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Volume 10, Issue 28;   July 14, 2010: Wacky Words of Wisdom

Wacky Words of Wisdom

by

Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. We do tend to over-generalize them, though, and when we do, trouble follows. Here are a few of the more dangerous ones.
A dwarf apple tree typical of modern commercial varieties

Gennaro Fazio, director of the apple rootstock (ARS) breeding project of the ARS Plant Genetic Resources Unit, Geneva, New York, evaluating trees. The tree he's examining is smaller and more productive than the one behind him, and represents a good candidate for high-density orchards being planted today. The term low-hanging fruit is rapidly becoming an anachronistic metaphor, because modern agricultural practices are achieving higher yields, from earlier-fruiting trees, by using miniature varieties in which all fruit is low-hanging fruit. Photo by Peggy Greb courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Words of wisdom usually are short, pithy sentences so sensible that we accept them unquestioningly. An example from George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But unquestioning acceptance can be a serious mistake. Here are some common ideas worth at least a pause for thought.

It took a long time for this crisis to develop, and it will take a long time to resolve it.
This statement's symmetry is appealing, and it's often true, but it lacks logic. The processes that led to crisis often differ from those that resolve it.
Crisis resolution happens on time scales compatible with the means employed, rather than the time scales of the forces that created the crisis. The two time scales rarely bear any relation to one another.
Yes, that approach did work on that problem. But this problem is different, so we have to use a different approach.
There isn't much solid reasoning here. For instance, if we must transport someone to a hospital for treatment following a fall, the means of transportation can be the same for a broken left collarbone as for a broken right collarbone. Two different problems, but one approach works for both.
Similar solutions can sometimes work on dramatically different problems. It can be foolhardy to discard candidate solutions simply because they worked on problems markedly different from the problem at hand.
We'll get out of this mess faster if we first understand how we got into it.
If the effectiveness Unquestioning acceptance
of an elegantly crafted
aphorism can be
a serious mistake
of a candidate solution depends on the genesis of the mess, this idea might help. But in many difficult problems, the forces that created a problem become irrelevant once the problem has taken hold. Those forces can differ from the forces that maintain the problem, and from the forces that propagate it.
Before investing in costly efforts to determine underlying causes, understand how the information you seek will actually be useful.
Pick the low-hanging fruit first
In wide use throughout the English-speaking business community, this metaphorical reference to fruit picking suggests that low-hanging fruit is appealing because it's so easily picked. But this metaphor, like many others, is misleading. Although low-hanging fruit is more easily picked, it's often inferior in quality, because it tends to have been picked over fairly thoroughly by other pickers. It often lacks sugar content and ripens later than "high-hanging" fruit because it receives much less sunlight.
Fruit that's a little more difficult to pick might actually yield a higher return on effort expended. So it is with real-world problems.

Words of wisdom might well apply to the situations their authors had in mind. Beyond those situations, knowing when to apply another's wisdom — and when not to — requires wisdom of your own.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Don't They Believe Me?  Next Issue

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For more examples, see "Wacky Words of Wisdom: II," Point Lookout for June 6, 2012, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: III," Point Lookout for July 11, 2012, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: IV," Point Lookout for August 5, 2015, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: V," Point Lookout for May 25, 2016, and "Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI," Point Lookout for November 28, 2018.

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