A Day Late and a Dollar Short

It’s hard to explain, even now as an adult with grown children of my own, how terribly hurtful it was to hear my parents, teachers and coaches tell me I was “a day late and a dollar short” when they were disappointed in me. Upon reflection, I ask myself how has such a simple line managed to stay relevant for nearly a century? After all, the oldest known use of the phrase in print was in a 1939 cartoon. The idiom was most certainly in common use before that, and likely has its roots in the Great Depression, where general poverty was common among most American citizens.

It’s one thing to fail from lack of preparation. But having someone tell you that your effort and participation simply wasn’t enough to succeed can be especially hard to stomach. Imparting this same lesson to our children, while unpleasant, is critically important.

You see, these bitter trials are often disguised as lessons and teachable moments. If someone tells you that you’re “a day late and a dollar short,” take the criticism and look for ways to incorporate small changes that will promote improvement. Lack of preparation can be a sign of avoiding what you fear.  For example, if you fear public speaking, then you more than likely avoid practicing and preparing to improve. Instead, you should sign up for a public speaking class! If you can’t make a basketball free throw? Practice makes permanent. Sub-par skills at Excel and PowerPoint? There are thousands of free online tutorials to follow. When we teach our own children, it’s important to remind them that we are 100% responsible for our own lives.  Lead by example.

Now that we’ve shared the need for preparation, let’s turn to another idiom that provides wisdom about prejudice.  Do you remember being told as a kid, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? This phrase seems self-explanatory, as people often do decide on reading or buying a book solely based on the cover art and design. As a result, they may overlook a book simply because the cover appears plain or uninteresting to them. However, by opening the book up and paying attention to what’s inside, they may find it interesting after all.

The phrase goes back to at least the mid-19th century, paraphrased here from a Piqua Democrat newspaper article in June 1867: “Don’t judge a book by its cover, see a man by his cloth, as there is often a good deal of solid worth and superior skill underneath a…jacket and yaller pants.” More recently, the phrase has been attributed to a 1944 edition of the African journal American Speech: “You can’t judge a book by its binding.” It was solidified in popular culture when it appeared in the 1946 murder mystery “Murder in the Glass Room” by Lester Fuller and Edwin Rolfe: “You can never tell a book by its cover.”

We often use this phrase to remind children not to judge a person based on their appearance, but we adults should be equally cautious about taking things at face value. Like the phrase “a day late and a dollar short,” which cautions against failing to meet expectations, “don’t judge a book by its cover” functions as a reminder that we should not judge other people, places, products or career opportunities based solely upon outward appearances. When recruiting new team members, it’s important to be discerning but also open-minded; someone who lacks experience can make up for it with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. Appearances aren’t everything. The same goes for new career opportunities. Most people seeking a new job or making a career change are looking for an experience that will be exciting, fulfilling, high-profile and financially rewarding. It’s easy then, to be seduced by the overstated claims and false promises of some less scrupulous employers which causes us to overlook solid leads.

We should keep these pocket-sized pieces of wisdom with us as we – and our children – move to new life stages. Humility is one of the most important qualities a servant leader can have. Our successes fuel our desire for greatness, but our failures remind us of the pitfalls of mediocrity. The fear of being “a day late and a dollar short” should motivate all of us to hustle harder and faster. As children, we are gently reminded to be kind to others even if they look different or eat different food than we’re used to. Great success and happiness in business and life comes from being prepared and open to new people and experiences.


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