Proverbial Advice for Grads in an Age of Confusion and Contradictions

In our messy world, graduates will be faced with making their own choices.

2018’s graduation season has begun. The famous, powerful, and generous will be dispensing their wisdom about the “real world” to hordes of graduates across America. The best speakers will provide insights, but many will never make it beyond platitudes. Having attended roughly four decades of graduations, I have developed a hypothesis about why.

So what can be expressed by simple rules will often be wrong and, therefore, must be suitably qualified to be useful.

The reason is that it is virtually impossible to impart universal insights about what someone should do from humanity’s accumulated wisdom. In fact, it seems that virtually every adage or aphorism is contradicted by another one, and often more than one. So what can be expressed by simple rules will often be wrong and, therefore, must be suitably qualified to be useful.

Given this problem, in the unlikely event I am called on to give a graduation speech, I would address this problem by suggesting the following “proverbial” guide to life once student loan repayment begins:

The Contradictions

“All things come to he who waits,” but “time waits for no man” and “he who hesitates is lost.”                                           

“Haste makes waste,” but “strike while the iron is hot.”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” but “it’s better to be safe than sorry” and “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

“Never judge a book by its cover,” but “the clothes make the man.”

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” and “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but “don’t keep beating your head against a wall.”

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” but “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“Two heads are better than one” and “many hands make light work,” but “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but “out of sight, out of mind.”

“Never judge a book by its cover,” but “the clothes make the man.”

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know,” but “variety is the spice of life.”

“The pen is mightier than the sword,” but “actions speak louder than words.”

“Better late than never,” but “don’t shut the barn door after the horse is gone.”

“When in Rome, do as the Romans” and “if you can’t beat them, join them,” but “to thine own self be true.”

“Better late than never,” but “don’t shut the barn door after the horse is gone.”

“Opportunity knocks but once,” but “when one door shuts, another opens.”

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and “there’s no time like the present,” but “don’t cross the bridge until you come to it.”

“A word to the wise is sufficient,” but “talk is cheap.”

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” but “don’t bite off more than you can chew.”

‘You are never too old to learn,” but “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.”

“Silence is golden,” but “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“Birds of a feather flock together,” but “opposites attract.”

“Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” but “the more, the merrier.”

“The best things in life are free,” but “no pain, no gain” and ”count the cost.”

“The bigger the better,” but “the best things come in small packages.”

“One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” but “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

“The best things in life are free,” but “no pain, no gain” and ”count the cost.”

“A jack of all trades is a master of none,” but “if you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”

“What goes around comes around” and “one good turn deserves another,” but “no good deed ever goes unpunished.”

“A penny saved is a penny earned,” but “penny wise, pound foolish.”

“Honesty is the best policy” and “do as you would be done by,” but “rules are made to be broken.”

Confused? Good.

The world graduates are entering is one of confusion and contradictions. And akin to Newton’s Third Law, it seems that every proverb has an equal and opposite proverb. What can we learn from that? First, people seem to have a strong desire to feel they make wise choices, and since one can pick the proverb to use after a choice is made, that provides a handy means of self-affirmation. Second, the fact that the choices people want to think they are wise in making are often directly contradictory reminds us of something even more important: the impossibility of central planners making the best choices for us, and therefore the importance of liberty to make our own choices.

In that stew of differences, there is no one right answer that can be imposed for the vast array of choices we will make.

In a world such as Hayek discussed in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” he showed that the circumstances of time and place known only to the individuals involved cannot effectively be used to centrally plan society. Those details are thrown away, along with the wealth they could have generated, in the process of central planning.

In short, planners cannot know enough about what creates value to plan better than we could for ourselves. And that problem is only worsened when we recognize just many ways we differ. We have different backgrounds and experiences, risk and time preferences, expectations and forecasts, skills and competencies, hopes and fears, etc. In that stew of differences, there is no one right answer that can be imposed for the vast array of choices we will make.

In our messy world, graduates will be faced with making their own choices. So the best advice we can give may be that once given to Indiana Jones: “Choose wisely.” Unfortunately, we cannot offer enough wisdom about which those wise choices will be. After all, as the saying goes, “whatever will be, will be.” Of course, on the other hand, “life is what we make it.”

Further Reading

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