Most of the Old Adages Lie and Need to Die

The other day I said to my kids, probably for the 100th time, “if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say it at all”.  And after I said it I thought, wait, what am I actually saying? What is that saying really teaching them? Is it to be nice and kind and thoughtful or is it to be complacent, quiet, and passive? If you’ve read any of my other blogs you know I’ve been in questioning mode. I’ve been questioning all of my assumptions and beliefs about how the world works or how I interpret the world. I started to think about the old adages I was taught, and likely if you’ve grown up in the US you’ve been taught or heard. I thought about continuing the legacy of these adages by spreading them to my 10 year old son and 12 year old daughter. With this questioning quest I’ve realized that  much of what we’ve said and done in the past is wrong, or if not wholly wrong, certainly not as right as I always believed it to be. I wanted to be sure I knew what I saying to them, really saying, and what I was programming into their impressionable minds. And as I thought about the implications of these adages and did some research I realized that this is a deeper issue with broader implications than what I teach my children. 

Once I got curious about this, I started collecting the old adages. It wasn’t difficult, with how fast they flow out of my mouth, and then, you know how when you become aware of something it seems to be everywhere? It was just like that. Here’s the list I’ve come up with, in addition to the already mentioned;

“If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all.”

While we all get the kindness intent, this saying also teaches us to be conflict avoidant and not direct with what we are thinking and feeling because it’s not “nice”. Just stuff it down, suck it up, and move on. Therapists have made lots of money because of this saying. When I think of how many managers applied this adage to working with members of their team I shudder. They hold back on saying anything about a performance issue until everyone is so fed up with the situation the only solution they can think of is to push the person out in a swift, dramatic and cutthroat move that instills fear all around them. This saying has to be retired because it is just too confusing.

“Don’t make waves, Let sleeping dogs lie, Don’t rock the boat, Don’t burn bridges, You get what you get and you don’t get upset”

These sayings are other versions of stuff it down, suck it up and move on. They are directives to be complacent and not question the status quo. Did these sayings get created to keep the masses from questioning the elite? To keep people “in their place”? The more I learn about our white supremacist US history the easier it is to imagine that these adages were created to keep the so called lower classes from questioning the authority of the white men in power. And the patriarchy has a field day with these by ensuring that women remain demure and subservient, fading into the woodwork as much as possible. The consequence of these sayings being drilled into the female subconscious is “I’m just happy to be here and that’s actually more than I deserve so I can’t actually say anything. That’s just asking for too much”. Imagine if leaders that have changed our world in countlessly beneficial ways had followed these adages. They would have never spoke up, never fought for what they believed in, never took risks, never jeopardized their very existence for the greater cause they were fighting for that we all benefit from today. When these sayings are applied in organizations you get unchecked corruption, sexual harassment, inequality, inequity, discrimination, the list goes on. I’ve seen this play out often when people leave companies and will not say why. They have a horrific manager but they don’t want to “burn bridges”. The devil manager is not exposed and continues their evil ways because no one knows what’s really going on. Or worse, everyone knows what is going on but no one will go on record to say it. And who could blame them with these sayings circulating? It would be “unprofessional” to “rock the boat”. When injustice is happening how do we address it if no one is willing to “make waves or burn bridges”? Often the bridges need to be burned! The one I used with my kids most often when they were toddlers is “you get what you get and you don’t get upset”. While handy for a mounting tantrum, it teaches the wrong thing. We should be teaching our children to express their views about what’s happening to them so they learn to communicate their feelings. This is a critical life skill. So these sayings are done, gone, never to be said by me again.

“No pain, no gain” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”

These were common adages for me to say to myself or others to justify hardship and suffering, which we love to idealize where I grew up in New England. Kelly Clarkson even wrote a song called “What Doesn’t Kill You” so this saying lives on in an incessantly played, very catchy contemporary pop tune. These sayings teach you that things have to be hard. and turns out that’s just not true. Yes, life includes lots of difficulty, but these sayings are binary. You certainly don’t have to be in pain to gain something, as the saying would have you believe. You can gain a lot in life without having pain. I once read that for some people pain or “not getting killed to become stronger’ can lead to significant mental illness, which is an epidemic in US society. At a minimum, in organizations where people are expected to work, work, work, the pain is having no rest, tethered to devices and constantly ‘on’. This organizational pain leads to high stress, burnout, family strife, and physical and mental illness. The research proves it. I used to think that things should be hard for me, without exception, because I knew things were hard for other people. But does hardship on my account change the hardship for others? No. And if I’m spending less time struggling in my “pain” and not “being killed to get stronger” than can’t I spend more time and effort and resources to help others? Yes. In fact, I’ve learned that you should gravitate towards the things that come more easily to you because that might be in your “flow” and might be what you enjoy. And it’s OK to enjoy life. What?! Yes, it’s OK to enjoy life, despite what these sayings taught us. So these two sayings also have to go.

