What Is Aphorism Consulting?

Aphorism consulting is a new movement, whose sole adherent at this point is me, built on the fact that there is an aphorism for everything. This assertion is not just wishful thinking, but based on nearly four decades of empirical, albeit anecdotal, evidence. An aphorism for everything, and everything its aphorism. So an aphorism consulting session is simply what happens when someone sits down and tells me something about him- or herself (or, alternatively, about someone else if the aphorism is for another person) and I come up with what I think is the perfect aphorism for him or her. The recipient of the aphorism is free to decline the aphorism if he or she doesn’t think it’s right; in which case, we proceed with the session until we get the right aphorism. I’ve done some sessions recently at The School of Life in London. Here is a recent newspaper piece that contains a bit from one session.

An aphorism consultation can be quite revealing, even moving. In one recent session, a woman asked for an aphorism for her godson. He is about 11 years old and recently lost his mother. He is a smart, introverted kid, this woman told me, who is occasionally teased at school because of it. He likes to read.

Thinking up aphorisms for kids is the most difficult of all, because you need some life experience to understand aphorisms. My experience has been that teenagers don’t get aphorisms (about relationships, for example) that adults find incredibly insightful. It has to do, I think, with having the experiences referred to in the aphorisms so you understand the point. So if it’s difficult to pick aphorisms for teenagers, how much more difficult is it to pick aphorisms for even younger kids.

And, to be honest, I couldn’t think of a damn thing for this woman’s godson. When that happens, I keep asking questions to elicit some information that might lead me to a saying. But, this time, it just wasn’t working. Then the woman mentioned that the boy loved to play the drums, and then everything fell into place—the drums, the love of books, the sense of solitariness, the burden of being different. So I jotted down this aphorism by Henry David Thoreau for him:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

That aphorism meant a lot to me when I was 15, so maybe it would work for an 11-year-old, too. I could see that his godmother thought it would.

Another emotional session involved a woman who was probably in her 60s, was into spirituality, had traveled in India and other countries on spiritual quests, and was now searching for what to do with her life. An aphorism by the Buddha came to mind immediately:

Your work is to discover your work, and then give your whole heart to it.

During a session at The School of Life last week, a young man and woman sat down in front of me. I mistakenly assumed they were a couple, but they quickly corrected me. So I asked the man to tell me something about the woman and the woman to tell me something about the man, so they would get aphorisms based on how the other person described them.

For the man, the most outstanding feature of the woman was her love of laughter, when it is provoked by humor or slight embarrassment. So I went with this from Josh Billings:

Laughter is the sensation of feeling good all over but showing it principally in one place.

For the woman, the most outstanding feature of the man (something he also revealed in talking about the woman) was that he was looking for something, searching for some kind of purpose or meaning. So, naturally, this from W. Brudzinski sprang to mind:

The most difficult thing is to find the way to the signposts.

Aphorisms by and via Richard Riordan

Richard Riordan is a venture capitalist, a philanthropist, former Mayor of Los Angeles, and prodigious collector and coiner of aphorisms. We met in August at the Sun Valley Writer’s Conference, where Mayor Riordan regaled me with some of his favorites, which he quoted from memory. He is also a great believer in the power of aphorisms to shake and move the movers and shakers. “Aphorisms quite often influence leaders and their audience much more than long speeches,” he says. “I quite often leave a speech remembering an aphorism or a short, bright saying without remembering another word from a half-hour speech.”

Mayor Riordan recently taught a course at The Anderson School, the UCLA Graduate School of Business, on two subjects he says he knows nothing about—Ethics and Leadership. “I influenced the students’ thinking by teaching them short sayings that have influenced me most in my life,” he explains. “‘I couldn’t agree with you more!’—as a response to outrageous statements—became their favorite. Unbelievably, I was hired for next Spring trimester.”

Not so unbelievable, really, since Mayor Riordan’s aphorism collection includes some real zingers. A brief sampling:

Simple and easy are not synonymous. —attributed to Ron Leah of Enron

Only a mediocre person never makes a mistake. —Riordan, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde’s “Only a mediocre artist is always at his best.”

Beware of immediate reactions. —Riordan’s brother, Bill

It is much easier to get forgiveness than to get permission. —embellished and popularized by Riordan

There are three stages of life: infancy, middle age, and ‘Gee, you look good.’ —Unknown

He who controls the master controls the negotiations. —?

Aphorisms by Gerd de Ley

During my research for Geary’s Guide, I came across the name Gerd de Ley quite often when I was reading Dutch- and Flemish-language aphorists. It seemed there was not a Flemish aphorist to be found for whose books De Ley had not written the introduction or done the editing. So it was a delight to come across Gerd de Ley himself on a recent chilly, rain-soaked afternoon in London.

Gerd de Ley has written or edited hundreds of collections of sayings over the past 40 years or so. He has published more than 300 small and big books filled with one-liners, aphorisms, and quotations. For more than a decade, he has worked closely with linguist David Potter to translate these sayings into English. “Many of our translated authors are Dutch and Flemish aphorists and hardly known outside their own countries,” De Ley says. De Ley also edited the complete works of Julien de Valckenare (see pages 61–62 of Geary’s Guide), in my opinion the best Dutch- or Flemish-language aphorist ever. De Ley is currently compiling two books in Dutch: 35,000 Citaten (”35,000 Quotations,” from ancient times until 1999) and The 21st Century Quotation Book (sayings from the first ten years of this century). In his spare time, De Ley runs his own theater company.

