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Received wisdom is problematic: sayings I dislike


Our lives run on routines – from the moment we wake up, till the time when our eyelashes gently ring with tiredness, we execute sets of routines. We brush our teeth and don’t even remember doing it. Heck, sometimes I’ll drive to work and won’t be able to recall the journey; and driving is an activity where ‘being present’ is essential.

But our lives are not only dominated by the routines we create; they are also guided by the custom of received wisdom. This is embodied in fairy tales, sayings, fables, mythology, norms and rules. This received wisdom provides the building blocks of our existence – it allows us to take some of the things around us for granted this making ‘split second’ decisions and consistent patterns of behaviour possible. In other words, routines and received wisdom are useful shortcuts and using them we save energy to tackle ‘the next step’. Remember how tired you felt last time you moved house? Or when some aspect of your life changed dramatically? This is because of breakdown of routines.

Having just admitted that routines and received wisdom are very useful in our lives what is my problem with them?

I believe that there are two problems with received wisdom: (a) it can be misunderstood; and (b) it can be plainly wrong. In the former case we use our selective collective memory to emphasise part of the story which distorts its meaning and in the latter, something believed by many people to be true is not necessarily so.

But let me give you some examples.

The Myth of Icarus

This is an example of selective emphasis on one side of the story thus distorting its meaning. Daedalus was an Athenian craftsman genius who was exiled to Crete and imprisoned with his son, Icarus, in the Labyrinth – a construction he build. To escape, Daedalus build two sets of wings using feathers and wax. When giving his son his wings, he gave him a warning…

Now let’s play! What was the warning? Did you think ‘don’t fly too close to the sun because your wings will melt’? If you did, you were probably in the majority; in fact some web-based sources on mythology mention only this warning as well. It is only part of the story.

not to fly too close to the sun because his wings will melt and not to fly too close to the water because his wings will get heavy with moisture.

(A big thank you to Seth Godin who reminded me this by making it the premise of his latest book, The Icarus Deception)

Because we have forgotten about the second part of the warning, the myth of Icarus has come to embody the received wisdom that we shouldn’t aim too high lest we fail. In some sense, the second warning was even more important – don’t content yourself with too little because you will surely fail.


Here I’ll tell you about two sayings that I have always found objectionable although, on the surface, these seem to make sense. This list can be much expanded.

            Cut your coat according to your cloth

This is a saying that, to the best of my knowledge, exists in one form or other in most cultures today (in Bulgaria, for instance, people will say ‘spread yourself according to the length of your blanket’; not a good translation, I know, but then I never told you that I am a good linguist). On the surface, it conveys the message that people should live within their means and as a personal finance blogger I shouldn’t object to this one.

However, I find this saying highly objectionable exactly as a personal finance blogger. Regardless of the simple and true-like message this saying contains it is wrong on two counts. First, to achieve financial health we should always aim to have some ‘cloth’ left and second, it is rarely wise to contain ourselves within our means without trying to expand them; or in other words, we should aim to increase our cloth instead of restricting ourselves to it.

Taking the message of this saying seriously can mean that we wear a very tight coat all our life! I don’t fall for this one! Do you?

            Good things come to the ones who wait

This is an all time favourite of mine. On the surface, it conveys messages regarding patience. However, the unfortunate use of word is ‘wait’.

Now correct me if I am wrong but I can’t recall a single good thing that has come to anyone simply by waiting. Only inevitabilities like death can come from simply waiting. While I would agree that patience is necessary were ‘good things to come’ these also need thinking, planning and action.

Good things in life, I have noticed, are like a lover – they don’t simply come to you because you have waited; they come because you have also loved!

Are there any saying you particularly dislike and what are they? Prey do share; I would love to expand my list :).

16 thoughts on “Received wisdom is problematic: sayings I dislike”

  1. I never thought about those sayings twice, now I’ll open my eyes for more. About this saying of waiting and doing nothing, there is a fable about a farmer who was about to die. He made his lazy sons believe that he had hidden a treasure on his land. So the sons started to dig everywhere and found nothing. Next season there was an incredible harvest thanks to working the land so much. You can’t expect that a miracle will happen if you sit and wait.

    • @Elizabeth: This is a good one and I dislike is as well. Everytime someone tells me that ‘curiosity killed the cat’ I do one of two things: either say that it wasn’t curiosity but greed, or that this may be true but curiosity makes the tiget trive. A good way to loose friends but…

  2. I will be the contrarian and give one I like!  Impossible is just an opinion.  I have embraced this partially because my parent alyas accomplished the impossible and I think I have sometimes too.  I like the idea that anything is possible!

    • @ Krant: There are loads of sayings I like as well. Impossible is just an opinion is a good one – I’ll remember it (I use the Addidas version of it ‘Impossible is nothing’).

  3. I have never been a fan of the whole good thins come to those who wait. If you want something, go get it – now! Why wait? What is going to change between now and later?
    I’ll tell you what – Later it might be gone, or the opportunity may no longer be available.

    • @Glen: You reminded me of an interesting point; is it better if it not about ‘waiting’ but patience and is patience a good thing. I have been training myself to be more patient but may be I have been wasting my time.

  4. I never knew the second half of the wings piece. I always thought it was just the sun part…definitely like it better in its entirety.
    One of my favorites was from Norm on the old sitcom Cheers: “it’s a dog eat dog world and I’m wearing milkbone underwear.” Not one I live by, but inspirational nonetheless.

  5. I agree with you on the waiting saying.  Good things come to those who try to make good things happen.  Or, at least those who are proactive, instead of those waiting for good fortune to come to them.
    The other one I don’t care for is “nice guys finish last”.  It almost implies that one must be a jerk to get ahead, and being nice is a recipe for disaster.  While this may be true in some cases (and I definitely believe that’s the case sometimes), it’s certainly not a rule.  Good people can succeed on many occasions!

  6. I remember my mother telling me that for every Aesop fable there is an equal and opposite fable. This rather charmingly shows the nature of human’s capacity for self reassurance. If we want to do action ‘x’, we can find a justification, or if we see someone crash and burn due to action ‘y’ we can point to another explanation.
    Examples include ‘Look before you leap’ and its opposite ‘He who hesitates, loses all’, and ‘Many hands make light work’ vs ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’. There are many others.

    • @Nik: Yep, this is part of the problem – received wisdom is a bit like listening to an economist. ‘On the one hand…’ and ‘on the other…’ – very hard to get awareness of the norm. Some saying are plain annoying in their own right though :).


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