Writer and comedian Seth MacFarlane--the creator of the animated series Family Guy--was recently interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Here's the very last question they discussed:
Terry Gross: One more question, and I know you've been asked this a lot, but, on September 11th you were supposed to be on that plane that was supposed to fly from Boston to L.A. but instead was hijacked and flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center, and you were late, your travel agent gave you the wrong time, so you missed being on that catastrophic flight. Do you ever think of the rest of your life as being this kind of gift, because you, you just, it could have all ended for you that day?
Seth MacFarlane: One of my favorite quotes by Carl Sagan is that we are as a species, and as a culture, we are significance junkies. We love attaching significance to everything, even when there really is no significance and something is just a coincidence, and this is a perfect example to me of something, you know, really, in all honesty, not to sound cold, but, you know, I don't think of it that way. I, I think of it as, you know, I'm living the same way in 2011 as I was in 1999, and the reason for that is that, you know, I had missed a lot of flights for being late, I'm a perpetually late person, you know, every flight that takes off, you gotta figure somebody's missing the flight or somebody's late, and on top of that, you know, who knows how many times a day we have similar close calls as the one that I had, you know? I mean this morning, crossing the street, if I had crossed five minutes later I would have been hit by a car. I, I, who knows? So, in my case, you know, obviously the day itself was a tragedy and a disaster, but if we're just talking about my case, um, it doesn't strike me as something that I am attaching an unbelievable amount of significance to because of those reasons, because I, I've missed a bunch of flights.
In 1997 Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan co-authored The Demon-Haunted World, a "passionate plea for scientific literacy," according to Publishers Weekly, and one of the book's last chapters, titled "Significance Junkies," addresses the many ways in which we misinterpret statistics and willfully substitute magical thinking for clear-headed understanding. One example they cite is the common attribution of "hot" and "cold" streaks and other aspects of athletic performance to quasi-mystical sources:
We seek meaning, even in random numbers. We're significance junkies... So what? What's the harm of a little mystification? It sure beats boring statistical analyses. In basketball, in sports, no harm. But as a habitual way of thinking, it gets us into trouble in some of the other games we play. [p 349]
Sagan's use of the term "junkies" is apt; we crave significance just as any addict craves their drug of choice. And when it's not readily available, we invent it--we imagine significance all around us. This is harmless entertainment when we're talking about certain topics--but as Sagan and Druyan suggest, it can also pose a real problem.
Why am I talking about this on a site focused on executive coaching and change management? Because I think one of the areas where our "significance addiction" does pose a real problem is in our working relationships, particularly when we're in a leadership role.
Our craving for significance leads us to see meaning in randomness, to hear signals instead of noise. We mistakenly believe it's all about US--that people are thinking about US, noticing US, responding to US--when, from their perspective it's really all about THEM--and they're thinking about something else, noticing someone else, and responding to a whole host of factors, ranging from what they ate for breakfast to the state of their retirement portfolio.
We matter less than we think we do, and the universe is more random than we want it to be--and those can be painful truths to accept. (Sagan and Druyan open their "Significance Junkies" chapter with an epigram from mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré: "We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not more consoling.")
We crave significance and invent meaning not because we're stupid, but because we're brilliant; it hurts like hell to admit our insignificance, and we find consolation in endlessly inventive delusions of relevance. But it's really not all about us, and once we realize that we can enter into a different kind of conversation with the people around us. Instead of simply assuming that our actions are the basis for their reactions, we can get curious about what they really are thinking about and noticing and responding to. It may be humbling, but we'll undoubtedly learn a lot in the process.
I'm all too aware of a paradox at the heart of this post: While it's never entirely about us, sometimes, in part, it truly is about us, particularly when we're in a leadership role, and something we said or did innocuously has had a significant and unintended impact on someone else. I'm certainly not suggesting we ignore that dynamic--increasing awareness of our impact on others is at the heart of my work as a coach. But I would draw a distinction between improving our ability to discern when we've had an impact on others on the basis of observed behavior, and letting go of the assumptions and imaginary scenarios that spring from our craving for significance.
Photo by Ella's Dad. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.