In Aforistisch Bestek 1944–1974, published in 1976, De Ley provides a brief history of the aphorism in Dutch/Flemish as well as some ruminations on the aphorism as an art form. The book is remarkable in that it is a personal manifesto, a concise anthology of Dutch/Flemish aphorisms, and a detailed bibliography all at the same time. De Ley even suggests some of his own ‘laws’ of the aphorism: It must be short, independent (as in standing apart from any other text), subjective/personal, and use such devices as paradox, antithesis, and humor. He says that an aphorism inhabits a mental and literary space defined by three points: poetry, philosophy, and cabaret. The inclusion of cabaret may sound strange to non-Flemish readers, but the kind of cabaret De Ley has in mind is unique to the Low Countries and is a mix of stand-up comedy, Sunday sermonizing (without the preachy-ness), and musical theater. “The aphorism is a parasite,” De Ley writes. “It finds its nourishment, roots itself in and grows from thoughts and experiences.”

A selection of De Ley’s own aphorisms, from Undictated Thoughts (translated by David Potter):

Some dignitaries look like they last laughed fifteen years ago and still regret it.

Theft becomes property.

He who is looking for a donkey always will find a mirror.

He who really deserves his medals never wears them.

When you deserve applause there is rarely an audience.

Praise is meant to be accepted, not to be confirmed.

The lightest will float the longest.

He who has more memories than plans is old.

On Teeth

Teeth are the feet of the mouth. Overlooked and unloved, they crunch through rough vegetal underbrush and wade knee-deep through vast morasses of meat. Teeth are remorseless, durable, cruel. They can grind, gnash, or bite through almost anything given long enough to chew. Yet we tend to ignore them, unless they cause us pain. Who notices their feet unless there is a stone in their shoe? At other times, we just brush them off, childishly thinking that if lost they will grow back again. But that’s not true. Missing teeth leave holes in everything we do. Without feet in our mouths, we couldn’t even eat our words.

A version of this abbreviated essay appears in the December issue of Ode.

Aphorisms by George Polya, Part II

I don’t know much about mathematics (as the saying goes), but I know what I like … and I like George Polya’s style. A lot of the mathematics in his books is way over my head, but nearly every page has some memorable phrase or keen insight into human nature, the psychology of invention, or the process of discovery. Here’s Polya describing, with great perceptiveness and mathematical precision, the experience of wrestling with a problem:

“Your mind becomes selective; it becomes more accessible to anything that appears to be connected with the problem, and less accessible to anything that seems unconnected. You eagerly seize upon any recollection, remark, suggestion, or fact that could help you to solve your problem, and you shut the door upon other things. When the door is so tightly shut that even the most urgent appeals of the external world fail to reach you, people say that you are absorbed.”

Polya’s own sayings may be ostensibly about problem-solving in mathematics, but his shrewdness and humor make them easily adaptable to solving any kind of problem …

To be a good mathematician, or a good gambler, or good at anything, you must be a good guesser.

If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.

Examine your guess. Many a guess has turned out to be wrong but nevertheless useful in leading to a better one.

No idea is really bad, unless we are uncritical. What is really bad is to have no idea at all.

If you cannot solve the proposed problem, try to solve first some related problem.

The more ambitious plan may have more chance of success.

More questions may be easier to answer than just one question.

Look at the unknown. Try to think of a familiar problem having the same unknown.

The first rule of discovery is to have brains and good luck. The second rule of discovery is to sit tight and wait till you get a bright idea.

Look around you when you have got your first mushroom or made your first discovery; they grow in clusters.

When you have satisfied yourself that the theorem is true, you start proving it.

Aphorisms by George Polya, Part I

George Polya was born in Budapest, but left Europe for America in 1940. He became a professor of mathematics at Stanford University and remained at Stanford for the rest of his life. He worked on a wide variety of mathematical subjects but is best remembered for his classification of “wallpaper patterns,” the 17 symmetry groups found in any given plane. Polya’s description of these patterns fascinated the artist M.C. Escher, who based many of his works on these tessellations.

Polya is also remembered for his ideas about problem-solving and how it should be taught and carried out. In his book How To Solve it, Polya created a set of heuristic strategies for solving mathematical problems. He even cited a small collection of proverbs that he felt represented his approach.

“Solving problems is a fundamental human activity,” he wrote. “In fact, the greater part of our conscious thinking is concerned with problems … Some people are more and others less successful in attaining their ends and solving their problems. Such differences are noticed, discussed, and commented upon, and certain proverbs seem to have preserved the quintessence of such comments … It would be foolish to regard proverbs as an authoritative source of universally applicable wisdom but it wold be a pity to disregard the graphic description of heuristic procedures provided by proverbs.”

But Polya was more than anthologist; he was a talented aphorist himself. His problem-solving strategies are couched in concise, memorable sentences. First, some of Polya’s collected proverbs are appended below; tomorrow, some of his own aphorisms.

Polya’s Proverbs
Being a collection of wise words on the subject of solving problems

Who understands ill, answers ill.

Think on the end before you begin.

A wise man begins in the end, a fool ends in the beginning.

Try all the keys in the bunch.

Do and undo, the day is long enough.

A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.

If you will sail without danger you must never put to sea.

We soon believe what we desire.

Do it by degrees.

He thinks not well who thinks not again.