Great Minds Talk About Ideas

There’s a famous quote:

Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People

This quote is often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but it’s been suggested it was a less pretentious edit of Charles Stewart’s 1901 autobiography:

Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.

Let’s break each one of these down, starting by talking about people, or in other words, gossip. I recently had a friend inadvertently share a story about another person, which was quickly gossiped, and has created drama amongst several social networks. This was a powerful reminder to both of us, that most of our social network doesn’t gossip, or talk about people, and the drama that can unfold when one does.

If you do insist on talking about people, or gossiping, my friend Scott N pointed me to the Buddhist Rights Speech philosophy (part of the Noble Eightfold Path), which I enjoy as a reference when I want to bring up another person in conversation:

  • It is timely
  • It is true
  • It is spoken affectionately, and of good will
  • It has a benefit to being shared

If the answer isn’t a clear and obvious yes to all four of these, hold on to the thought and work through each of these four, or just drop it and move on to more beneficial conversation.

There is a short term benefit to gossip, you get an immediate boost of dopamine as both the sharer and the receiver. The sharer will also experience a release of oxytocin, and potentially even a release of serotonin. As these are the three chemicals that make up happiness, it’s no doubt that it’s physically and emotionally rewarding to gossip. It also improves bonding amongst those who seek out these chemicals, which are typically people who in my experience, lack self discipline.

Why they are referred to as small minds, is because scientifically there’s not enough stimulation in this process to create new neural pathways.

It is my experience that the smallest minds not only gossip, but they talk negatively about others. It takes a little self awareness and observation to notice that talking negative about others, or against the Buddhist Rights Speech mentioned above, hurts the originator more than anyone else, and that anyone doing so is not calm nor contented, and usually less successful than the person they are gossiping about. A gossiper would be better served improving themselves.

When you want to start to move into more objective conversation, you will start to talk about things, such as events. This is referenced in the quote as the level of conversation of an average mind. You will get some of the above chemicals as mentioned above, but less usually, but you’re also introducing a level of thought. The challenge is the thought is likely not much new information, but mostly information that is already known or experienced, so not many neurons are used.

What is likely obvious at this stage in the story is that when you start to express curiosity, or questioning, your brain activity is creating new neural pathways over time as you walk through this new learning. This means you’re actually becoming smarter — and in my experience people automatically think you’re really smart — which it doesn’t mean you are, but it is my recommendation there is no better position to be insatiably curious and perpetually improving your critical thinking skills.

If you’re wondering how you might do this, try to take a contrarian position on something you’re emotionally attached to. If you’re strongly a liberal, try to understand and take the honest position of a conservative. If you’re an atheist, argue how Islam is the correct religion.

It is my observation, or hypothesis, that those who identify as critical thinkers are less settled and less happy, so with everything, there’s a trade off.

The intent of this article isn’t to place a right or wrong on any of the three areas of conversations you usually find yourself in, but to think about which of the three you usually talk about — people, things/events, or ideas, and then to question how that is serving you.

While drafting this article, I came across a poem but I can’t find the original author so I’ll reference a medium post with it and share it here:

I once asked a very successful woman to share her secret with me. She smiled and said to me…
“I started succeeding when I started leaving small fights for small fighters.
I stopped fighting those who gossiped about me…
I stopped fighting with my in laws…
I stopped fighting for attention…
I stopped fighting to meet peoples expectation of me…
I stopped fighting for my rights with inconsiderate people..
I stopped fighting to please everyone…
I stopped fighting to prove they were wrong about me…
I left such fights for those who have nothing else to fight…
And I started fighting for my vision, my dreams, my ideas and my destiny.
The day I gave up on small fights is the day I started becoming successful & so much more content.”
Some fights are not worth your time … Choose what you fight for wisely.