Are Common Sayings Useful?

When something hasn’t been accomplished, a common saying is:

We can land a man on the moon, but we can’t…”

What would we be saying if this had never happened?
When something new is released, a common saying is:

The best thing since sliced bread.”

Before sliced bread you had to slice your own bread. Was this a bad thing?
When the work you’re doing ultimately doesn’t matter, a common saying is that you are

Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”

What would we be saying if we had never lost the Titanic? No one makes sayings about space shuttle accidents, but they do like to say:

Houston we have a problem.”

Are common sayings useful?

In a world where we are more and more connected, but have less and less in common, maybe we need these old sayings. Of course my opinion is USA-centric and to an extent, generation-centric. While shows like Friends and Seinfeld are like cannon for my generation, they have little relevance with anyone who has graduated high school in the last 8 years. It’s been almost 18 years since I graduated high school, to give you context.

Are Internet memes and viral videos useful?

While there are gigantic swaths of the Internet that can avoid the gaze of a majority of the world, the closest thing to a chance for commonality is going to be the most “viral” elements, which are Internet memes and viral videos who can garner more eyeballs than even the most popular television show, movie, or video games. And since you brought up video games, while “Mario” was the Mickey Mouse of my 8-bit generation that title has since been replaced by Angry Birds. For perspective, my daughter has an Angry Birds t-shirt and plays it far more than Super Mario on her Wii, but she plays Minecraft more by far.

Reasoning by analogy versus the First Principles reasoning

In a TED talk on Tesla, SpaceX, and Solarcity, Elon Musk was asked by Chris Anderson, “How have you [built all of these companies]? These projects are so — Paypal, SolarCity, Tesla, SpaceX, they’re so spectacularly different, they’re such ambitious projects at scale. How on Earth has one person been able to innovate in this way? What is it about you?” and this was Musk’s response:

I work a lot. I mean, a lot…I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics. It’s really counterintuitive. So I think that’s an important thing to do, and then also to really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.”

When we speak and relate in metaphors, we may be helping communicate with each other, but we are not creating anything new. So are common sayings useful? Yes, if you want to communicate, but not if you want to create something new.

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