Breadcrumb navigation

Recalling Past Wisdom: Proverbs from Around the World

Experience is the greatest guide for the future. Proverbs serve as memorable pearls of past wisdom that can help light the way ahead. This collection illustrates how ancient proverbs are as relevant today as they have ever been. Maybe these reflections can help you chart a course for the journey ahead.

Berakit-rakit ke hulu, berenang-renang ke tepian. Bersakit-sakit dahulu bersenang-senang kemudian
"First paddle the raft upstream, then swim to shore. To be sick first, to be happy later."
– Malay Proverb

Meaning: Tackle the most challenging tasks first and save the easy ones for last
Any project is composed of multiple, diverse parts and tasks ranging from the quick and simple to the complex and highly challenging. Sometimes the order of tasks is predetermined, but often we can choose the order in which we complete the tasks. What is the best option? While, understandable, many of us would opt to complete the easier tasks first, this Malay proverb advocates opposite approach. It encourages us to do the heavy rowing first. To push upstream and tackle the challenging obstacles at the outset of a project, so that we can drift through the easier tasks as we approach the shore and the project’s completion. Why not remember this pearl of wisdom at the start of your next new project, and channel your initial upbeat energy and motivation into rowing through the most challenging waves first.

Alla vill vara herrar, men ingen vill bära säcken.
"Everyone wants to be a lord, but noone wants to carry the load."
– Swedish Proverb

Meaning: Everyone would like to give the orders, but success hinges on getting things done
Traditional business hierarchies were divided into two clear categories, with managers at the top developing business strategy and directing operations, and workers below following those directions and executing business plans. Today, while this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred, it remains ever present. This Swedish proverb highlights some fundamental flaws with such a system. First and most obvious, if everyone were a lord, there would be no one left to execute plans, or “carry the sack,” and maybe we should assign greater value to the heavy lifting required to successfully carry out plans and directions. Second and possibly more interesting, this proverb could be advocating a further erosion of the division between leading and lifting, because true communication and efficiency can only be achieved by managers and employees coming closer together.

góp gió thành bão
"Multiple breezes form a strong wind."
– Vietnamese Proverb

Meaning: Big accomplishments are the sum of multiple small successes
Any new project looks daunting when you consider the whole mission and distant finish line. Contemplating the many difficult steps ahead can make us feel discouraged and reluctant to take the first step. At that stage, the only way forward is to break the project down into manageable chunks and tackle them one at a time. This Vietnamese proverb advocates a step-by-step approach and the power of a cumulation of small steps. Each small achievement is like a tiny breeze pushing us forward. Together, these breezes form a powerful wind to fill the sails, propel the project boat forward, and achieve a raging success.

Lavar puercos con jabón es perder tiempo y jabón.
"To wash a pig with soap is a waste of time and soap."
– Spanish Proverb

Meaning: Avoid unnecessary work
Numerous tasks find their way onto our desks during the course of the week. We all know to rank those tasks in order of importance: starting first with the critical work that needs to be completed urgently and attentively, and moving onto the other, less urgent group of tasks that can be completed when you have a spare moment. This Spanish proverb features a third group of tasks just not necessary. Washing a pig with soap is arguable a waste of both soap and time. In the same way, completing unnecessary tasks wastes time and causes frustration. The trick is to be learn to swiftly identify and eradicate these unproductive tasks, freeing up more time to focus on the work the really matters for your business success.

"If you fall down seven times, get up eight."
– Japanese Proverb

Meaning: Get straight back up after failing, even if it means you might fall again
The road to success is never a straight path. It stops, twists and turns along with multiple miscalculations, repeated errors and even outright failures. The only way to navigate this twisting path is to learn from our mistakes, and then push forward. This Japanese proverb encourages us not to hesitate, and to stand straight back up after every failure. It provides comfort by suggesting you will eventually achieve success if you bounce right back up and try again, regardless of how many times you fall or fail. Perhaps more importantly, by imploring us to get up more times than we fall, this proverb also hints that success requires us to actively seek out opportunities to fail, or, at least, to tackle challenges with a real possibility of failure. In other words, boldly seeking out such challenges is the actually surest way to steer the twisting path, and achieve ultimate success.

