August 7

Insignificant Figures

August 7, 2015

Personal Growth

One of the first things I learned in science was the principle of significant figures, which refers to the digits in a number that are relevant, that matter. Let’s say, for example, that I use my own feet to discover that two trees are 16.5 feet apart. But then an engineer determines with a laser device that the distance is really 16.5134184 feet. Even though the latter number is more accurate, the last six digits are really insignificant—unimportant or irrelevant—since I only want to know whether to use my 25-foot or my 50-foot rope to string between the trees. The last six digits just don’t matter.

What does this have to do with real life? Who we are is an enormous sum of our gifts—genetic and divine—and our lifetime of choices and outside influences. Just for fun, let’s express this sum as a number, say 14, 968,452 units of “us.” There really isn’t a significant difference between that number and 15,000,000 units—only 0.21%, in fact—so really there are only two significant figures—15 (million)—that describe the overall mass of who we are.

Now let’s suppose you make a mistake. You make a choice that is side-splitting, lip-biting, mind-numbing stupid. That’s one mistake—one unit—factored into 14,968,452 units of who you really are. Does that significantly change the number 15 million? No, the mistake is simply a tiny expression of your fears—an insignificant figure.

Our mistakes are like tiny thorns projecting from a beautiful, living whole. We must see their relative significance, or we will over-estimate the meaning of our mistakes and thereby minimize our appreciation of who we really are.

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