The News and the Useless Space Between the Circles

I can gather all the news I need from the weather report.
                                             Paul Simon

Those words, taken somewhat out of context from a beautiful song written in 1968 by Paul Simon—the “B” side to “Cecilia”, by the way, have been on my mind a lot lately. While Simon and Garfunkel’s version is both moving as well as beautiful, how about listening to a younger artist have a go at it, if it’s not one you’ve heard before…

It’s been on my mind for at least a month now but it really started to gel last week and the week before when I had the opportunity so share lunch, first with Glenn and then with George, friends who share my values but not necessarily all of my opinions. As such, time spent with them is not just pleasant but worthwhile; an opportunity to challenge existing beliefs and to tease out some new ones.

George has, for as long as I have known him, been a student of the late Stephen Covey and so, from time to time, the conversation drifts into areas covered by his works. This time we spent a few minutes talking about one of the ideas from his hugely popular “7 Habits” book, specifically about the concentric circle pair made up of the (inner) circle of influence and the (outer) circle of concern.

It goes like this: consider everything you consider important enough to warrant thinking about and maybe acting upon as being placed inside a region. The boundary of that region you can term the “circle of concern.”

Now take inventory of everything inside it. Lots of things—such as your fitness level, some happenings within local government, interpersonal relationships and such—are within your control and, thus, inside the “inner circle” or the circle of influence. But, as it also happens, many of the things that are important to you—things like, the current bank lending rate, the status of international relations between your country and its closest neighbors and maybe even the location of the next Super Bowl—but are beyond your control. These are in a grey area. They’re important, but you have no significant effect on how they play out.

The problem is that we often treat those things inside our circle of concern but outside our circle of control as if they were things we could affect.

And thus waste our time.

Then there’s the news.

Why do we bother so much? Two local examples:

  • Yesterday, while driving home from work a feature on a local news station spent significant time discussing the new ferries that have been ordered for delivery in a few years to be used on several short runs between the island of Newfoundland and some small communities. They’re badly needed and the sooner the better. The majority of the work was awarded, via a public tendering process, to a Dutch company (I’m in Canada) when numerous “local” companies could have done it. There’s plenty of talk about why it should have been awarded locally regardless of the bottom line, and that, specifically, was what the story was about. After reflection on my chat with George, I turned the radio off and spent several previous moments alone for the drive in the quiet company of my own thoughts.
  • Just this morning, as I have a little down-time awaiting turn-around from another process, I took the time to drop youngest off at school. On another local radio station I heard more on the ongoing local kerfuffle between local comedian Mark Critch and “famous personality” Pam Anderson. Again I turned the radio off and enjoyed the ride home in silence.

Don’t get this wrong: this is not to suggest that discussions around government expenditures should not be played out in public. They should. Absolutely. That sort of transparency keeps everyone’s good judgment solidly located between, on the one hand getting the best price/quality match and, on the other, being fair to all. Neither is this to say that the underlying issues between Critch and Anderson are trivial either—their fight is between A—animal rights, B—getting the facts straight and C—being respectful and showing good judgment. Obviously that’s significant stuff too.

It’s just that all of this is, for me, in that grey zone between my circle of influence and my circle of concern. Do I think it’s important? Yes. Is there anything to be gained, furthering the cause, by me listening, at length, to the back-and-forth on the news. Absolutely not!

Case closed.

Maybe we all should spend a little less time focused on the stuff that seems to dominate the news so much—the tragedies, the violence, the endless ego-battles that play out in public between our many types of public figures: public performers, athletes and politicians. Maybe, instead, we should focus on what’s inside our circle of influence and, hopefully even growing it a bit.

Once again, then, as Christmas draws near I’m grateful for family and friends.

Like George and Glenn.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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26 Responses to The News and the Useless Space Between the Circles

  1. That’s an interesting dichotomy. How to balance making ourselves aware and informed without getting overwhelmed with uselessness (for want of a better word).

    I rarely read the news. I find out about major deaths because people write about it on their blogs within minutes. Not that I am disinterested but as you say – what can I do about the latest place America has decided to invade, for example?

    But as you mentioned animal rights, I’ll rise to the bait. Although you could apply world poverty or environmentalism. The label is different, my actions are the same. So although my actions are small, I will do something where it can have an impact. I obviously don’t eat animals, don’t buy anything tested on animals (no, I don’t wear/use leather, take tablets etc etc etc), and as you know home rescue animals, be it cockerels or dogs. I do recycle, I don’t throw out to buy new for no purpose. Like your shed.

    I’m not Little Ms Perfect but I do shape my behaviour to affect what I think is important. Now whether or not it makes any difference is another matter but I’m not going down the road of so many others to say, it doesn’t matter what I do so therefore I won’t consciously alter how I act. This is very much about values, we all have our own circles that we live within. It’s like that excellent quote which I’ll have to paraphrase as I can’t remember the original ‘ God give me the strength to change what I can and the wisdom to know what I can’t.’ Or something like that.

