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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

Why Small Minds Discuss People

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.

Also read these gossip quotes that will help you eliminate rumors from your life at work, at school, or among friends.

Celebrity Culture

Average Minds Discuss Events

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.

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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

Great Minds Discuss Ideas

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?

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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

Small Minds Discuss People

Let’s graph it out just to be sure.

The symbols are arrows:

Intent > action > events > result

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.


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?


Your responsibility is to you first.

We cannot make others happy when we are not.

Don’t Get Stuck

Great Minds Discuss Ideas

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.

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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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  1. Doug

    January 9, 2021 at 10:49 AM

    I think I’d further refine it to the following:
    Self-centered minds gossip about people.
    Distracted minds discuss events.
    Engaged minds expand on ideas.

    Or maybe this is more apropos?

    Do not spend your time today belittling others’ faults
    Or while away the minutes on events the news exalts
    But seek to focus time each day in making understood
    Agape love that fills our hearts and does our neighbors good

  2. Kevin

    August 8, 2020 at 2:23 AM

    The quote is about the idea that great minds discuss ideas, etc. That is not discussing people. I did not read the rest of the article.

  3. HYE

    May 13, 2020 at 5:31 AM

    I read the article in its entirety though I haven’t read any of the other comments. I gotta say your assertions are quite the stretch – and swapping out words as you desire: ‘discuss’ becomes ‘judge’ – you don’t understand the meaning of the quote (your substitution of ‘judge’ is the smoking gun proof of that). Discussing the ideas and opinions of others does not constitute discussing people, nor judging them. Discussing the latest gossip about what they wore and where they went and with whom – that is small minded.

    And another thing: you got the quote wrong, backwards in fact; it starts with “great minds…” and ends with “small minds…”

    And why even mention that the quote is misattributed without suggesting another name? Sloppy and all based on misguided opinions presented as truth and fact rather than as the opinions that they truly are.

  4. Bob E.

    November 22, 2019 at 2:57 PM

    The context does matter to how this saying comes across. A decade ago, I twisted the saying for a good purpose. When my daughter was gossiping meanly with friends about others at school, I would remind them:
    Small minds talk about other people. Mediocre minds talk about things (clothes, cars, accessories, etc.). Great minds talk about ideas.
    Nevertheless, I’ll send these ideas along to that daughter to see how she can sharpen her understanding of why some people talk ill of others and why explaining and applying great ideas is excellent. Thanks for rethinking the saying, Chris.


    October 2, 2019 at 6:12 AM

    Perhaps you have heard the little epigram which goes like this: Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and little minds discuss people. Those who spend most of their discussion time in talk about people and events are not intellectually mature.

  6. Roland Bernett

    July 29, 2019 at 7:14 PM

    Even great minds have to deal with eating, sleeping, shopping for essentials (events/things) and making decisions about who to buy/interact with (people)!

    • Chris Oler

      July 30, 2019 at 10:06 AM

      Thanks, Roland. How do you suppose a “great” mind’s approach to those things differs? Thanks for your comment.

  7. Dan Hunt

    May 24, 2019 at 6:28 PM

    So, I discuss the ideas of politics and the unreasonable events of war. I’m sure, some of you will call this small minded, and I do protest. The greatest events are too often lit up by the media as great events. They are not great events and wars are mostly started by the big money guys trying to own our whole world as as they do this billions of people suffer from the huge monetary and people costs of continuous war mostly supported by the USA.
    You may want to be like the guy the invented the light bulb. But would you like to be like the ruthless man Edison was?

  8. Saul Luizaga

    March 1, 2019 at 8:41 PM

    No that’s not what that quote means, it means think constructively, efficiently and make it worth your time, so no it doesn’t defeat the purpose. Don’t judge people is a religious construct, of course we can judge people, but out of Knowledge and Truth, as opposed as how people does it mostly: from ignorance and envy/jealousy. The subject is the human mind and how best use it, not the people they belong to. There are no small minds? compared to what/who? that’s very subjective and you shouldn’t affirm it; also there are people that are naturally mentally limited, they don’t have a high IQ or they were taught to think in a very simple and/or stupid way, because they’re stupid themselves so they refuse to learn or think better, or they didn’t have the chance to learn or didn’t know where/how to get knowledge, those are small minds, but yes, the human mind is a complex and amazing organ, because the brain is amazing, and for the most part the mind that seeks knowledge, learn to think better, be efficient and humane, pretty much anyone can, the Brain is the only organ that can improve itself, but we must be realistic to how usually people use theirs

    • Chris Oler

      March 2, 2019 at 7:37 PM

      Thanks, Saul. Everyone is welcome to his or her interpretation and I am fortunate to have developed one on this quote that I think is positive and beneficial to others. That does not mean it is the only interpretation that can be! All bests and thank you for reading.