Aller Anfang ist schwer
"Getting started is always hard."
- German Proverb

Meaning: Embrace the inevitable challenges that come with any new endeavor
Whether a new project, a new department, or a new job, tackling a new challenge is often a steep learning curve. No new endeavor ever reaps instant success. Instead, it requires to skillfully navigate the unknown. Furthermore, the learning curve is often steepest at the start, discouraging us from either continuing or seeking out new challenges. This German proverb recognizes the natural struggle involved in any new endeavor, and encourages us to embrace the inevitable hurdles ahead. A great reminder not to be too hard on yourself, or others brave enough to take on something new.

Сделал дело – гуляй смело
"Take time to reflect on a job well done."
– Russian Proverb

Meaning: Take time to enjoy and reflect on a job well done
Thanks to smartphone, laptop, wifi and other communication technologies, we can now do business. That’s great in terms of empowering us to choose where and when we work, but it can also leave us feeling that we are always working or on call. The result is a troubling tendency to move from task to task, without taking adequate time to rest and reflect upon our work. This trend is not good for our mental or physical resilience, and neither is it good for business. This Russian proverb emphasizes the importance of taking breaks, when and how to take them. When you complete a task, take time out to stretch your legs and replenish your emotional and creative resources. When you take that time out, remember to hold your head up high in honor of a job well done.

Nie dziel skóry na niedźwiedziu
"Don't divide the skin while it's still on the bear."
– Polish Proverb

Meaning: Don’t bank on things you have not yet secured
A new project begins with an idea. In the world of business, initial ideas are only acted upon after thorough feasibility testing and accurate cost-benefit analysis. Even when an idea is initiated, it must be constantly verified against the initial assessment. Many projects fall into the trap of banking on outcomes that might never come to fruition, turning an initially promising idea into a critical failure. This Polish proverb cautions us about the danger of making assumptions about unknown variables. A good analogy might be hunting a bear, which is not only dangerous but unpredictable. If we start to focus on the prize and not on the hunt, our prey might get away. In business too, we run the risk of making unwarranted assumptions if we are too eager to focus on the desired outcome of any project before it is firmly secured.

Milima haikutani, lakini binadamu hukutana.
"Mountains don’t meet, but people do."
– East African Proverb

Meaning: People can meet, despite the distance, if they really want to, and if they really make the effort to.
Business opportunities are provided by "people" in many cases. However, we cannot forecast when or where such encounters may arise, or who they may involve. For example, an old friend may become a key person in a project, or you may suddenly meet someone that you would never have expected to meet in your whole life and a new business starts.
This East African proverb reminds us that we can always meet new people, even if they live far away. On the other hand, if you are as immovable as a mountain, even though a great opportunity presents itself to you, you may miss it. Always being curious and seeking for new encounters are important factors in capturing new opportunities. See the value in serendipitous encounters or small acts of fate, as well as being keen to visit people if you feel inspired.

윗물이 맑아야 아랫물이 맑다
"The water downstream is clean only when the water upstream is clean."
– Korean Proverb

Meaning: When leaders set a good example, people will follow it
Many people in all regions of the world may empathize with this South Korean proverb describing people’s behavior, which is very much influenced by their leaders or bosses. If we reconsider it from a business perspective, we rarely have any choice in who our supervisors or clients may be, and may have to remain living in muddy water, depending on the status or social situation at the time. However, to be really successful, it is important to realize the nature of the people around you, and work with those who are a good influence to you. If the day comes when you become a leader, be aware of the fact that you must be a role model for those working for you and make the water you live in clean.

Eni ba ju okuta wewe afi se ara e.
"He who pelts another with pebbles asks for rocks in return."
– Nigerian Proverb

Meaning: Unreasonable past behavior committed unintentionally comes back to haunt you.
We all make mistakes. For example, oversleeping and almost being late for work, bumping into someone in a crowd, or borrowing a pen from a colleague and putting it into your desk drawer… Such minor, but unintentional mistakes are often disregarded by others. But up to what level can such "unintentional errors" be overlooked? By taking advantage of the fact that people forgive minor mistakes, isn’t "intentional corner cutting" becoming a habit "unintentionally"? It is not unusual for us to hear of a minor problem snowballing into something much bigger.
This Nigerian proverb warns us that a minor mistake can cause one to suffer much pain. We should keep in mind that thinking "This level of mistake shouldn’t cause any problems," or "I won’t mention it, as no one even noticed," is the cause of small mistakes turning into disasters.

