A Proverbial Approach to Success


There is a wealth of wisdom to be found in classic proverbs.

I am a quirky individual. One quirk, of which I am acutely aware, is my tendency to reference traditional English proverbs to summarize a point. We have all heard and used one or many of these famous proverbs at one time or another. While my wife, kids, friends and coworkers love to roll their eyes and give me grief for this particular personality trait, I am a firm believer that many of these proverbs have stood the test of time for a reason, and several of them are used quite frequently to this day (Check the origin stories for many of these proverbs.)

I think the reason that quoting these proverbs can be seen as quirky behavior, is that I often throw them out in a way where I’m simply stating the obvious. When your friend tells you how frustrating it is to put in a great deal of work on a proposal that their management just won’t buy into, and you say, “you can lead a horse, to water but you can’t make him drink,” you’re really not bringing much to the table. But because I do believe there is wisdom within them, I will take this opportunity to invoke some of my favorite proverbs and put them into terms that might provoke thought and prove to be useful when applied to the challenges you find yourself facing every day.

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine
This proverb often leaves a lot of people scratching their heads, but to me it’s pretty straightforward. If taken literally, you might think that if I had a hole in a piece of clothing, better to expend the time and effort to put in one stitch rather than nine times the effort down the road. To put it another way, if you are facing an issue that you know will require effort to address, you are much wiser to spend the time addressing it as soon as it becomes known rather than waiting until it grows into something that will require significantly more effort, or worse, becomes totally irreparable. In my everyday work, I apply this saying when I take the time to craft specific business requirements for a process implementation. I would rather spend the time working through each line of the requirements document and resolve all issues and concerns before I set down the path of designing and implementing the process. If I simply assume that the requirements are fine and progress into design and build phase of my engagement without formal buy in, it will take significantly more time, effort and energy to back out of what I’ve done to address any subsequent issues. The proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” also comes to mind here.

A Chain Is Only as Strong as Its Weakest Link
I currently work for a small business. In the course of my consulting work I usually work with bigger teams in very large organizations. Throughout my career, I have worked for companies, departments and teams of all sizes. Regardless of the situation, this proverb has held true time and time again. It never seems to matter how many people you have involved in an initiative – the strongest members can only carry that team so far. If you have a team of ten people with two all-stars, seven solid performers and one under performer, it only takes one action by that under performer to tarnish the reputation of the entire team. Another way to state this could be, “A few bad apples spoil the bunch,” but the message is the same. It takes focus and effort from everyone involved to ensure that the expectations of the team and reality of what they are able to deliver are in line.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
While many of the proverbs are structured and phrased in a more “old English” sort of manner, this one gets right to the point in a very modern, straightforward way. It’s very easy to talk about what needs to be done or explain why you did something a certain way or even drone on endlessly about why a project has failed. None of the words you can say will amount to anything if action is not taken to address the issue. While there are certainly risks involved with committing to a specific course of action as you set out to accomplish your goals or solve a problem, inaction can and likely will be downright crippling and devastating, all but ensuring your goals go unmet and your problems fester and grow. Also remember that “procrastination is the thief of time” – the longer you delay action, the fewer resources you will have at your disposal once you finally set yourself to the task.

A Poor Workman Always Blames His Tools
Much of my consulting work involves leveraging various technologies to enhance a business processes. Some of the business problems I’ve encountered in my time using these tools have been more challenging than others, but our goal always remains the same – maximize the technology’s benefits while working around the shortcomings. We all have our wish lists, and most of us realize that there comes a time where compromises must be made. Yet, I have also see my fair share of situations where individuals become mired in what the tool can’t do, what functions and features it doesn’t have and how they won’t get any benefit out of it. While I can certainly understand the need and desire to have certain features available to help you do your work in a more effective and enjoyable manner, much of the complaining I have seen has either been over minor features that seemingly don’t add much value or, worse, the missing functionality are identified long after the software selection process has passed (putting the user squarely into “stitch in time” territory). The bottom line is that there isn’t a tool out there that will give you 100% of what you need (or think you need), and more often than not we are left to do the best with what we have. Blaming a tool for the inability to accomplish objectives is certainly easy and at times acceptable, but that doesn’t mean you will be released from your own responsibility in the matter.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
I use this final proverb to remind myself that I can’t expect to do it all at once. I tend to get a bit impatient in my work and I always want my projects to be farther along than they are regardless of where I am in the project. But sometimes I need to remind myself that it’s OK to slow down, be deliberate, and simply think through things. I don’t always have my hands on the keyboard or facilitating a meeting to be making positive contributions to the overall effort. My brain is my biggest asset, and I need to be comfortable with moving at a sensible pace. After all, “haste makes waste,” so it’s perfectly acceptable to stop and smell the roses every now and again.

What proverbs ring true for you? I’d love to hear your feedback!

–Jason Rohlf, OrangePoint

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