The Transitive Property of Importance

Why you should—or shouldn’t—care about what they care about.

The Transitive Property of Equality is one of those mathematical principles that’s so intuitive, you don’t think about it, and most people don’t realize that it has a name.

Simply put, if A = B and B = C, then A = C. You can break a $10 bill into two fives, ten ones, or a five and five ones. No matter how many pieces of paper you have folded in your wallet, you have $10.

The same principle applies to importance. When planning how you spend your time and attention, it’s appropriate to focus on what’s important to you and shut out everything else. That doesn’t mean you’re a self-centered boor.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/sezer66

Every relationship has an emotional balance to it, like a bank account. When we do something for someone else that they value, we make a deposit to that account. When we blow them off and treat what they care about lightly, we make a withdrawal. It doesn’t matter how important we feel it is, just them.

If someone is important to you, you care about what they care about because you care about them. The more you value the relationship, the more their priorities will influence yours. If you don’t know someone, what they think shouldn’t affect you as much. (See also: Critic’s Math.)

  • Make your spouse’s hopes, dreams, and fears your own. If anybody is there for them, you are.
  • Take time to scour the lantana with your three-year-old daughter to see where the caterpillar went.
  • Spend a Saturday afternoon helping a friend move. Offer to bring the pizza.
  • Show up on time and put in a solid day’s work. What you’re working on is important to the guy who signs your paychecks, even if you don’t see it.
  • Study the market to see what your customers want instead of making whatever products you want to make.

No one area can or should come at the expense of everything else. That sort of imbalance isn’t sustainable. It’s a matter of time before you’re driving around on a flat tire. Maintain harmony between your roles.

None of this means that you cast aside anything you care about because it’s meaningless. Working on what’s important to us is how we meet the Esteem Need (Swagger). It’s how we feel we’re making a meaningful contribution to the world.

When you spend time focusing on what’s important to you, that includes transitive importance—things that are important to you because they’re important to someone who’s important to you. Doing so builds and strengthens those relationships. Done properly, you’re not shutting anyone out at all. You’re ignoring things that nobody cares about.

Question: How do you show someone something is important to you because they’re important to you? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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