‘Where there’s a will there’s a way, You can do anything you want if you just try, Winners never quit and quitters never win, Failure is not an option, When the going gets tough, the tough get going”

Never quitting or failing was bored into my brain at an early age. I don’t recall hearing it from my parents, I’m not sure where it came from other than societal programming. And I definitely passed never quitting and assured triumph on to my kids. I really started questioning the meaning behind these sayings when my nine year old son joined a travel soccer team. Or more accurately, I signed him up as an enthusiastic cheerleader. It was way more than we bargained for in many ways – more money, time, and competition. And he wasn’t even enjoying it. The kids on this competitive team didn’t pass to him. He struggled on the field without realizing how much he was lacking. I cringed for hours on the sidelines, crumpling with every missed pass and bumbling dribble. I thought about why we were doing this and how it turned out much differently than expected. Then I read something about the importance of analyzing our decisions when we have more information. That when you have more information it’s OK to change your mind. I thought – yeah that’s right – it’s stupid to keep doing the same thing when you have more information that’s indicating it’s no longer the right decision. That’s not quitting, that’s logical. That’s making the best use of your life’s time. So I asked my son whether he was having fun, whether he was learning, whether the seven weekly hours were worth it to him. “I don’t think so mommy, but I know I can’t quit, you taught me to never quit.” Oh gawd! “I’ve steered you wrong, honey. I’ve learned that if you have new information that you can change your mind. It’s everyone’s right to change their mind.” “Will we get our money back Mom?” “No, but if we are both miserable and we’ll pay the money either way, why be miserable?” And so we both took our precious life’s time back and devoted it differently. And it did not feel at all like quitting, it was liberating.  

Yes, I acknowledge this is a trivial example to a much larger societal problem, but I take my aha moments anywhere I can get them. The bigger implications of these misguided sayings are that they make people feel they should keep trying to make things work that just aren’t healthy for them, like bad jobs and toxic relationships. Sometimes you just have to walk away, sometimes you can’t fix it or make it better. In these cases the only thing you are quitting on is unhappiness. That’s what you should be doing.

Failure not being an option is particularly problematic in organizations. This mantra is well ingrained in corporate America. The consequence of not being able to fail is people hiding mistakes, covering up problems, and walking around in fear that they will be “found out”. Avoiding failure stifles innovation and holds back organizations and society at large because without taking risks, which inevitably leads to some failure, we can’t evolve. Like Seth Godin said, “winners quit all the time, they just quit the right stuff at the right time”. It’s about knowing when to quit because you have new information that causes a different decision. That’s all quitting is – a different decision. We’ve already established, it’s definitely OK to make a different decision. 

And at a macro level, I’ve learned that these old adages are derived from a white supremacist, patriarchal value system about work and life. They message that all it takes to be successful  is to never give up and keep trying. By this thinking, “unsuccessful” people that struggle in any way didn’t try hard enough, quit too much, are lazy, or weren’t tough enough. They didn’t “lean in” enough. They are solely responsible for their lot in life. When you are taught this value system as a privileged white child it allows you to make sense of having so much more than others. You believe it’s because your family worked harder, you are from tougher stock, others can’t hack it. This value system allows white privileged people to ignore or worse, deny, the systemic racism and sexism going on all around us and remain comfy in our white supremacist, patriarchal nest. And we can sneak in another adage, “a rising tide lifts all boats”, to justify taking more for ourselves under the illusion that because we are doing better, others will too. A rising tide definitely does not lift all boats. We know that a rising tide most often lifts some fancy boats even higher, yachts most likely, and pushes some to shore, never to float again.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”

I’m guilty, I taught this one to my kids too. As toddlers, they would sing it to each other in their taunting little voices when they said something mean to each other. It’s just plain wrong. Words do hurt. We all know that. And words matter. Why do we keep saying words don’t hurt, therefore don’t matter? Did we try to convince ourselves that we can say anything and it doesn’t matter? Maybe this was just another way to keep things civilized, justification to not say anything, to not engage in conflict. At one point maybe this was trying to say that we should prefer hurtful words over physical harm, which is probably right as a preference, but we are beyond this now. Emotional abuse happens through words in workplaces and homes all the time and we shouldn’t be tolerating it, no less spreading adages justifying it. Goodbye sticks and stones saying, goodbye. 

Now I have a lot less handy quips to chirp out at random to my children. I’m grateful for that. This reckoning has caused me to be more thoughtful and deliberate. I’m more conscious about the words I use, because as we’ve established, words do matter! The silver lining of banning these adages is that I’m no longer saying them to myself and affirming their relevance, which has changed how I view the world and how I work with and influence my clients.  

When collecting the adages I came across some that I like and can’t find a negative. I’ve listed them below. If you see something I don’t I want to know! Please comment. Or add some of the sayings drilled into your head and the implications for you.

  • Many hands make light work
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover
  • The squeaky wheel gets the grease
  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket
  • One man’s trash is another man’s treasure – let’s just update to “one person’s trash is another’s treasure”