Aphorisms we should dismiss in the face of complexity

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 23, 2008
Filed in Communication

Life’s little sayings have a big impact on how we think.

A stitch in time saves nine.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

They make up our common sense but as Einstein quipped:

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

I believe these aphorisms survive because they contain wisdom that work for us. But in the face of what we know about complexity there are some sayings that should go the way of the desert bandicoot.

Here are two that no longer make sense when things are complex:

  • The definition of insanity is to do the same thing twice and expect a different result
  • You can’t fix what you can’t measure.

Can you think of others that hold us back?

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Luke says:

    How about this one Shawn
    “There’s no success like failure, And failure’s no success at all.”
    “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”
    A particularly useful one for complex environments is “Prophecy is many times the principal cause of the events foretold.”
    And also “Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
    But perhaps this one is worth musing on a bit more from a Cynefin point of view – “The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.”
    And probably my favourite –
    Right now I need aphorisms like I need holes in my heads (Zaphod Beeblebrox)

  2. Mike Wagner says:

    Should this truism go the way of all flesh Shawn?
    “First plan your work, then work your plan.”
    Keep creating…since it’s unpredictable out there,

  3. John Shepherd says:

    Couldn’t resist responding to Einstein’s words on common sense. Try this: Using the understanding of the meaning of ‘common’ as it is used in English grammar, Common sense is that sense possessed by all. By urging someone to show common sense, we are by definition accepting that the sense is not indeed possessed by all… reductio ad absurdum?

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