  9. charles cooper

    March 1, 2019 at 10:06 AM

    Hello Chris, enjoyed your well-written article. Especially apropos to your own twist on the quote ‘Hurting minds discuss people. Distracted minds discuss events. Engaged minds illustrate ideas.’ Played around with my own version to capture a similar meaning as you implied from the original quote often attributed to Elenor Roosevelt.
    If the common source of this quote is wrong who is the source? I would like to know. Don’t want to misquote somebody. You must have some basis for your statement besides conjecture.
    Agree with Becky of Dec 2018
    Thanks for an intellectually stimulating article.

    • Chris Oler

      March 1, 2019 at 4:36 PM

      Thanks, Charles. The quote is as often credited to Admiral Hyman Rickover, but when he used the words in a Saturday Evening Post piece, he quoted them as from “the unknown sage.”

      The words seem to go back some time and first appear in print in 1931. It appeared along with a request to determine its origin. Of course, 1931 predates FDR’s time in office and the emergence of Eleanor Roosevelt as a public figure.

      No one has ever offered when or where Ms. Roosevelt stated or wrote the words. Given that the two figures were contemporaneous, I don’t think the Admiral would have missed crediting her. There is some evidence it may have originated with historian Henry Buckle decades before in the mid 19th Century.

      Thanks for reading, Charles! I also appreciate you bringing this up because I love a good mystery. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this one was solved.

  10. Mamadi

    January 27, 2019 at 10:15 PM

    As I’m reading your blog, especially your point of view about this famous quote of ER.Frankly speaking,your thoughts are so deep and really break down the quote as Food in digestive system.Great job and keep it up.🙏

    • Chris Oler

      February 4, 2019 at 10:04 AM

      Thank you, Mamadi. All best wishes to you.

  11. JustABruce

    November 25, 2018 at 7:10 PM

    I have long held the thought that how we speak, or how we visualize words in speech, reflects the inner richness of our individualism. It has been assumed by others that speech is a mere form of communication that is inherent to attained intellect and I am not sure that I would agree with that estimation. A person with Autism (what is classified as a disorder and sub classified into a range of ability) can prove a disparity of such assumptions. While I would agree that the mere ability is a proof, self-evident, of intelligence, I do not agree that our choice of word reflects the limit of defining our level of intelligence. Such things as various learning disabilities can disprove these widely-held assumptions. Take for instances a person who is a mathematical genius but might only write at a rudimentary level that is equated with 8th grade English skill. I am speaking of me and I am a high functioning Autistic as well. There are many fallacies that our cultures tend to accept without challenge as those are not to be questions as per or indoctrination process. I am labeled Autistic, high functioning, but I have never allowed the constraints of such labels to define who I am or what I can or cannot do. I do have limits and I accept them (such as I suck at grammar). But below is my take or mental process when I think out this quote.

    One of my favor quotes for reflection is: “Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.”

    Small minds discuss people?
    This quote is used as thinly-veiled deterrent to people to shame them into not gossiping about other people. While I agree that gossip is general negative and promulgates little action to promote a good outcome in social situations, I disagree that this is what the quote intended.
    I have often believed that we are mirrors in society as far as communication goes but that is role dependent. I feel I am too much of an individual to be an actual mirror to anyone, but that for most part communication is a tool, a means to an end. It is used to solicit information, or curry favor with people you admire, or used negatively as a weapon to cause harm (propaganda). As an Autistic I am not as prone to emotional manipulation tactics– so some forms of communication fail with me. The act of speech is done to incite or provoke competition or to invoke a sense of collaboration depending upon the intended use. Regardless of how you view it speech is a tool used to solve situations. I doubt people often look past the messages they get daily to see the red doors behind the messages. Red doors are my way of describing motivation/motivators. Hell we have made a whole psychological infrastructure or market for communication. What do you think Marketing is? As an industry how many billions can this make per year? It is heavily tainted with intentionality to manipulate consumers into thinking they need something which they merely want, even if they can’t afford whatever is being sold.

    So I believe that the truth behind the quote is that it is a mirror as you have stated. If we are stuck in the realm of talking about people or being ‘small-minded’ this infers that we are self-reflecting something that we dislike about who we are. I am not suggesting we are shallow, nasty little people, whom have no good intended. But gossip is used as a bonding ritual and the outcomes are never good ones when the intention is negative. Psychologically speaking, bonding is a set of behaviors intended to create an atmosphere in which “people get along better” for the common good or goal, it is meant to be collaborative and that is a good outcome if done for the right reasons. If a call-to-action is done to rally against a person that is not always a good or just reason. I would equate that as drama. Its role or function is negative and not all that helpful in people being responsible for their own issues. Those of us who are internally motivated types tend to limit this sort of activity and find it harder to relate to. But frankly those of us who are internally driven tend to also be less able to justify attitudes that lend to the creed of herd mentality.

    There is a reason-ability in the estimation that speech is an active action that is engaged upon willingly. This is part of why quotes intrigue me so. That it is an action driven by some factor that was of a prejudicial formation, that which started as an attitude, before it bloomed into a form of active discrimination. Attitudes are not always a reflective process or behavior and can certainly be reflective, but both whether passive or active, are part of the person who rendered them. Hence a mirror.

