How Important Are Important People?

There are people who hold an outsize place in our culture. We tend to mythologize individuals, and celebrate their role, for good or evil.

Why do we do this?

First, we tend to want to put a face to an organization or to a group. For example, Tim Cook is Apple. Pope Francis is the Catholic Church. Lebron James is basketball. A group of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people is difficult to conceptualize. But one name, one face that stands for a movement is something we can comprehend.

We also like to remember important contributions. Albert Einstein’s scientific contributions are such that his name and appearance have become synonymous with science. Mother Theresa was a symbol of kindness and generosity to the whole world.

But whether it is a celebrity, an athlete, or a musician, famous people drive ratings, increase page views, and sell newspapers. So clearly some people are considered, by society, more important than others. More worthy of attention.

What is the alternative?

However, an entire political movement has sprung up to combat this. Talk of income inequality, of the 1% — the richest and most powerful of society — is featured on debate stages and town hall meetings around the country. If wealth and influence are considered “important”, there is an ongoing effort to return some power and voice to those who don’t have it.

While it is worthwhile to appreciate the contributions of individuals, does that also have the effect of minimizing the efforts of others with a lower profile? Steve Jobs was a visionary, sure, but it was the engineers and software programmers of Apple that actually produced the iPod, iPhone, Macintosh computer, and other products. It is the rare individual whose success doesn’t rely on the efforts of dozen, or hundreds of unheralded workers.

Do we, as a society, give too much credit to too few people? Or is fame and fortune fully deserved (and obscurity of others so implied)? How important are important people? Does it matter how important is defined?

Related questions: What is important? Where does authority come from? Who is the most important person in your life? Which historical person would you like to meet?

 

Can People Change?

This is an age old question, with many examples of conventional wisdom on both sides of the debate. Can people change? Or are facets of their personality fixed forever?

On one hand, cautionary tales abound. If your spouse cheats on you, they will do so again in the future. Addicts will use again. A convicted criminal will re-offend. A liar will continue to lie. Because people don’t change.

Conversely, stories of redemption are some of the most powerful stories of all. Everyone deserves a second chance, as the saying goes. Someone who learns from a mistake and takes steps to correct it is a hero.

How you view this issue may influence how you view the criminal justice system. Is it about punishment for doing wrong, or a chance to redeem yourself as a member of society? Does someone who serves out a prison sentence deserve the benefit of the doubt? In addition, does it matter what the offense was?

If you think it is possible for a person to change, how can any improvement be shown? In other words, at what point do we accept that a lesson has been learned, or that someone is truly remorseful?

Furthermore, what about change for the worse? Someone who has previously been kind and generous and thoughtful can do something selfish or mean. At what point does it become a change in personality? Is a nice person always nice, even if they do some things that are definitely not nice?

Usually, change is the one fixture in our lives. As we age, our body goes through physical changes: we get grey hairs, wrinkles around the eyes, gain some weight. But does our personality go through similar changes? Or do we have some traits that remain constant?

Related questions: What is time? What is necessary to change your mind? How have we changed? How have you changed?

 

How Can We Encourage Meaningful Conversation?

Sometimes it seems like conversation is a dying art.

We don’t talk much anymore. In-depth discussions have been replaced with small talk. Long, rambling phone calls are now five second Vine videos. A ten page, hand-written letter is now a text message.

Why is this?

Generally, there are many reasons for this change. Technology, in the form of smart phones and social media, encourages brevity. We are warned to avoid controversial topics as a way of keeping the peace. In addition, an entire generation of young adults have grown up online, where tone of voice and body language are non-existent.

As a result, we grow ever more isolated from those around us. People are not confronted with differing opinions. We don’t often talk to people with opposing views, and when we do it devolves to a shouting match. Violence is increasingly more common. Consequently, entire communities are dismissed and ignored.

Is it all bad?

And yet, we still crave conversation. We want to be intellectually stimulated. Ted Talks, for example, are wildly popular, and can be thought of as the first half of a conversation. The vlogbrothers, Hank and John Green, are YouTube celebrities based on their ongoing weekly video chats. So the desire exists in each of us for communication of ideas, and the act of sharing them with our friends and acquaintances.

So how can we revive the art of conversation? How do we overcome our dependency on the endless Facebook newsfeed scroll, and engage each other in an actual dialogue? Can we recapture the give and take, the challenge of ideas, the talk for sake of the talk? In short, to be exposed to new ideas and new points of view?

How can we encourage meaningful conversation?

Related questions: What do we have in common? How can we encourage debate? Are we too busy? How can we become better listeners? What do you get out of social media?