5 Things That Determine What Things Mean and What You’re Going to Do


Making Meaning

“Meaning is not what you start with, but what you end up with.” — Peter Elbow

What determines the quality of our lives is how we evaluate things.  We all share some universal events:  birth, death, illness, losses, career obstacles, economic shifts, and wars.  But it’s how we interpret these events that ultimately determines what things mean and how we respond.

We are the ultimate meaning makers in our lives.

The catch is, how do you take control of your experiences, beliefs, and values?  You need to know how your system works for evaluating what things mean.

I was listening to Tony Robbins in his Power Talk: References: The Fabric of Life, where he shares an approach for understanding how we determine what things mean.  It’s a system and it has five parts.

5 Things that Determine What Things Mean

According to Tony, there are five parts to the system that helps you make meaning and determine your responses to the events in your life:

  1. The State You Are In
  2. The Questions You Ask Yourself
  3. The Values That You Hold
  4. Our Belief Systems
  5. References

1. The State You Are In

The first element of the system is the state you are in.  The state you are in mentally and emotionally is going to radically shift what it means and what you’re going to do.

2. The Questions You Ask Yourself

The second element of the system is the questions that you ask yourself.  What you are evaluating and what you choose to focus on shapes the meaning you are going to take from the event.

Tony gives some examples of how the types of questions we ask, changes how we interpret the event, and what we do about it.  For example, if you ask disempowering questions, such as, “Why do I always screw this up?”, that will take you down a limited path.  If, instead, you ask more empowering questions, such as, “How can I turn this around? … How can utilize this to make things greater?”, then you’ll put yourself in a more resourceful mode.

The questions you ask changes completely what you focus on, what things mean, and what you’re going to do about it.

To bottom line it – change the questions to change the event immediately and take control.

3. The Values That You Hold

The third element that determines what things mean and what you are going to do, are the values you hold.   Your values are what you pay attention to the most.

Tony asks the question, “Is your life focused on contribution? …love? … security? … adventure? … passion? … success?”

The values that you move toward are pulling you in a direction and shaping your life.

We have values that we move toward and value that we move away from.   For example, we move away from certain emotional states, such as avoiding frustration, anger, humiliation, bored.

4. Our Belief Systems

The fourth element of the system is our belief systems.  Tony says we have a whole variety beliefs about ourselves,about other people, about possibility, about capability.

We also have specific rule beliefs:

If you do this then it means that.  If you don’t do this, then it means that.

All of these pre-conceived notions that we developed within ourselves are filtering our experience of life on a daily basis.

Tony shares a couple of examples we can relate to in terms of our belief systems:

  • If you hold the belief people are rotten, no good if you give them half a chance, they’ll take advantage of you, how does that influence your interactions with people in your life?
  • If you hold the belief that people are basically good, they really do care, if you give them half a chance, they’ll do the right thing, how does that influence your interactions with people in your life?

The big idea is that different beliefs create a different destiny and a different quality of life.

5. References

The fifth part of the system is our references.  These are the experiences in our life.  Our references are the experiences that we draw from.

Where do our beliefs and values come from?  They come from our references.

Tony says we can think of our references as a giant file box in our mind of everything we have ever seen, heard, taste, touched, or smelled.

Some of those references are organized.  You put them together to come up with a specific meaning to help you make decisions in the future.  Those organized references are what we call beliefs.

What is a belief?  A belief is nothing but a feeling of certainty about what something means.

Tony shares a simple example:

  • I believe I’m intelligent.
  • I feel certain I’m intelligent.

What makes you certain?  Your references.  You’ve had experience in your life where you learned something, or where you took on a new challenge and were able to master it, or maybe somebody told you you were intelligent, or you passed some test.

All of those experiences take the idea, and make them solid by putting these legs underneath them

Think of references like the legs of belief.

To sum up, you can use the five part system to change what things mean or how you respond.  Drive your beliefs, or your beliefs drive you.  Different beliefs create a different destiny.   Limited References, create a limited life.  If you want to expand your life, expand your references.

This system puts a lot at your finger tips.  You can change your state, change your questions, and you can change your beliefs or values, by changing your references.

Use the power of references to shape your destiny and write your story forward.

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  1. Hi J.D.,

    This was interesting and Tony always has so much wonderful information to share with us all. I never really thought about it this way I guess.

    I just think for me, the older I get the wiser I become. I have also always been someone who stands up for themselves and their beliefs and doesn’t let a lot of people “run over” them.

    Because of that I live my life in the present moment for the most part and just take in everything that I’m experiencing right now. I still have my beliefs, values and morals that I’ve had pretty much my entire life and I continue to live by them all. I believe I’m still on the right path but Tony can always get us to thinking in a slightly different direction.

    Thanks for sharing these steps, I enjoyed reading this post.


  2. JD,
    Asking better questions is the simplest and probably most powerful action anyone can do. I keep hearing disempowering “Why…” questions all around, people ask this questions themselves and others too. And it is indeed *disempowering*
    I tell my kids instead asking this Why questions better off ask “How to improve…” or “what does it take to make it better…” future focusing questions vs. backward looking self destructing ones.

  3. @ Adrienne — It sounds like you’ve built a firm foundation and have been able to live your values and stay on path.

    It’s a powerful thing when you make the choice to assert who you are, and what you stand for, rather than let a little piece of you die inside. That’s how our voice gets stronger, and we become more of who we are, which is a great way to rise and shine.

    @ Alik — You hit the nail on the head — it’s about shifting focus to the future and opportunity, over wallowing in the past, or playing the blame game, or justifying instead of fortifying yourself.

  4. Hi JD,
    I am reading Anthony Robbins now too. Lolx, your article always matches my state of mood 🙂

    I appreciate you taking a few moments of your precious time in reading this.

    Thank you.

    To your profitable growth in happiness, health & success
    With 100% warmest regards,

    Catherina Chia

  5. @ Catherina — The more I study, the more I realize just how much Tony Robbins cracked the nut on personal performance and how we work.

    He has done a truly outstanding job of weaving together so many insights about human performance, and putting it together in a way that makes sense, and his information is always extremely actionable.

    BTW — Jairek Robbins, Tony Robbins’ son, wrote a guest post for Sources of Insight that you might enjoy. It’s “How to Take the Ordinary and Turn it into EXTRAORDINARY!”

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