There’s a quote that is attributed to President Eisenhower that asserts, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” His quote mirrors this more popular saying: “the urgent is enemy of the important.” Both quotes speak to the fact that too often many of us focus our resources and time on matters of an urgent nature, which invariably leads to ignoring or devaluing the important.
To illustrate the concept graphically, I have diagrammed a dot and an arrow. The dot represents the urgent, and the arrow signifies the important. Consider that a dot is short term and finite while an arrow is long-term, and even infinite in some instances, which we’ll explore further below.
This dot and arrow issue is a problem that is seen in human nature across time. Yet, as much as we struggle with this, it’s very difficult to elevate the priority of the important. There’s one story in ancient Jewish history that illustrates this point as well as any.
You may recall the story of Esau and Jacob, twin brothers who were polar opposites, and frequently seemed to be at odds with each other. One day, after Esau had been out hunting for an extended period of time, he returned home famished. In fact, he was so hungry that he was willing to sell his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. In Jewish tradition, the birthright was reserved for the eldest son and offered significant prestige, the carrying on of the family name, the largest portion of the family inheritance and much more. But Esau, living in the dot of the here and now, devalued his birthright, the arrow, and bartered it to his brother Jacob, for a fleeting meal. While he eventually regretted his decision, there was no reversing the course on which he had set his life. His urgent choice permanently sacrificed the important.
As I’ve thought about the tyranny of the dot versus the arrow, I’ve contemplated how often the urgent trumps the important, as reflected in the following examples.
How often have you set out to complete a number of tasks in a given day when all of a sudden an “urgent” matter appears, out of left field? As quickly as the urgent new priority presents itself, the important tasks that you had committed to completing take a back seat. All of a sudden the important is displaced by the urgent, the end of the day comes, and few, if any, of the important goals are realized. The tyranny of the dot, the urgent, replaces the arrow of the important.
Have you ever been tempted to shortcut quality in favor of quantity in your business or job? This is one of those choices we often face in our business or careers, where the urgent can crowd out the important. The demand to meet a quota, or the need to achieve certain quarterly goals can put us in the predicament of choosing the dot versus the arrow. Will we sacrifice the long-term results to realize some short term gains? If so, we will succumb to the tyranny of the dot.
If ever there was a profession that was known for its short-sightedness, it is politics and politicians. It seems that short term wins are all that a politician cares about, at least the vast majority of them.
How will the next vote benefit me? Can this constituent contribute to my campaign? What position can I take on an issue that will most benefit me? But in asking all of these questions, the professional politician reveals he has very few laudable values or principles that guide him. His dot is the urgency of self-promotion, always seeking the most advantageous path to further his position. Sadly though, whenever this occurs, the arrow, which could be campaign promises or resolute principles, can so quickly be sacrificed.
While all the aforementioned examples are significant, they do not begin to rival the importance and priority of eternity. Perhaps the graphic of the dot and arrow best illustrates this when we compare the dot of our “three score and ten” years on earth with the unending arrow of eternity. Too often, for most of us, we are so easily distracted with the urgency of living in the dot during our short years here on earth, that we tragically short-sell the importance of living for the arrow of eternity, an era when 70 years will seem as a few short seconds and a thousand years will be like a few hours.
There is a verse that warns, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” Yet the sad reality is that too many will do exactly that. We will live for the here and now, for the dot of our earthly existence but in so doing, we sacrifice the arrow, the opportunity to experience an eternity with our Creator, who wills that all mankind join Him.
The Christmas season is a time when many of us take some moments to review the past year, our failures and successes, regrets and achievements. And with the New Year just around the corner, it is also a time when we set new goals, and establish plans to achieve them. As we spend this time of reflection and goal setting, I pray that we will resist the tyranny of the dot and commit ourselves to living for the arrow. In our daily routines, resist the temptation to fall prey to those urgent demands. In our businesses or careers, I trust we will never lose focus on the long-term and excellence. If you’re a politician, recommit yourself to your guiding principles and resist the temptation to self-promote, truly seeking the good of others.
But most importantly, regardless of whether you are a millennial, a baby boomer, or somewhere in between, I trust that you will live your life for the arrow of eternity. If you’re uncertain how to do this, I would encourage you to check out this website: Are You a Good Person?
The dot will soon be over for each of us. Will we be prepared for the arrow? I pray we will. Merry Christmas!