    Average Mind discuss events?
    Well, I see no problem with discussing events. What would we have to speak of with casual strangers? It is the truth of a shared or commonality within our society. It helps define human. To discourage this is to drive the idea that we have no need to have social bonds without ulterior motives, I certainly hope this isn’t true as it diminishes us. Some people do like to spend time with others without there always being a hidden agenda. This to me is the category for which it makes sense to start with a person unknown to you. It is the place where the start of common interests could lead to friendship. For that reason, I do not think the quote intended for this to be any sort of slam. It is a type of ‘feller” to get to an unknown– a stranger better and a point at which to determine whether you share enough commonality of interest to further engage. It is a fundamental step to the formation of society.

    Great minds discuss ideas?

    This is where I spend most of my time but then I am an Autistic person so my guess is this is where most people would be if they actually have the condition and its inherent limitations. I am often trapped in my own mind but even when that is not true, I do reject most of the social chatter as non-relevant or invalid. I do not do so because I am arrogant or dismissive but because somehow what I am hearing isn’t passing some test of validity or substantiated proof to be a legitimate claim. Most opinions are not based in fact and that is a problem for me. I can see how others around me might assume less flattering ascription. But I for the most part do not discriminate. Even if I have an internal prejudice, I generally keep it to myself unless solicited for my opinion.

    I wouldn’t want others to assume that I believe where I am at is where all people should be at. That this is somehow the ideal stance from which to be active and seated. Nor do I want others to assume that this is the best place to be. I do value individuality and that means at all levels of attainable difference. The proclivity that I engage in is not for all people. Without innovators there is no progress, but equally true holds that without builders there is no action to make an ideal be actualized. So we need all people with all the varied skills they possess to be actualized. The puzzle of humanity is far too complex to manage without the diversity. I am inspired by those I share this proclivity with but I have deep reverence for those who have gifts that differ from my own. We all have our place and the value of that should be equal though in society it is often not. Inequity is the enemy and not in keeping with the goal of the ideal.

    The issue with people in my realm is that we often come up with these absurdly awesome ideas that are not within the standard of being achievable. It is not that I see that as a waste of time; however, there is something to be said for ideas that can become pragmatic.
    Without some level of all three categories being engaged it is all effort for waste. So there is some credibility given to each proclivity. Ideals are useless if not achievable in events that include people. So while it seems that there is a hierarchical structure to thought processes given this quote that is merely a mirage. The truth lies in the fact that all three proclivities are valid in some respect and without an interactive cooperation of the mental processes of all three nothing would ever get done in this thing we define as a life or the conceptualization of a society.

    This is how I process the quote per a pragmatic sense.
    The assumed small minds, define the problems in society which cause inequities, the assumed average people are the ones who put actions into solving the issues that lead to inequities, and the assumed great minds look for additional ways to improve the social model so that inequities can be irradiated in a more efficient way. Each has a role that is intricate to an evolving society. Progresses could not be made without the input of all.

    I do try not to make too many assumption but even I will be at fault for an assumption here and there.

    • Becky

      December 28, 2018 at 2:35 PM

      When I read this quote, quite frankly I don’t care what the intended meaning was. I consider how it applies to me and my life. For me, this is an extremely positive quote that helps to keep me focused and it talks about ways of thinking, not people.

      When I’m debating with someone (a hobby of mine) about anything at all, this quote reminds me that solid arguments are those that are based purely on ideas. Attacks on a person’s character or intelligence (discussing people) have no place in a rational debate. I look at these types of arguments as the low-hanging fruit. It’s incredibly easy to say to someone who doesn’t agree with me, “You only think that because you’re stupid.” Or worse. In my mind, someone who argues in this manner is engaging, at that moment, in small-thinking. I equate small minds with someone taking the easy way out intellectually. It has nothing to do with actual intellect.

      When using an event to bolster an argument, someone certainly must use a certain amount of knowledge. Not exactly low-hanging fruit. This requires some work. However, when using an event in this manner, someone must make assumptions and huge generalizations. Frequently, using an event (or any one thing) to make an argument also requires someone to disregard other things. It’s not pure.

      However, when we talk about ideas and stick to the specifics of the ideas, it requires quite a bit of mental work. To me, this type of thinking and debating is the most pure form. This type of thinking doesn’t generalize, rationalize, make assumptions, or disregard things that don’t quite fit.

      To me, this quote says nothing about people specifically. In my world-view, everyone is capable of thinking in all three ways. This quote is simply reminding us to take the high-road and not be intellectually lazy.

      • Chris Oler

        February 4, 2019 at 9:57 AM

        I appreciate the insight. It’s an interesting quote, and our perspectives change daily. I’m not sure I’d write the same piece if I started it today.

    • Chris Oler

      February 4, 2019 at 10:03 AM

      There are a lot of ways to go with this. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and respond. The tendencies here are in all of us, the question is which is most powerful? A note of pragmatism is advisable, yet the great innovators worked toward ideas while the pragmatic folks of their times stood next to them and said it could not be done.
      I need to read your comment a few more times! Thanks again.

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