but understand I'm trying to splain to myself, not lecturing.

    I see defining as belonging to the realm of making distinctions. It's usually an attempt to cordon off an area of meaning and say this is what this is, and what it isn't.

    You might say it's establishing premises or building blocks from which you can build conclusions.

    But, if in the course of defining something, you articulate a belief, and the belief and the definition are coterminous, I'm scratching my head as to the importance of the distinction.

    I don't know if this is always the case. For the
    sake of a discussion, you might establish some definitions that you don't necessarily believe in, in order to test them out. So theoretically I'm totally cool with saying it's a useful distinction/tool to have in your toolbelt.

    Of course, as I say that now, what's the difference between establishing theoretical principles and "suspending disbelief"--i.e., choosing to believe in them temporarily for the sake of testing them out?

    But like you at Bell Labs when you were scratching your head at the Experts who wanted to research and define all the underlying principles and structures while you were busy addressing the problem at a practical level, I don't see what the use of that theory is in this particular practical application.

    I don't see believing and logic-ing/defining as separate activities. That's because I define (i.e., believe) beliefs to be rational conclusions based on a set of premises and rules in the believer's mind. And the premises (and the rules) might be (perhaps always are?) beliefs, too.

    The logic may be flawed from an Aristotelian standpoint, but it makes sense to the believer. And if I ask certain questions, I can help the believer to untangle the system so s/he can see it in a different way and perhaps make some choices about it that will work for them more effectively.

    At least, those are enabling beliefs I engage at the beginning of a dialogue, and I've found them to be useful to the enterprise.

    I would say that your definition of importance is a useful enabling belief for someone who wants to live an empowered life that maximizes the personal significance of their moment-by-moment experience.

    What about someone who believes/defines "important" as those activities in which they experience the most love, even if they're the smallest part of their day? If it's a belief-inition that works for them, I say go with it. I can define/believe it to be something else and go with that.

    No doubt I've violated some really important foundations of Western logic here, but I'm enjoying playing in this sandbox with you. ;-)

  7. Nice splaining. I'm starting to see where we're not quite connecting yet.

    Let's say we're having a conversation about what's important to us. I say that what's important to me is to experience love. You say that what's important to you is to take care of the people in your life. Someone else says that what's important to him is to make money.

    Each of us maintains beliefs about what is important. We may hold the beliefs strongly and start debating why one is more important than the other, assuming that we mean the same thing by "important".

    I might take important to mean that I spend every waking hour doing it. You might take it to mean that, whenever it comes up, you'll debate it. The third guy might mean that he can't stop thinking about it, even though he never takes any action towards it.

    We have different beliefs about what is and is not important and we have differing definitions of the word important.

    Let me give ya a practical example. Let's say your boss runs into the office and says, "Hey, I want you to look take a look at something that is very important!"

    Now, I've had bosses for whom "important" meant considered redirection of resources: drop what you're doing and pursue this. I've had other bosses for whom important meant "interesting" and momentary. In the case of the former, you could count on her following up to see what progress had been made, what resources would be required, etc. In the case of the latter, you'd be surprised if he even remembered talking about it the next day.

    I've seen a lot of people do poorly in job ratings working with the latter type of boss because they took important to mean they should drop everything and do what ever the boss told them was important. In some cases, upon hearing what the boss was calling important and disagreeing with the assessment, they would begin arguing. In other cases, they would drop everything and do it.

    In either case, it didn't bode well for them. They would end up being seen as argumentative and difficult (spending valuable social crediting arguing something that the boss was going to forget about anyway) or they would be seen as someone who didn't follow through on whatever it was that they dropped to pursue the important thing.

    If they'd simply recognized how the boss uses the word important, rather than focusing on whether or not what he was calling important was indeed important, they would simply sit and listen, acknowledge the boss' excitement, and then carry on with whatever it was they were doing previously.

    The same can be applied to words like practical and theoretical. For me practical has to do with the timeliness, quality and quantity of benefit. I may have no idea of how to actually accomplish it, but it would be worth doing. For others, the fact that I don't know how to do something would cause the something to fall into the realm or theoretical. For them, practical may have little to do with benefit and more to do with certainty, ease and cost.

    So, we could both be arguing about whether or not something is practical, when in fact we agree on all the facts. However, we don't know that we agree on all the facts. So, before we argue about whether or not something is practical, we might first want to ask, "What do you mean by practical?"

    What do you think?

  8. I might get it now:

    "Well, we spend our time on the things that are most important to us."

    If this is a definition it means that I can see what is important to me by looking at my acts: what did I actually spend my time on?

    If it is a belief: I have decided what is important to me, and I believe that this is what I spend most time on.

    So I can have important as belief and as definition - and I can adjust my acts to get more intune.


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