Viljinn dregur hálft hlass.
"A strong will can halve the load."
– Icelandic Proverb

Meaning: A strong will helps overcome difficult challenges
In answer to the question “What defines a professional?” you might answer “knowledge” or “experience.” Competence and experience will often help achieve ultimate goals, but sometimes, as this Icelandic proverb suggests, experience alone is just not enough. If a strong academic record and practical work experience were all that was required to successfully manage large projects, finding such people would not be difficult. But steering a course through the multiple facets of business requires something more, namely an iron will to conquer any obstacle hindering your path to ultimate success, however difficult. Such strong belief and commitment will help motivate others and drive seemingly impossible projects towards a successful outcome.

A fuerza, ni los zapatos entran.
"You can't force your shoes to fit"
– Mexican Proverb

Meaning: Some obstacles can't be overcome with force.
All projects eventually run into challenges. Accordingly, the critical question for any project is this – how do we deal with the challenges we encounter? To be sure, in some cases the best strategy is to simply push ahead against such obstacles with all our strength. At times, however, this strategy simply will not work. Indeed – and on the contrary – in some cases continuing to force our way ahead against obstacles will not only waste significant time, money and effort, but also eventually end in failure. This Mexican proverb helpfully reminds us of the limits of force. Just like a too small pair of shoes can't be forced to fit, some obstacles can't be overcome with force. In such cases we need to make comprises or to seek countermeasures that can lead us to our goal by a different route.

Zemheride yoğurt isteyen, cebinde bir inek taşır
"Who wants yoghurt in winter must carry a cow in his pocket"
– Turkish Proverb

Meaning: It is important to accurately assess the costs of achieving your dreams.
Success comes with sacrifice. So when we decide our career goals we must, at the same time, make an accurate list of the sacrifices needed to achieve them. This Turkish proverb reminds us to consider this relationship between hopes and effort. For us today, with our year round access to foods of all kinds, it is hard to imagine the difficulties of getting yogurt in winter. But certainly the thought of carrying a cow in one's pocket conveys the challenge that it used to be. In the business world, you will probably never have to make yogurt or carry a cow. But you will have to make many sacrifices to achieve your dreams. Be sure to weigh the costs and benefits honestly and accurately.

اللي أوله نور اخره نور
"When the light shines at the beginning it will also shine at the end"
– Arabic Proverb

Meaning: What you start to do with positive feeling, it will end well too.
New projects are brilliant in the beginning – in the early days when the sparks of creativity shine most brightly. However, on the journey from concept to completion, things can turn dark as initial brilliance is darkened by the challenges of reality. If frustrations continue to build, pessimism may even bring a once promising project to an early end. The Arabic proverb highlighted here offers an important reminder – never forget the initial light that shone at the beginning of a project. Even if it becomes dimmed by the challenges of your journey, surely that light will shine brilliantly once again in the end.

"Catch a fish with two hands"
– Thai Proverb

Meaning: Giving your undivided attention to the task at hand leads to success.
We are busier than ever. There is a great deal of pressure to be always doing something. Or, more accurately, there is tremendous pressure to always be doing more than one thing – to, as they say, multitask. It has become quite easy to lose sight of the target, the critical task requiring our attention. This Thai proverb reminds us to stay focused on that task – even when pulled in other directions. Fish can be abundant but are always difficult to catch. Even when tempted to grab one with each hand, it is best to focus on one ‘fish’ at a time, and with both of our ‘hands’ – i.e. our undivided attention.

"When the wind of change blows some build walls while others build windmills"
– Chinese Proverb

Meaning: The best way to respond to change is to turn it into opportunity.
Change defines our global economy. The question we must ask ourselves is not whether things are changing, but rather how we should deal with change? This Chinese proverb gives an answer. The ‘wall-builder’ sees only the risks posed by change. The ‘windmill-builder’ sees instead the new opportunities brought by the changing winds. While the wall-builder tries to conserve the current situation, the windmill-builder looks for ways to turn threats into advantage. It is easy to read this proverb as simply praising the windmill-builder. But perhaps its real wisdom is that it reminds us to step back and question how we are dealing with change.

