Maxims are codes that we parrot, but rarely pause to consider. They bespeak what our culture values, as much as they teach us a lesson in sparse, bumper-sticker phrasing. Here is a list of eight maxims that I’ve stolen, applied, or ignored to my later regret.
1. Once you have a hammer, everything becomes a nail.
Imagine a kid with her first hammer. What does she immediately do? Smack everything in sight.
Tools are useful, but sometimes the fantastic utility of a particular tool can propel you into using it on every job regardless of fit. Hammers are quite nifty because they work on many things other than just nails, and lots of things in the world do need a good smacking. In the end, though, not everything is a nail. The point is that sometimes we can get trapped by clinging to our favorite solutions, go-to’s, or paradigms. Don’t let the tool drive the process.
Note: This metaphor does not apply to duct tape.
2. The lazy man works the hardest.
Hauling five bags of groceries from the car to the back door will take two trips, but you can manage in one trip if you balance the bags. OOPS! Instead of saving time on the extra trip, you now spend additional time cleaning up the broken spaghetti jar that fell out of the bag you just dropped. You also spend extra breath muttering about the lazy man’s way while cleaning up the Ragu.
The point is that shortcuts in life usually cause disastrous effects that make for more work.
“The Lazy Man” phrase is a nice catchall for other maxims about purposeful living, mindfulness, and a job done right the first time. Such maxims include the manly craftsman ethic of “measure twice, cut once,” or the womanly ethic of “a stitch in time saves nine.” Such old-styled pearls accordingly follow a gendered division of labor. Failure to implement “The Lazy Man” maxim causes many “what was I thinking?” moments.
Note: This maxim occasionally covers for “arbeit macht frei” if you believe your grandfather ran a child labor camp, and which you shouldn’t even joke about because it’s not funny.
3. Meanings are in people, not in words.
This saying comes from general semantics and communication studies. To explain: no word ever inherently means any thing. Rather, people invest meanings into a word on a personal or cultural level. A word can paint a thousand pictures. When you talk to someone, you do not have the dictionary standing as a third-party referee to moderate your conversation. This makes flirtations fun and arguments painful.
Now you know the secret about your teacher. She was being evil when she sent you to the dictionary to look up a definition. The dictionary, in fact, is just a trap. It never gives you the actual meaning of a word; it only gives you more words. It’s a trap not unlike a red laser toy your teacher wields on a feisty kitten. Just keep chasing the glowing red dot and someday you will catch what it means.
Note: I have never required kittens to look things up in a dictionary.
4. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it makes dollars for someone else (as my grandmother would always say).
No explanation needed.
Note: You might prefer a more complicated alternative, by which I mean in the style of the conspiracy theorist, Marxist, or academic phrasing: “follow the dollar.”
5. Clean as you go.
When you clean the dishes while you cook or prepare the meal, you save yourself a lot of effort later.
You prevent oatmeal from turning into cement, for instance. When you clean up immediately from bad actions and attitudes, or when you promptly admit mistakes and make amends, you engage in right living. Overdue dishes and overdue apologies suck. Housework is a great metaphor and barometer for interpersonal relationships. Admittedly, sometimes a cemented oatmeal bowl is just a cemented oatmeal bowl and has no subtext.
Note: The relational “I’ll cook, you clean” bargain sucks for mixed-cleaning couples if you clean as you go and your partner does not. Your double-duty cleaning might be fair trade, however, if your partner is a better cook than you are.
“Clean as you go” applies to work-related tasks, too. A tidy, clutter-free workspace is invested with deep symbolic significance for an employee’s character, but the premise is debatable, and people get judgy about it either way. An empty desk is an empty mind, vs. creative clutter, yadda yadda. Even as early as 1918 (see Harper’s), the “big man” at work kept a clean desk-space. Unfortunately, we’ve taken this too far with the zero inbox mentality. Consider this lovely piece of advice from Zen and the Zero Inbox: “Zero inbox, because your inbox is your life.” Let’s break it down to its syllogistic components:
Your inbox is your life.
Your inbox is zero.
Therefore, your life is zero.
By labeling this line of thinking “Zen,” we can embrace the underlying paradox that our lives are more meaningful when our inboxes are actually full, all while pursuing the state of zero inbox. The real Zen here is knowing the paradox that Zen is a lifestyle choice in America only on opposite day.
6. Wherever you go, there you are.
You cannot escape yourself. People often think a change of scenery can improve a situation. In actuality, you just take your emotional baggage with you and recreate unresolved problems wherever you go. Escape routes include time travel, worm holes, religious conversion, and any other forms of out-of-body experiences that fool you into believing you can walk away from yourself and avoid consequences or life changes. Also, U-haul trucks. People in 12-step programs call this kind of retreat the “geographical cure.”
Also, embracing this statement means adopting a posture of mindfulness and presence. X marks the spot. You are here.
Note: This message is brought to you by Buckaroo Banzai, Confucius, Jesus Christ, and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
7. Just because someone gives you an ugly outfit to put on doesn’t mean you have to wear it.
We have the capacity to make choices about putting on a costume and playing a role in someone else’s drama.Growing up poor meant I had “well-intentioned” relatives buy me clothes for Christmas and birthday presents. The clothes were cheap, ugly, and uncomfortable. As an adult, I realized that the gifts had strings attached in the form of expectations regarding the social role of poor kinfolk. Trust me, that poor kinfolk outfit is far uglier than the too-tight polyester ’70s dime-store panties.
8. Companies are never loyal to their employees.
Never, ever fall prey to the false security that a company, no matter how small, will look out for your interests and remain true to the loyalty they promise you. Workers, especially women workers, make sacrifices to earn a company’s loyalty in hopes of future rewards and they develop a deep, personal commitment. Going the extra mile for your company only matters when A) we work in a true meritocracy, and B) the owners (however that is construed) will put the workers’ needs above their own. Which happens when? Your particular boss might love the special snowflake that is you, but please do remember that all supervisors’ decisions are constrained by their specific institution and their own individual interests. Your boss will choose paying for his or her family’s groceries, vacation, or weekly manicure, over yours every time. (See a compelling example and revenge story here.) Going above and beyond can advance you in your career, and it can fulfill you personally, but people should never engage in “above and beyond” simply out of naive faith in their employer’s loyalty.
Note: If it’s your parents’ company, this rule might not apply. Unless you piss them off.
+1. Do as I say, not as I do.
Also known as “Those who can’t do, teach,” and “Just because it’s on this list, doesn’t mean I follow it, but I do try.”