Friday, November 28, 2008


A truism is an adage you have to apologize for. How can you imagine that your friend does not know something that is self-evidently true and that you first heard in the fourth grade?

At times, a truism is an adage that has been worn out from overuse. Everyone knows it, everyone accepts it, but... so what! Almost by definition, truisms and adages are a lot easier said than done.

Of course, it doesn't matter whether you know it and accept it. What matters with an adage is whether you do as it says.

Everyone knows Ben Franklin's adage: a penny saved is a penny earned. Some people even understand it's meaning: that saving money is work. And yet, being thrifty is a different challenge.

If you tell a profligate spender that a penny saved is a penny earned, he will feel insulted. What kind of friend forces you to face a character flaw.

Our therapy culture has taught us to take offense when someone tells us what to do. This has helped to foster disobedience and indiscipline. Thus, our therapy-addled minds will not look kindly on this Franklin adage: "He who won't be counseled can't be helped."

Obviously, counsel means advise. Franklin is saying that a person who cannot take advice cannot be helped. And yet, psychotherapy, at least since Freud, has insisted that therapists should never offer advice, lest the patient begin to doubt that he or she is an independent, autonomous free spirit.

Therapists have been teaching their patients not to follow advice. It prefers insight to counsel even if-- following Franklin-- this means that it is not in the business of helping people.

Beyond therapy lies management. In management you often tell people what to do and you expect that they will do what you tell them. This will sound like a truism, because it is.

The other day I was reading a review of a book about management theory and found the reviewer apologizing for offering a sampling of the "truisms" that were dotted through the book. Link here.

Management theory is full of adages and truisms: first, because managers have to make themselves understood, and second, because they do not have the luxury of wallowing in insights. The problem with management is implementation: how well things get done.

The book in question is Umesh Ramakrishnan's "There's No Elevator to the Top." Among the truisms the reviewer offered is this: "Work hard at what's in front of you. Make sure you succeed at the task you are given rather than waste time plotting your next move."

This means that you should not rush. As the old saying went: haste makes waste. Being anxious to get to the next task will make you do the current job poorly.

We can make this sound more pithy and even Zen-like: Focus on the job you are focusing on.

The principle behind the adage comes from the playing fiend. It means: don't take your eye off the ball until it is in your hands or glove.

Even if you only watch sports occasionally, you have heard an announcer say that the shortstop bobbled the ball because he started to throw it before he had caught it.

Or else, think of the football team that is playing a weak opponent this Sunday and a strong opponent next Sunday. If it looks through this week's game to next weeks it will be unfocused and will risk being upset.

This is not an injunction to live in the present; it is telling you to do one thing at a time. Being focused on this week's project does not mean that you have not made any plans for the future.

I have already written some thoughts about how to gain focus. See my post: The Eye of the Tiger from 6/20/08.

Here I want to extend my remarks by picking up by a suggestion offered by Ramakrishnan. His advice: be a team player. Everyone knows what this means. You are not going to feel that it is an epiphany.

More specifically, he is saying that when your idea has been rejected you need not only to work on the plan that was accepted, but to do everything in your power to ensure that it succeeds.

Why is this worth stating at all? Because when your idea is rejected you might well take it as a personal affront. After all, it is a trauma, even if only a mini-trauma. And we know that when you have been traumatized everything feels personal.

The truism is telling us that one way to overcome the pain of trauma is to throw ourselves into teamwork. It tells us not to question, not to complain, not to introspect, and not to feel sorry for ourselves. If you indulge any of those habits you will become what Franklin would have called... lazy.

Acting as a loyal and reliable member of a team will enhance your ability to focus on the task at hand.

Sometimes adages try to offend us, to shake us out of complacency, to show us our failings.

This one refers to good sense, by which I think Franklin is referring to sound judgment: "Good sense is a thing few have, all need, and none think they want."

1 comment:

Umesh Ramakrishnan said...

Very insightful. Found your article both interesting & thought provoking.