Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Urgent vs. Important

Steven Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes about the difference between doing what's urgent, and doing what's important.

Urgent matters are those front-burner priorities which we simply must attend to: the fire in the kitchen, the crying baby, the immediate crisis. Important matters, on the other hand, are those which, while not necessarily urgent, add value to our lives: doing exercise, taking time to be with friends, eating well, making art.

The last two months have been filled with urgent affairs, and my life in Hanoi has lost a bit of its focus. I'm old enough to know that life does this sometimes: even in an exotic locale, when faced with matters that appear urgent, it is easy to lose perspective. The damn job, the daily commute, the influence of insipid people leading uninspiring lives. How easily we forget why we came here in the first place. Before we know it, the lotus blossoms have bloomed and died, summer has laid its blanket upon the earth, and a season has passed without our noting it.

The solution is always, ALWAYS, to forgot oneself, to look outside, to open ones' eyes and notice, as Miller told us, that, "The world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people..." Hanoi at the cusp of summer is rich in vignettes:

Vignette #1: The street market that sets up on a small side street near my house every afternoon is filled with action. In a small building entryway, set back a little from the street, there's an old woman with betelnut-stained teeth who sells herbs. Not a lot of them, small bundles of rau mùi, tia tô, rau thơm, rau kinh giới, and all the other greens that are so necessary to the Vietnamese table. I buy from her regularly. We never barter; she charges me exactly the correct price, and with slow, precise movements, puts my herbs into a small plastic bag.

Vignette #2: There's a small gang of boys who are my neighbors in the crowded apartment building I live in. Aged from six to 12 years, or thereabouts, they create a ruckus in the hallway that is often hard to take. Running back and forth fighting their little-boy wars, kicking soccer balls, shooting bottle caps – they play all the little boy games I used to play when I was their age, on the other side of the planet. Whenever I come out of my apartment, they all stop and yell, "Hi HAL!" and I haven't the heart to complain about the noise.

Vignette #3: I drive everywhere and have no idea what's legal and what's not. The other day, wearing my mask and helmet, I'm pulled over by a cop after turning right at a red light (hardly an egregious action in a city where nobody has a license, and driving the wrong way down a one-way street doesn't raise an eyebrow).

The cops in Hanoi are famously corrupt, and I know he just wants to shake me down, but when I take off my mask the cop realizes he's hooked himself a foreigner. He pauses, and then awkwardly tries to explain that I'd made an illegal turn. I understand him perfectly, but say to him in the most ear-splitting foreign accent, "I don't understand."

He calls over a young woman who speaks basic English to translate; I continue to feign ignorance. After a moment, realizing he's letting other fish swim by, he pats me on the back and lets me go. I put on my mask, rev up my engine, and in a moment of cheekiness before I speed away, I wink at the girl and thank her for her Vietnamese! As I peal away I look behind me, and the cop is smiling appreciatively at my ruse.

I've had a thousand such moments in the past month, but urgency kept me from noting them. Life got busy. In this regard, the daily grind in Hanoi is no different from anywhere else. The important thing is to catch yourself before you let too much time pass by.


  1. Pretty choice .... and I'll wager it didn't take you more than 45 minutes to write. Probably less. Am I close ?

  2. Beautiful pictures and great glimpse into your goings on.

  3. Wow you finally have sometime to write. I know you've been doing like crazy over few months. WELL DONE :)


  4. Theresa CrawfordJune 16, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    I just stumbled upon your site, found a photo of coffee, and I started reading-I like your writing and the photos help me remember the world is large and full of color.


  5. Loved this post - by the way - you need to get yourself on Twitter. Say hi (i'm @ourman) when you're signed up

  6. I have missed your blog! I was checking in on you and glad to see your new post. Well said. I needed the reminder.

  7. You're a cool cat Senor Medrano, unlike some venom spewing xpats I've come accross recently.

  8. Hey you have a very interesting blog, i will visit ur blog very often, hope u go for this website to increase visitor.Happy Blogging!!!

  9. Always enjoy your comments and insights in life. Anh Doug