11 Dec What Is Your MacGuffin?

16mm film reelThere’s a scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent opens a briefcase to look inside. What does he see?

It’s a MacGuffin.

What’s a MacGuffin you ask? Great question.

A MacGuffin is a plot device. It’s something of value that is important to the plot of the story.

In Pulp Fiction it is the shiny contents of the briefcase. In Casablanca it is the “letters of transit”. In Raiders of the Lost Ark its…well…the Ark, of course.

What Is Your MacGuffin?

Think about the times you have been in a meeting and thought to yourself “Why is that person going on about something so unimportant?”

It’s their MacGuffin. That’s what is so important. To them. But not important to you.

You have a MacGuffin though. Probably more than one. We all do. Something very important to yourself, but likely not understood by others.

How Can You Find MacGuffins?

If we know that we carry around our own MacGuffins, and we’ve seen people react as a result of their MacGuffins they are carrying, what would you think is the best way to communicate with those around us?

Empathy. It’s the empathy, stupid.

It’s the NUMBER ONE thing I tell everyone they need to have if they aspire to have even a modest amount of success in whatever field they choose.

I don’t care if you are a DBA, a server admin, an HR manager, a policeman, or an accountant. If you don’t have empathy for the people you interact with daily you are going to find yourself struggling more often than not in your role.

How To Acquire Empathy

Whenever I mention the word ’empathy’ to someone they always think of Counselor Deanna Troi from Star Trek. Deanna came from a planet where empathic abilities were a trait everyone had. Most people think it is unrealistic to expect to develop the same traits as a fictional character from a sci-fi show.

I’m not asking you to be an empath though. I’m asking you to have empathy. There’s a difference. And you can practice your skills, too.

Next time you are in a meeting and you see or hear someone reach for their MacGuffin I want you to think this one simple thought: Assume good intentions.

Try that. I think you will find how you react to that other person to be a stark contrast to your normal reactions.

When you assume good intentions on behalf of someone else, your whole outlook changes. The nature of the conversation changes. You begin to develop a sense of empathy for others.

You go from being someone who follows to someone who leads.


Empathy. It’s the thing that will take you from where you are now to where you want to be later.

It helped Deanna earn Commander status.

What status do you want to earn?

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  • Ayman El-Ghazali

    My MacGuffins are chocolate. Just being them to a meeting and I’ll be like butter in your hands.

    Actually I know some individuals that are amazing at “empathy” with other people’s MacGuffins and use it to manipulate others. It’s sad but besides the point of your article. You can show people you care and it helps with collaboration which is the essence of a lot of great work.

    My MacGuffin is SQL/Windows Infrastructure and BI if anyone wants to geek out. You can bring chocolate too :)

    • ThomasLaRock

      Wow, I had not thought about how someone could use their empathic powers for evil, but I see what you are saying.

  • sql_handle

    Not sure what my mcguffin is, but there’s something moving my story forward :) I’m glad for voices as widespread as yours emphasizing the value of empathy. A few years ago I spent some time thinking about how to appropriately recognizing the hardship caused to others by mistakes/missteps of a technical team, while giving confident, competent support to correct the problem.

    That reflection was motivated by a post-crisis review that came my way. No doubt about it – the fault was on our side of the fence, not theirs. The review basically said: “I know this person didn’t write the problematic code. So-and-so gave all the right answers to end the crisis – but almost acted like the situation was our fault. Did someone specifically teach him never to apologize?”

    Well – no. But I hadn’t taken the time to explain to young team members that empathy and apology can be expressed even without an issue of personal blame. In this case, the legitimate complaint was not about the initial problem, but about the sense that similar avoidable problems may come often because they weren’t seen as serious or as part of the team’s responsibility to prevent.

    “The responsibility for this is on our side of the fence… I’m sorry for the trouble this caused… lets fix it for you… and we’ll follow up to fix it for good” goes a long way to building trust. Providing answers without appropriate empathy or apology won’t win loyalty points. (Of course, apologizing, promising change and failing to followup is a whole ‘nother world of hurt.)

    This book helped me to understand (and explain) when and how apologies work. Although the perspective is more academic than “personal growth”, I believe the book spurred me to express empathy and apology more often. Can’t say I’m good at it yet, but its growing rather than just needing to grow :)

    • ThomasLaRock

      Thanks for the comment and the link to the book, much appreciated!
      I can recall many, many times early in my career that I wish the concept of “assume good intentions” was in the front of my mind.

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