Although the origins and attribution of this quote to Eleanor Roosevelt have been disputed, the quote itself provides a though-provoking critique of our conversational habits. More than being just another interesting quote (of which there seem to be an almost limitless supply), this quote in particular has established a permanent place in my mind as a reminder of what to strive for in what to read and about which to converse.
Now, before we go any further, there are a lot of problems with taking this quote at face value (a common problem with many quotes – they sound good, but don’t offer much justification by themselves). The ranking of great, average, and small minds seems particularly ill-founded in a prescription that extant mental prowess determines the subject of discussion. Given the plasticity of the human mind and impact of learning on cognitive development, I would be much more partial to an aspirational model that flips the causation around:
- Idea-based discussions foster great minds
- Event-based discussions foster average minds
- People-based discussions foster small minds
Even that formulation still has issues, however. Are the idea/event/people distinctions particularly meaningful by themselves? I could understand if the point was that gossip was inferior to a discussion of ideas, but there’s little definition around each of those terms. Would intellectual discourse on the life of Einstein be lesser than a discussion of the party you went to last week? Probably not.
In general, though, I think the quote does provide a directionality to what we should aspire to achieve in discussions. Due to our cultural and evolutionary background, we are predisposed to revert to discussions about people (yes, there’s a whole raft of evidence I’m completely leaving out in this brief explanation – so look it up!) Close-knit social groups have been the backbone of human culture for millennia, so it is hardly surprising that we find such topics of conversation appealing. And events tend to provide similarly binding experiences for people to talk about, even if they did not experience them directly (how ‘bout that weather?)
But the goal, at least from an aspirational interpretation of the quote, is to strive to talk more about ideas. There is an implicit value preference for ideas in the quote that I have similarly arrived at after my years of experience and unique educational opportunities. Thus, while the quote more-or-less justifies a pre-existing belief that I already have (which doesn’t lend a whole lot of objective support to the argument), it does serve as a reminder – flawed as it may be – that to which we may default in our discussions is not that for which we should strive.
So the next time you find yourself deep in gossip or regurgitating the weather report, take a moment to consider the world of ideas out there that could provide something greater to set your mind towards. I say this not as an indictment of discussing such things as people and events, but as a realization that the intellectual and cognitive benefits of discussing something more substantive (ideas) is not something we will do by default with no extra effort. It requires an active dedication – one which Eleanor Roosevelt’s (possibly apocryphal) quote urges us to remember.