An aphorism is a concise statement widely believed to be valid, and often quoted. Aphorisms are a little more credible than adages, probably less widely quoted, and usually less clever. But the two are only subtly different, and one person's adage might well be another's aphorism.
Aphorism or adage, though, they're probably all wrong if you think carefully enough. Here are a few examples that cause mischief at work.
- There's an exception to every rule
- Let's assume this one is true. Then, since the statement itself is a rule, an exception must exist, and therefore there exists a rule that has no exceptions. Since that contradicts the original rule, the statement must be false.
- What goes around comes around
- The idea here is that there is absolute justice in the world — that if you do right (wrong), then right (wrong) will eventually come back to you. This is simply wishful thinking. The world is way more random than that, and bad guys often go unpunished. There is some justice, but it's imperfect.
- Too many cooks spoil the broth
- This one is the basis of a belief that beyond a certain maximum number of "decision-makers," failure is inevitable. Even allowing that the maximum number might be task-dependent, this belief is often used to exclude the powerless from decisions. That's tragic, because in the real world, from science to banking to politics, people outside the dominant group are often the greatest innovators.
- Many hands make light work
- Maybe this is true when we're haying or cleaning dairy barns or picking apples, but it probably isn't true when we're writing software or designing a political campaign or performing brain surgery. Knowledge work is different.
- If it ain't broke, don't fix it
- Aphorism or adage — they're
probably all wrong if you
think carefully enough
- The problem here is the definition of "broke." In the modern workplace, most products, processes, and policies do function well, and most also have defects. The acceptability of their performance is subjective. The question is whether the likely benefits of improvement are worth the risk.
- You can't teach an old dog new tricks
- We use this belief to justify exclusion or termination of older, more experienced employees — if we want to. But when we're looking for a high-value executive or key contributor, we insist on hiring only the most experienced people who have done something similar before. You can't have it both ways.
- Never trouble trouble 'til trouble troubles you
- This piece of advice is a cousin of "Ain't Broke," but it's more specific. It allows that some things are broken, but if they don't harm you directly, it's best to let them go. In this modern, tightly networked world, waiting for trouble to trouble you directly could be a losing strategy.
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For more about the painting, Declaration of Independence, see the article by David McCullough, "An Icon's Secret: How John Trumbull's revered depiction of July 4, 1776, mixes fiction and fact." In The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2007; Page P1.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.