Blog Post: Making Meaning

Making Meaning

Our minds are meaning-making machines.

All day long, our bodies’ senses (sight, sound, smell, etc.) take in the events around us, and our brains attempt to assimilate our perceptions and make sense of them.

Our boss passes us over for a promotion, our spouse says (or doesn’t say) something, our kids ignore our requests, a part of our body aches, and our brain searches for an answer to the question, “Why?”

Then, based on the answer we produce, we respond with thoughts, feelings, words, and actions.

The thing that’s helpful to recognize is that the answer we come up with is based purely on conjecture, or, in other words, a guess.

Have you ever been wrong about what you made something mean?

Have you ever been certain about something – for example, the motivation behind another person’s actions – only to learn another detail or piece of information that shed a different light on your original understanding and changed what you originally thought?

The thing is, it’s literally impossible for us to know all the facts leading up to an event, and we certainly can’t know all the consequences that might result from it.

Add to that the fact that we carry with us the cumulation of our past thoughts and experiences, which flavor how we see the world and influence the way we interpret what we see and the judgments we make.

An example shared in the book, The Art of Possibly by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, illustrates this.

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One scout sends back a telegram saying,


The other writes back triumphantly,


You may have experienced how easily different interpretations of the same event can occur with your spouse. Both of you take in the same facts in a situation and come to completely different conclusions about what the facts mean.

The facts are the same. The only difference is the interpretation of the facts and the meaning you give them.

In addition to our past thoughts and experiences, other factors influence the meaning we give something. How tired we are, how we’re feeling about ourselves, the things we are preparing for, our fears and doubts, our hopes and expectations are just a few.

A couple years ago, I noticed one of the sandhill cranes who regularly fed in our backyard stopped showing up. Sandhill cranes mate for life, and, one day, instead of two cranes, there was only one.

After a few days, instead of being delighted to see the beautiful creatures in my yard, I found myself feeling sad whenever the single crane appeared. I felt sorry for the one who had lost his mate and imagined he was probably feeling sad, too.

Then one day, I saw the single crane and thought, “Maybe this guy isn’t sad at all. For all I know, his mate was a real nag. Maybe he’s happy to be on his own, not having to worry about caring for her or pleasing her." 

Instantly, I saw his situation through a different lens and felt happy instead of sad.

Of course, I laughed about the whole thing.

I don’t know much about cranes at all. I don’t know if they experience feelings like the ones I was putting on him. In fact, I didn’t know if was a him, or even one of the pair of cranes that frequented my backyard.

The experience was a great reminder that I am the one who gives meaning to what I see. 

Knowing this is great if you see a lone crane, or you’re repping shoes in a place where people don’t have any yet, but how can you use this understanding on a practical, day-to-day level?

First, acknowledge you can never have all the information you need in any circumstance to accurately judge it. It’s impossible to know all that happened before, all the interpretations and meaning the people involved in the event gave it, or all the possibles outcomes that might occur in the future.

Second, acknowledge that you have a choice about what you make something mean.

Most of the time when we’re feeling bad, it’s because we’ve decided to make something that happens mean something negative about ourselves, someone else, or the world. When we’re happy, it’s because we’ve decided that something is good for us, someone else, or the world.

Every four years in America, about half the population is either happy and hopeful or sad and defeated. Same facts, different interpretation.

A specific tool for practicing your ability to choose is to notice the connection between your thoughts and the way you feel, because every thought you think produces a feeling or emotional response.

Want to feel differently? Try a different thought. Pick a feeling – preferably, one you want! – and ask yourself what you would need to believe or think to feel that way.

What you think and how you feel determine what actions you take or don’t take. And, of course, our actions are what determine the results in our lives. Because our actions shape our health, our wealth, and our relationships, learning this skill is fundamental to shaping our experience of life.

Going back to the marketing agents we met earlier, how do you suppose their recommended plans of action would differ? 

The “hopeless” agent would probably recommend not taking action. The “triumphant” agent would likely recommend a full-court press to bring shoes to that land of opportunity.

Of course, I could be wrong…. ;)


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