    Or like one of my favourites from my MBA course which we were discussing only last night (my partner should have an honorary MBA he went through so much of it with me, including just in time supply in car plants. It’s the one about how to deal with a situation – accept it, change it, leave it, or change yourself. The last being the most difficult IMO. But the basic essence of that is, if you can’t do anything about it, then just leave it alone.

    Which brings me full circle to your post. There is no point wasting precious time and energy on something totally outside your sphere of influence. At the most all you are likely to achieve is a vote for a different government. Otherwise, we all learn to fight our battles and achieve our objectives how and where we can. Perhaps it comes with age, but sometimes there are nice ways around dealing with things. Everything comes to her who waits.

    • Nicely put. I especially like the part where you delved more deeply into that small but incremental differences we can make, especially when we persevere. Those, are the one exception worth noting to the circles of influence as the boundary of the circle is a bit fluid–we can grow the size of the bounded area if we wish and, even if we do not, some of our actions do contribute to a greater cause. A friend from my old place of work has been convincing her co-workers this holiday season to strive to spend at least one extra hour in service to others. I hope it catches on. Not only does it have some positive benefit but maybe it can help–even in a very small way–to stem the tide we currently have of that over-the-top gift giving. Why not give the gift of self instead. I like it.

      • We had a couple of examples of Christmas goodwill. The lights in our block were tripping and it was very dark going down the stairs, so we left them permanently on. One resident moaned about the cost and said people should have a torch! I don’t think they pay their annual charges to buy a torch to negotiate the staircase. I don’t want anyone falling because there is no light. So I emailed an electrician – no reply. Went to the guy in the shop near us, he came out later that day and fixed it. He said leave it a couple of days to make sure it was OK. It was so I went in to pay. No charge.

        Meanwhile Partner had gone back to do a couple of snagging jobs for a customer. Technically they weren’t part of the original estimate, but he agreed to do them anyway. Before he set off, the customer rang, saying could he take a drill as he needed some holes drilling for a bathroom shower screen, and he would pay. Partner didn’t charge either. In what seem to be such grasping and selfish times, it’s nice to see not everyone is. And our ‘gifts’ don’t have to be time or skill. Sometimes an appreciative word, a gesture, a thank you, can all help. The trouble with Gib is people are often too polite! The fights at the bus stop aren’t about who gets on first, it’s about who stands back to let someone else on (usually my age and older I have to say). Must drive the bus drivers spare as we all insist someone else should go first 😀

  2. Martin says:

    Amen to this post Maurice. Listening to the news can be so depressing and leave one feeling so helpless. Yesterday at the soup kitchen, we had 23 young people from one of the local schools come to visit. They had managed to gather some funds from among themselves and their families. They came to present the money before we opened to the clients from the streets, and to work alongside us as we fed them. Now that fell beautifully inside both my spheres, and was something I valued and appreciated. Thanks for your clear thinking Maurice. Keep ‘er going! Merry Christmas to you and yours, from the west coast to the east.

  3. Maurice love the song and go one step further with turning off TV altogether and reading a good book. I get my weather report on my ipad. I have become tired of what we are constantly fed, most of it sensationalised crap and insulting to my dogs intelligence even.

    The real issues fall by the way side. My daughter asked me how come we never hear how the Japanese are going after the disaster? Sadly because it is of no interest anymore, while the world wants to know who is the next big thing? I try to teach my children to look between the lines and see what the big picture involves, because in todays media you are mostly served a poor excuse for a news story. That said, I pluck the more important news I need from the paper or internet connections and skip the rest. Great post, you always get my poor excuse for a brain ticking over. Thank you and merry christmas.

  4. seeker says:

    Yah, Christmas. Lets focus on Christmas instead.

  5. Amen.

    Reading this, I discovered what I had already suspected. We’re kindred spirits, for sure. I care about all that, I really do. But I want to focus on what is actually inside my circle of influence. (And the ability to recognize what we can, and cannot influence, requires a certain amount of old-fashioned Philippians chapter 2 humility, don’t you agree?)

    • Humility, the other great “H” (hope is still #1 for me). Indeed. One of the things I have done right in my life is to have maintained a group of friends who love me enough to be honest; something for which I am forever grateful. Over time, thanks mainly to them I have been able to assemble a decent list of the things I can do well and, more importantly, of the lengthy list of shortcomings that need constant attention 🙂 Life stays interesting!

      • You’re brave, indeed. Faithfulness in friendship requires exceeding courage, perhaps even more courage than hope and humility need. (And yes, life does remain interesting, And Merry Christmas to you and yours!)

