7 Phrases Misapplied at Work

Important people said important things and we should take heed.  But sometimes the original intention is lost through years of misinterpretation.  Profound words by the world’s great—and sometimes not great—thinkers end up as misguided, partial-truisms, with little applicability to modern life.  Here are seven quotes to help you through the work week as they were meant to be interpreted.

Wherever you go, there you are. 
You Are Here
Wherever our place in the universe, that’s where we’ll be.

The origins of this one are a bit sketchy.  It may be from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which certainly makes sense given its preachy undertones.  Jon Kabat-Zinn also used the phrase as the title for a self-help book.  On close examination, the prose is more idiot than inspired.

Wherever you go, there you are.  One’s first instinct is to respond, “Duh.  Thanks for that, Sherlock.”  The implication is that it takes some amount of reflection in order to figure out one really is wherever they are.  It is difficult to say whether the author was a moron, or simply attempting to make us feel like cr@p.  Of course you are wherever you go.

Although remembering this little phrase won’t cure depression, saying it at random times during countless hours of boring meetings will make you look smart and insightful.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life. 
Cupcake
The first day over, and over, and over again.

Another AA gem, this one attributed to Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich, Sr., a reformed alcoholic and AA member.  Seriously, Chuck, did you consider the possibilities before informing people that the rest of their life is going to suck as much as today?  How does this not make you want to have a drink?  Today, yet another day stuck within the four bland, lifeless walls of this organization, is the first day of the rest of your life—within the four bland, lifeless walls of this organization.

Accepting this as the first day of the rest of your life is the first step toward accepting that the occasional cocktail—and by occasional I mean nightly—is also part of the rest of your life.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. 
Fish for Food
Remember when fishing was fun?

Maimonides, a preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, astronomer, and one of the most influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, probably figured this was a lesson in self-sustainment.  His followers took poles in hand and forever put thousands of fisherman out of business.

Maimonides didn’t change anything.  One’s ability to fish does nothing for anyone’s career.  If he had said, “Teach a man to lose at golf to his boss,” well, that would have meant something.  In addition, while millions of people can now fish, most of them are too lazy to learn to gut and scale.  In addition to rotting fish everywhere, the worlds oceans are so depleted, we’ll be lucky to see fish, much less retirement, on any menu after 2023.

Axis of Evil.
Axis of Evil
Eeeevvviiiilll.

A term first used by President Bush in the 2002 State of the Union address, it was to be the rallying cry of a corrupt, arrogant, greedy Republican party destined to turn conservatism from spend-less to spend-more-than-you-have.  Luckily, it describes perfectly the executive management team at most government organizations and publicly traded companies.

Executives have a three year life cycle designed around maximizing personal profitability.  To achieve that goal, they sacrifice American jobs to third world countries, watching executive compensation rise exponentially.  It’s not until several years later—after the whiz team has departed—that the organization realizes its actually paying more to produce the same service.  Can’t figure out why you are losing market share in the West?  Hmm, could it be there is nobody left in the West with a job that pays enough to afford that service.

The Axis of Evil should have been used to describe the CEO, CFO, and the Board of Directors.

They can take our lives but they will never take our freedom. 
Headstone
So long as there is rum, they can have my freedom.

The reason Hollywood didn’t hear Mel Gibson (William Wallace, Braveheart, 1995) shout those words to his troops is because its difficult to hear with your head lodged firmly in your ars.  Guess what, they can take your freedom, and they can take your lives.  Yes, it’s possible we’ll end up in heaven, or hell, or maybe be reincarnated as a dung beetle, but those all involve rules, too.

Nowhere is this phrase less apropos than in modern society, where idiot managers use made-up words and catchy slogans to rally the troops toward a better third quarter and end of year executive bonus.  They can take our lives and our freedom and it happens every day we go to work and have our soul sucked from our already trembling bodies.

Work smarter…not harder. 
Man Digging
What is that smell?

Perhaps this was applicable in the 1930s—I don’t know for sure, I wasn’t there—but in today’s work environment, it is as out of place as a turd in a punch bowl.  Allen F. Morgenstern, an industrial engineer, coined the term as part of a work simplification program.  Allen thought people could get more done with less effort.  Those engineers are so cute.

In reality, working smarter without working harder has never been all that effective or rewarding.   Most people just aren’t that smart, so working harder is the only way they have a fighting chance at getting ahead.  Edison was right when he said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  Go ahead, work smarter.  See what it gets you.

The early bird catches the worm. 
Sleep at Desk
These late night conference calls with India are killing me.

This may originate in John Ray’s, A Collection of English Proverbs (1670, 1678).  Maybe worms were a delicacy back then, but today it is one of the more misleading phrases in existence.  Unless you are one of those converted Maimonides fisherman, who the heck wants a worm?  Also, it’s the second bird that gets the worm.  The early bird gets eaten by the cat.  Plus, it’s freaking cold early in the morning.  One could freeze, or at least develop a very bad case of frostbite.

Nobody recognizes the early bird.  You work from 5:30 AM until 5:30 PM every day, but the ars that gets noticed strolls in at 9:00 AM, loses to his boss at golf, and leaves at 6:30 PM.  Work late enough and you can work as little as you like.  A lot of good those worms are when promotions don’t keep pace.  Keep your worm. I’ll take my extra couple hours to sleep off the cocktails I drank last night on the first day of the rest of my life.


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All drawings are those of the author.  Cover photo by Rowan Price Photography.  Copyright can be found here.

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