We’re affected by proverbs, aphorisms, and slogans…and not always for the good.
- Marty Nemko, Ph.D.
(The following excerpt from Worthy Proverbs And Silly Ones by Marty Nemko, Ph.D., originally appeared on psychologytoday.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
We might be affected more by proverbs than by tomes. For example, might the slogan, “Do random acts of kindness” have caused more good than 1,000 sermons?
In any event, slogans or their more formal analogues, proverbs and aphorisms, certainly have impact.
Here are those I believe are the most and least helpful:
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. This seems to strike the balance between unrealistic optimism and pessimism. It’s a formula likely to lead to good outcomes.
Better be alone than in bad company. When we’re alone, we can choose as our company, for example, a mind-expanding book, an hour aiding the miracle of a growing garden, or watching a YouTube of a concerto, representing dozens of lifetimes of dedication to creating beauty.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So many people know a sliver of what’s needed to make an informed decision but act with the surety of a guru. When I was teaching college, many callow students made absolutist and ill-founded assertions about how to solve such complex matters as the achievement gap.
Actions speak louder than words. I feel compelled to change the station when politicians assert things that are the opposite of what they actually do in policy and certainly in their personal lives.
Rules are made to be broken. Of course, some rules should be followed but always?
The Buck Stops Here. So many people externalize responsibility. I’ve had many career counseling clients who have been fired or “laid off” multiple times who blame all the terminations on someone or something other than themselves. In contrast, most of my highly successful clients look inward and take appropriate responsibility.
The early bird catches the worm. Another major differentiator between my successful and unsuccessful clients is that the successful ones rarely procrastinate. And I recall a week in which I gave two talks: one to college presidents, one to unemployed people. I told both groups, “Raise your hand if you’re a procrastinator.” About 15% of the presidents did while 90% of the unemployed people did.
Knowledge is power. My clients who have taken the time to become expert at something are more successful than the dabblers, dilettantes, jacks and jills of all trades.
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I’ve certainly found that with clients. We can develop a step-by-step career plan that addresses the client’s skills, interests, values, and preferences yet some of them remain inert. Yes, some from fear but others truly because of laziness. For example, they have a spouse or inheritance that will keep them comfy.
Birds of a feather flock together. I know we’re supposed to celebrate diversity but it’s much easier to get along with people with values, intellect, and interaction styles like our own. That proverb is utterly politically incorrect yet bears some wisdom.
The pen is mightier than the sword. I sure hope so.
It’s amazing to me that these proverbs have stood the test of time:
Don’t change horses in midstream. I’d replace that with Longfellow’s, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The reasonable person stays with an idea or relationship as long as it’s wise but sometimes, in midstream, recognizes that it is indeed wise to change horses. Or to quote country singer Kenny Rogers, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”
Cleanliness is next to Godliness. That’s absurd on both counts: Is cleanliness really the second most important attribute of all? More important than ethics, hard work, and intelligence? And is Godliness #1? A God that would allow massive earthquakes and diseases such as cancer, which kill literally billions of people, including children, slowly and painfully?
Faith will move mountains. If God allows cancer, can you reasonably think that faith in God will help you overcome even small challenges?
Good things come to those who wait. I’d rather say, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That argues that good is good enough. That’s both a formula for mediocrity and discourages progress beyond the adequate.Ignorance is Bliss. Absurd.
Ignorance is Bliss. Absurd.
Live and let live. Do we not have some obligation to help others?
Money is the root of all evil. In fact, money motivates billions of people to get up in the morning, go to work, and be productive. Excess materialism may the root of much evil, but money?
Nice guys finish last. Terrible overgeneralization. Yes, some “winners” get there by stepping on people but many highly successful people are kind.
A miss is as good as a mile. Sometimes, getting part-way yields much of the benefit. For example, even if an aspiring researcher couldn’t quite complete their PhD, s/he will have acquired lots of skills that would help land a good job.
All’s fair in love and war. Absurd. Even if war and especially in love, should there not be a foundation of humanity?
Blood is thicker than water. Few families can claim to have no painful relationships. That’s not surprising. Whereas we choose friends based on compatibility, we have no choice in who’s in our family. To assert, without qualification, that blood is thicker than water seems silly.
Clothes make the man. Clothing may make shallow people like or respect a person, but clothing certainly doesn’t make the man or woman. Obviously, accomplishment, character, wisdom, and kindness do.
Don’t cross the bridge ’til you come to it. That argues against planning, which is indefensible. Of course, it’s unwise to worry about things you can’t change or to perseverate about an upcoming problem that you’ve adequately thought through but to say, “Don’t cross a bridge ‘til you come to it” is a formula for failure. More helpful is the title of Intel founder Andy Grove’s book, “Only the Paranoid Survive.”
Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. If we all did that, nothing would get accomplished. A wiser philosophy is, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a person healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Only the good die young. I’ve not seen that.
Spare the rod and spoil the child. Horrible advice. Corporal punishment may yield short-term compliance but longer-term resentment. It also teaches a child that violence is a way to get what you want.
The end justifies the means. More horrible advice. That implies that cheating, abusing people, and despoiling the environment is worth it if you get what you want in the end. Ugh.