The Importance of Knowing What’s Important


Separating what matters from what doesn’t hasbecome an integral part of the information age.

HOW DO YOU PRIORITIZE your e-mail? Your answer may provide you with insight into a larger question: What’s important? And when examining any new or existing scene, how do you evaluate the data to know what the important elements are? We are a culture awash in so much data, so many ads, so many resources, so much to Google, that our ability to evaluate information and sift out those things that are important is itself an important 21st-century skill.

Important (with a little help from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) is that which is “marked by or indicative of significant worth or consequence.” The word is derived from the Latin term for to bring in, or to carry in.

Thinking back to simpler times, each spring my father used to carry a lot of things out the door to the garbage pickup. That once-treasured halogen floor lamp, with a blown bulb that costs about as much as a new lamp? Couldn’t be too important. Of course, depends on who you ask.

Nonetheless, in most every case, evaluating what is important involves a rough sequence of looking, recognizing, and deciding to bring something in, or choosing instead to, quite literally, carry something out, as in out the door. It may take a split second (just before you click delete) or months (developing a workable technology plan). How can you be certain you’ve correctly determined what’s important? Sometimes, it’s not so obvious.

For example: A student brings an iPod to class to listen to a clip from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but elsewhere on the same device are explicit lyrics, not to mention possible copyright infringement issues.

Or perhaps your district is about to close a multimillion-dollar deal with a trusted technology service provider. Maybe you’re better off building your own platform, you think, but that may take time you don’t have. What to do?

Superintendents, principals, teachers, media specialists, administrators, and school technology leaders face complex problems. But decisions, good or bad, must be made. There’s no way out: No decision, or indecision, eventually becomes a decision in itself. Focusing your attention on what really matters will help you proactively make the right decisions on the right issues.

In my observations of leaders I admire, it appears as though evaluating what is important is “just intuitive,” or “a knack she has.” But if this is a skill we all could acquire, then developing it might involve the following workable steps:

Look. Too basic? You’d be amazed. Ever searched for your sunglasses only to find them—on your head? Looking involves common sense, as well as many other senses. While awestruck crowds marvel at his mystical powers of clairvoyance, a leader is baffled at why others didn’t see what can be readily found by simply looking.

Familiarize. Next, begin to discern what is the greatest good (and at what cost). While there’s room for background research, you can’t weigh options forever. There’s a next step.

Decide. Reach a cutoff point. Yes or no? Throw it out? Bring it in? What is the policy that will move your district forward?

As you read us through, we’re glad we’ve made the cut, but even here you’ll sift. To assist us in evaluating what’s important, please drop me a line to let me know if we’ve hit the mark, or missed it. What issues are truly important to you—and why?

Victor is editorial director of this publication. He can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.