Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 23;   June 6, 2012: Wacky Words of Wisdom: II

Wacky Words of Wisdom: II

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Last updated: November 12, 2018

Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. And that's where the trouble begins. We remember them too easily and we apply them too liberally. Here's Part II of a collection of often-misapplied words of wisdom.
Arrival of Cortés in Vera Cruz

Arrival of Cortés in Vera Cruz. In 1519, Hernán Cortés took command of an expedition from Cuba to explore the mainland and open it for colonization. It was a brash act, because he had been recalled, an order which he chose to ignore. But it was not his last brash act. When he landed in Vera Cruz in mid-year, he scuttled his ships, shown in the painting in the harbor. His purpose was to eliminate all thought of retreat from the minds of his men.

This is one example of the many ways we can "burn bridges." In this case, Cortés' choice to cut off all possibility of retreat was very likely a critical success factor for his mission. The modern advice to "never burn bridges" might usually be good advice, but not always. The image is of a mural-sized painting, oil on canvas, which is part of the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress. It dates to the second half of the seventeenth century.

Words of wisdom are typically so elegantly stated that we are seduced by their elegance. We accept them unquestioningly, because we think that their truth is obvious. But when we examine them more closely, with our brains fully engaged, we can often see that these beliefs are easily misapplied. Here's Part II of a collection of Wacky Words of Wisdom. See "Wacky Words of Wisdom," Point Lookout for July 14, 2010, and "Wacky Words of Wisdom: III," Point Lookout for July 11, 2012, for more.

Well, if you really think it will take that long, you better get started
This comment is useful for shaming a subordinate into abandoning objections about the scale of an effort, but it also works when coercing peers who are responsible for the task in question. The comment usually halts any further strategic thinking or discussion about the scale of the contemplated commitment.
Rarely is halting thinking or discussion actually helpful to anyone other than the person doing the coercing. The decision about proceeding with any project certainly must take into account how much effort is required. If the effort involved is large enough, it behooves us to consider alternatives that might be less costly or take less time, and we might even decide to abandon the objective altogether. But exploring these alternatives isn't possible when we stop thinking.
Never burn bridges
Really? Really, never? I doubt it. The reference to bridges is metaphorical — the bridges are actually options or relationships. The adage cautions one not to deliberately close out options, or terminate or curtail any relationship.
But obeying such a broad commandment would entail, for example, maintaining relationships even with those whom one regards as inclined toward the unethical or criminal, and those with whom further association is politically dangerous. Much more valuable advice: be selective about burning bridges. Burn only the bridges that ought to be burnt.
In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy
This comment, Be selective about burning bridges.
Burn only the bridges
that ought to be burnt.
attributed to J. Paul Getty, does contain a valuable insight, namely, that our experiences tend to cause us to form attachments to things that might be changing. Those attachments can sometimes limit our ability to change. But the operative phrase is could be, which many interpret as is. We "hear" the comment as if the could be were is, and that's the source of the problem.
Some experiences can create problems; others can be helpful. For instance, experience includes experience with change itself, which might be helpful indeed. Our experience with previous changes can help us adapt more readily when we must adapt. It can also help us recognize changes that won't last, and thereby save us from adapting to something that's only transitory. Experience is the source of good judgment.

We'll continue with this exploration in a few weeks, looking at three more examples of over-generalized beliefs. Meanwhile, can you think of examples from your own experience? First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Meeting Bullies: Advice for Chairs  Next Issue

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For more examples, see "Wacky Words of Wisdom," Point Lookout for July 14, 2010, "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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.

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