Sunday, May 25, 2008

One head cannot hold all wisdom

In this day and age of information overload this probably seems very obvious; not even the mighty Google can manage it.

This proverb seems like a variant of: two heads are wiser than one. Humans are designed to work in groups with a leader who co-ordinates and directs. This makes the group stronger and more effective than a loose bunch of enthusiasts who pull in different directions and end up quarrelling.

We live in a time of increasing specialisation where individuals know a great deal about ever-narrowing fields of study. This is where proverbs can be particularly valuable as they attempt to condense much experience and knowledge into a short pithy statement.

As William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, put it: "The Wisdom of Nations lies in their Proverbs, which are brief and pithy. Collect and learn them… They are notable measures and directions for human life. You have Much in Little; they save time and speaking, and on occasion may be the fullest and safest answers."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

One hand is enough in a purse

This might seem especially true if you are a Scotsman (as I am) for more reasons than one!

This saying is a warning as to how arguments over money can be a major source of trouble. One of the main causes of matrimonial break up is arguments over income and expenditure. If you want a long and happy relationship it is essential to have clear agreement over finances and to honour them. Most men seem genetically programmed to save and scrimp whilst women have an urge to spend. In a well-matched relationship this should have a balancing effect but it often just leads to rows. This proverb is perhaps suggesting that one person should be the main decision taker, and commonsense would indicate that this should be the most prudent one.

A major source of business failure is a lack of respect for the keeping of good accounts. It is essential that money is spent wisely and accounted for. Too many cooks spoil the broth and too many people lavishing a company’s money on unproductive activities will soon result in ruin. Clear policies on handling cash flow and expenditure will help you sleep at night and ensure that when you come to retirement there won’t be a black hole where your savings should be.

This saying might also be warning of the folly of being overgenerous to others. Charity begins at home: if you are a soft touch and let your heart rule your head you could soon be poor. A fool and his money are soon parted.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Solitude is often the best society

Human beings are naturally social animals; we belong in a group and it is within the tribe, clan, workplace or family that we find our identity. We tend to define ourselves by our relationships with others -- our place in the pecking order, our friends, our enemies. We need others and they need us; but not all the time.

There comes a point in all lives when we need to be alone. Time to think and be free of distractions. Time to hurt and heal when we cannot cope with the daily stress. Thinkers and creative people often need to withdraw from everyday society in order to work without the demands of social obligations. To devote your entire mind to a problem or produce a creative work a time of withdrawal is often essential.

We have many examples from the days of monks and hermits who sought spiritual salvation in private contemplation and meditation. Eccentric scientists and inventors have lived recluse-like lives obsessed by the requirements of total concentration, and regarding the intruder as a threat.

Excesses of this can lead to mental breakdowns as the individual loses contact with reality, so it doesn't do to go to extremes.

One of the most delightful withdrawals is that of the poet who seeks solitude and inspiration from Nature but soon returns to delight all society with the beauty of words, images and form.

"For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."

Daffodils: William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Sunday, May 04, 2008

What everyone says must be true

Or is it?

The Wisdom of Crowds (by James Surowiecki) has been a popular book in recent times where the author put forward the view that the cumulative opinions of a large group of people tends to get the right answer to problems. Perhaps in some circumstances they do. But anyone who has been around any time will know that what everyone is saying can sometimes be wrong.

Stock market manias tend to happen when the herd has become convinced that some item is a sure fire winner and you have to have it. Common-sense flies out the window and people suspend disbelief because they want the story to be true. Just as we made ourselves believe in fairy tales when we are young because we wanted to experience the thoughts and emotions of the story so, in adult life, we want to believe the impressive person who tells us we are all going to be rich.

If it is too good to be true it usually isn't. Always be wary of something you desperately want to be true; try to have it checked out in every rational way possible.

Remember, the folk who make the most money in stocks tend to be those who take a contrarian view at the right time.