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth
– British Proverb

Meaning: Involving too many people in a project can ruin it.
Bringing more people into decision-making can foster communication and creativity. But spreading decisions across a large group can create issues too. Sometimes it is not clear who’s in charge of a project, or whether including everyone in a discussion will promote the best outcome. Maybe there is a need, in some cases, to limit the number of hands on the wheel. The English proverb spotlighted here suggests when this might be the case. Although this proverb is well-known, we often overlook why it speaks of a broth and not, say, a soufflé. A broth is easy to make and thus easy to get wrong. Large projects need many hands but smaller affairs demand quick decisions by individuals.

On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.
"You can't make an omelette without breaking any eggs"
– French Proverb

Meaning: Important achievements are made by breaking with what we have.
The road to success is paved with difficult decisions. And while each of these decisions is unique, all important decisions have something in common – a moment where we must break with the past to head into a new direction. Standing at this fork in the road is frightening, and it can be difficult to find the courage to leave the comfortable to face the unknown. The French proverb spotlighted here offers encouragement to those preparing for a decisive break. It reminds us that important achievements are made by taking a chance, by risking the comforts of our present situation for the chance of opportunity.

Chi dorme non piglia pesci.
"Those who sleep don't catch any fish."
– Italian Proverb

Meaning: Success comes to those who actively search for it.
Think back to times in your life when you’ve had the most success. Was it the result of hard work or pure luck? Quite likely, it was a little of both. Even more likely, these times were when you were at your most active – when you were out there angling for new adventures. At the very least, they were surely not periods of lazily napping. The Italian proverb highlighted here reminds us of this connection between activity and success. Those who are actively aiming to reel in new opportunities are far more likely to find success. We need to be on the boat, hook in the water, hands and eyes ready, searching for the next catch.

अब पछताए होत क्या जब चिड़िया चुग गई खेत
"What is the use of crying when the birds ate the whole farm?"
– Hindi Proverb

Meaning: There is no use crying over misfortune, even catastrophe.
It happens. Even the best of plans can be disrupted by events behind our control. When such misfortune occurs, the critical question is – how do we respond? Do we lament or move on? This Indian proverb advises the latter course. It reminds us that even when a sudden turn of events results in catastrophe, we must get up and go forward, pick up the pieces and push on. There is no use in crying even when (or, perhaps, especially when) catastrophe strikes. All we can do in those cases is just moving on.

"When Spiderwebs Unite They can tie up a lion"
– Ethiopian Proverb

Meaning: Teamwork achieves greater things than individual effort alone.
This Ethiopian proverb reminds us of an important fact of life – together we can achieve far more than alone. Although a spider may catch many flies, only by joining together would they be able to pursue larger prey. The message is clear – our special gift is our ability to combine our labors to achieve far greater things. The results of our teamwork are greater than the sum of its parts. Let us unite and see what we can achieve.

Όποιος έχει τα γένια έχει και τα χτένια.
"Whoever has the beard, has the combs"
– Greek Proverb

Meaning: When we pursue new endeavors, we need the right tools for the task.
These days, we are constantly doing new things – taking on new projects, changing positions, moving into new fields, acquiring new skills. Learning as we go is essential, but as we take on new tasks there is also a need to step back and take stock of our skills – and our limitations. The Greek proverb spotlighted here reminds us of the importance of having the right tools for the job. Today, beards are pretty common in the business world, and growing one seems a pretty trivial thing. However, as this proverb reminds us, even this minor new task requires the right instruments.

Quem não tem cão, caça com gato,
"If you don’t have a dog, you hunt with a cat"
– Brazil Proverb

Meaning: When the right tool is not available, do your best with what you have.
The right tools are not always available. We never have all the skills needed for a task. In such situations, what should we do? Give up? Or try our best with what we have at hand? This Brazilian proverb advises us to choose the latter option. There is no question, a dog makes a better hunting partner than a cat. Indeed, the real question is whether anyone can train a house cat to hunt for them. Yet this proverb encourages us to do our best with what we have, even when there is no guarantee of success. In the business world too, we sometimes don’t have exactly what is needed for the job. You should take what you have and give it your best shot instead of giving up.

(February 28, 2020)

  • facebook
  • Linkedin