Aphorisms in Your Career

Aphorisms in Your Career

Mark Pougnet June 21, 2017

During my career, I have heard several great sayings. Aphorisms. Phrases that capture the moment or provide useful thoughts on how to act. In both business and personal life, it is helpful to bear in mind short sayings that capture your beliefs and guide your actions. Here are the aphorisms I have found to be most relevant and insightful:

“All bets are made on the first tee.

Probably my favorite saying of all … and a tip of the hat to the many bets made while playing golf. I’m not sure of its origin, but this aphorism promotes being both ethical and forthright in negotiations. For example, I have found that it's much better to have tough conversations up front than to assume the outcome will be favorable or solve itself over time. (Which calls to mind a related saying: “Problems don’t age well.”) Also, it’s much easier to find compromise if all the difficult issues are addressed up front. While I do follow this rule strictly, I play golf less and less.

“If you lie down with dogs, you will get fleas.”

This dictum is attributed to the first boss I had when I moved to Colorado. It beseeches you to do business with quality people. The implication is that if you associate with people of questionable character, then you have a greater chance of becoming like one of them. Here is hoping I continue to heed that warning throughout my career.

“Actions speak louder than words.”

This one is attributed to Abraham Lincoln and is still very true today. Words are easy (“talk is cheap”), so if you really want to figure people out, watch their actions. I have noticed some social media behaviors/actions that speak louder than the posts and likes. For example, a person’s usually staid image at work could be belied by combative debates on Facebook giving insight into their true character.

“Email limit reached

Supposedly there are almost 150 billion emails sent every day. Workers spend 28% of their time in their inboxes, and only 14% of all emails are deemed "important." We have to stop this madness. I have found that email is an excellent medium for sharing information but the worst medium for trying to convince somebody to do something or to see your point of view. We all know we say things on email that we would never say face to face. Here is hoping for a rebirth of face-to-face business conversations.

“Don’t argue with a fool. People might not know the difference.

I saw this saying many years ago on a bumper sticker and have liked it ever since. This aphorism probably has its origins in the Mark Twain saying, “Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level.” I boil the message down to this: It’s just not worth the time or emotion to argue with some people, and sometimes you are just better off moving along. Akin to “pick your battles.”

Me, IBC 2016

“You are what your profit says you are.”

This was the best (and maybe the only) sage advice I received from a Wall Street banker. (As I have many friends on Wall Street, I will withhold the name of the sage banker!) It implies that your financial fundamentals are a true reflection of your business, and no amount of clever talk can explain otherwise. Maybe it’s my CPA heritage, but I do believe in the numbers and what they are saying. This is like the “numbers don’t lie” adage, and I think numbers will become even more important in the next few years, as the millennial generation seems to focus more on having fun at work than on making money. I am all for a quality work environment (except for bringing dogs to work!) and having a purpose in society, but a company’s main focus must always be on making money.

“The grass is (not) greener on the other side.”

I am not sure of the source of this precept, but there was a 1960 movie with Cary Grant titled “The Grass is Greener.” I have found this saying to be true only in very rare cases. Usually, the desire to move to the other side is based on envy and the perception that things will be better, but the perception rarely matches the reality. This saying applies mostly to people who want to change jobs. When they do so, they find themselves dealing with the same issues and challenges as the jobs they left.

“The best plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy.”

My old boss at Tendril used to say this, and it came from his military background. I think the saying is self-explanatory and is equally applicable to our business and personal lives. The takeaway: Have back-up plans and be adaptive enough to change as circumstances dictate. Now I have never been in a war, but I do know that the best laid plans always need modifications. Best case in point: the charade of annual budgeting/planning, during which you are basically making an informed guess about the future.

“The truth lies somewhere in the middle.”

I believe in finding middle ground, but these days unfortunately dogmatism is in and compromise is out. In business, I have learned to be skeptical of extreme points of view.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

This aphorism originates in a very old advertising slogan, but it is used frequently in many self-help publications. It is sound advice because there is scientific proof that we remember more about how something started and ended than what was in the middle. The point is, first impressions are everything because a second encounter is never guaranteed. See also “it’s not what you say but how you say it.”

“Don’t fall in love with a bad decision.”

I could not find the origin of this one, but it’s close to something Steve Jobs once said: “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly.” We are all probably guilty in some way of sticking with a bad decision for too long. Maybe with investments or toxic relationships, when we won’t cut our losses. While it’s difficult to admit a mistake, we intuitively know that few problems get better over time, so it’s best to deal with them and start making things better. Someone has even coined another phrase related to this concept, meant to refer to the inaction of the U.S. government: “Kick the can down the road.” Don’t be a can-kicker.

“You are getting better or getting worse; you never stay the same.”

I saw this slogan posted inside the San Francisco 49ers’ locker room. It’s really a call to action that I find incredibly inspiring.

“Don’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.”

Attributed to Albert Einstein when asked to define insanity. It’s such good and obvious advice, but it’s so easy to forget in the heat of the moment.

“You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.”

Often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, I see this quotation as a call to honesty. The reality is that most people will learn who you really are over time. You cannot BS people forever. In the end you will be exposed – good or bad!

“Don’t get too high when things are good or too low when things are bad. They are rarely as good/bad as you think.”

I use this phrase a lot. It’s a reminder to take a realistic look at a situation and resist the human tendency to dwell or focus on extremes. This concept is very like the peak-end rule described in Daniel Kahnerman’s great book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which I reread this year. It is a theory that describes how humans evaluate their past experiences. This heuristic leads people to judge an experience by its most intense point (its peak) and its end, as opposed to the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. It occurs regardless of whether a “peak” is pleasant or unpleasant, and regardless of the duration of the experience.

“Do the right thing.”

This was another saying by my first boss in Colorado and is still part of that company’s mission and value statement. It is similar to the iconic Nike slogan, “Just do it”. Most of us know when we are not doing the right thing, but we try justifying our actions with clever reasoning and rationale. This saying always serves as a great moral compass to remind us to take the right path.

“One dot is a trend.”

This is my own aphorism, which is a modification of the saying “two data points make a trend.” Business moves faster and faster all the time. The more experienced (that is, older) I get, the more I realize the importance of workplace relationships and understanding people. I have found that it’s often useful not to wait for the second data point before arriving at a conclusion. I have no scientific proof, but I think if you are experienced in a certain field and act quickly based on one data point, your conclusion will be right about two-thirds of the time. That’s because, as another saying goes, “history repeats itself.”

“If you can’t play with the big boys/girls, don’t show up.”

Regardless of the source, to me this aphorism means bring your A game or don’t come at all.

“Life is a series of choices.”

Another quote widely used by motivational speakers, this one seems to be a fusion of the following two quotes: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter”) and “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.” (Stephen R. Covey, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”).

“There is no I in team.”

This saying’s origin is unknown because it’s so frequently used. However, it’s rumored that basketball coach Phil Jackson said this to Michael Jordan, whereupon Jordan remarked, "there is no me in win." Usually used in a sports-team setting but equally applicable to business, the idea is to be careful of anyone taking all the credit. Its rarely one person who did all the work that achieves a great outcome.

“There are known knowns ..."

Regardless of your feelings about him, this an interesting quote from the former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in response to a question on the Iraqi war. He stated: “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; , we know there are some things we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.” I have found it very useful to classify future events into one of these three buckets to frame your actions. Try it next time. When faced with a decision, ask yourself: What do we know for sure? What do we still need to find out? What are the possible wild cards?

I hope these aphorisms are helpful. If not, just remember: “If this was easy, any fool would do it.” — attributed to me! (with an assist from Tom Hanks in the movie “A League of Their Own.”)