  6. You’ve done this subject justice Maurice – as you do all topics you undertake here. I too wonder what my sphere of concern should be. Unthinking folks would have it that my sphere should be without limit and that I should be willing to internalize all with which I come in contact – all which makes up my reality. I should change the world. Impossible. And, at the other end of the spectrum, I often think it would be easier to become insular, self-absorbed, and without concern for all that goes on around me. What are our responsibilities? And which will drive us nuts and which will allow us to proceed steady-as-she-goes? A really interesting question. What are our social and personal responsibilities in terms of sphere of concern and sphere of action? See what you’ve done … you’ve made me think this morning. Good for you. I believe the bottomline must be that we should be responsible first, and foremost, for ourselves and for those we love. Beyond that, and if we have the energy and motivation, we can expend our sphere to our capacity to do other good works. But then there are folks like Gandhi, Dr. King, and Mr. Mandela who lived their lives in just the reverse! I have a headache. D

    • LOL it takes all kinds, doesn’t it! So, now your marking is all done and grades all submitted. Nothing for you to do except attend to family, friends and farm for a while. I look forward to hearing more from you…

  7. jennypellett says:

    I think it takes time (age and experience) to decide what goes inside our areas of influence. In other words, it’s sorting the wheat from the chaff or seeing the wood for the trees. I think it’s tremendously important for young people to watch/listen to world news and decide what they are able to deal with. It appals me that there is no room any longer on our National Curriculum for current affairs, no room for challenging discussion. It seems that we want to shield our younger generation from all that’s bad in the world (and, as a consequence, possibly the good as well) by not encouraging them to be interested in what does go on outside their immediate areas of influence – which appear to be shrinking decade on decade or include that most fatuous of things: celebrity. Apologies if I sound gloomy – but just try asking a teenager if they know who their shadow foreign secretary is or if they could place Syria on a world map. They may not be able to effect change – but unless they are given/give themselves the opportunity to be informed – then heaven help humanity!

    • I wonder if was ever much different. You are correct about knowing who’s who, what happened and why and, sadly, also correct about places. Silly, after all in this connected age. That said I truly believe that the veil of ignorance is something that will never be easily lifted. But it is possible and that’s why it continues to be important that all of us do our part. Bit by tiny bit improvements can and will be made.
      And, yes, there will always be backward steps too. Who know, in 1910 the horrible things that would happen over the next decade. Same for 1938. But still, in those same times we conquered many diseases, set many human “wrongs” right and made, for many, a better world. And so it goes…

  8. elkement says:

    I have nearly stopped reading or listening to daily news. I have been given that advice a long time ago by a man who was a successful entrepreneur and very active as a “responsible citizen” – so it does obviously not hurt not to encounter every up and down of public opinion, every single ripple. This year I have found the same line of thinking in Taleb’s book – so I feel vindicated. As discussed earlier, social media makes the amplification of ripples worse, and so-called news very often now follows social media (not the other way as before)-

    • After reading this comment It occurs to me that some of the seeds for this current post came from your own blog…and in not just one post but two or three. Hmmmm subversion is crossing the ocean and once again I am reminded of why I love blogging 🙂

      • elkement says:

        Not the QFT-related post, I guess 🙂

        • No but you must know that thanks to your blog I have strengthened my interest in physics. I started my career that way and for the next 18 years, physics was my “thing” as time went on, though, and I got dragged further and further into administration it waned a bit. No I didn’t just walk away from it–I would buy at least one physics books per year. This year alone I have made my way through three. Well almost–I am still working my way through the third. That renewed interest has a lot to do with your posts, and that includes QFT.

      • elkement says:

        Wow – I am honored!! Actually, I feel – due to replies on my blog – and related conversations elsewhere – that there is a rather large community of trained physicists out there who do not use physics on a daily basis but still manage to keep in touch or reconnect with their “roots”. For example, the author of that book on “fairytale physics” (which I don’t consider that polemic but rather a concise summary of modern physics), Jim Baggott, is working in industry.
        I think this kind of “reconnection with the real” thing – in contrast to skimming news, reading status updates on social media, writing corporate e-mails – is a big trend. Blogs that promote real books and “timeless wisdom” – as opposed to self-help and management theory – are getting very popular, too, such as or

  9. dougpete says:

    Great advice as we move into a Christmas season, Maurice. News so seldom is news anymore. It’s often a case of searching for the sensational and then playing it over and over for rating. There are far more important things to discuss around the family dinner table.

    • I like the way you put it Doug. As I type this I know that the news from your part of Canada is not great right now. What a nasty bit of weather you have just gone through! I hope that things are back to normal fro you by now and that you do get to enjoy the holidays in comfort. All the best in the coming year. Oh, and by the way–I love the OTR links best of all 🙂

  10. jennypellett says:

    I think you are a natural born educator Maurice. I read your response and pondered over it while I finished up the ironing, washing up and stuffing of dates for the celebrations. I’m still stuck on areas of influence: if we are to focus on only those things we can control, then how do we (the wider ‘we’) conquer diseases, create a better world without stepping out in to the grey area of influence? To affect change the individual surely must step outside their area of influence even if it is only to do a bit of banner waving.
    See – you made/are making me think. That’s a good thing. Merry Christmas!

  11. johnlmalone says:

    very true, Maurice. we can run ourselves ragged over matters — politics, national and international spring to mind — outside our direct influence. Far more profitable to spend our thoughts and energies on those within our circle

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