As children, we make mistakes – hopefully not serious ones – and learn to correct them. We learn to apologize to those who have been wronged and follow advice on how to do better next time. We begin filing away these teachable moments and eventually pass them on to our own children. But oftentimes something else happens: on the way to adulthood, passing through puberty and adolescence, we many times decide that what we learned as children is “childish.” Well, I think that’s a big mistake. Do you remember when ‘grown ups’ used phrases like “the grass is always greener on the other side,” “don’t be a pot calling the kettle black,” or “don’t cry over spilt milk.” These phrases are not pabulum, nor childish, and hold profoundly meaningful lessons for us as adults.
For example, assuming that the grass is always greener on the other side means that people always think they would be happier in a different set of circumstances. They compare themselves to others and assume everyone is happier and more successful. But the real message adults are trying to get across to children is that we must make our own happiness and success.
The phrase appeared in an American song titled “The Grass is Always Greener in the Other Fellow’s Yard,” written by Raymond B. Egan and Richard A. Whiting and published in 1924, but we see references to it as far back as the poet Ovid (43 BC – 17 or 18 AD). In his “Art of Love” he wrote, “The harvest is always richer in another man’s field.” There are other proverbs with the same sentiment: “The apples on the other side of the wall are the sweetest”; “Our neighbor’s hen seems a goose”; and “Your pot broken seems better than my whole one.” These all have the same theme about others having it better, even if it’s not true. Celebrity athletes, movie stars and musicians go through the same struggles as us. Even the rich and beautiful may face tragedy, heartbreak and financial ruin. The truth is, the grass isn’t greener; it’s just grass.
Moreover, in the social media era, it’s easy to assume that one’s Instagram profile reflects real life, rather than simply being a highlight reel. This faulty logic applies to business as well. It’s convenient to blame others for our failures and shortcomings, and it’s human nature to covet others’ perceived successes. ‘I’d be happier if I made more money’ or ‘If only I had gone to business school, then I could be successful like John’ are all phrases we hear uttered all too often.
But we must focus on what we do possess, what is in our power to act upon. There is no use in coveting that which we cannot have. Take control and responsibility for your life, happiness and success. Water your own plot of land and the grass will turn greener. Adopting a ‘woe is me’ attitude and dwelling on the situation are not helpful or a productive way to move forward. Instead of “crying over spilt milk,” we have to find a way to grow and learn from unfortunate circumstances.
Let’s look at another famous idiom. One of the earliest uses of the phrase “no use crying over spilt milk” comes from a book called “Once A Week” (1872). But would it surprise you to know that the phrase has been used since at least 1852? It’s even been said that James Howell, a historian and writer, used the phrase in a book in 1659. This means that for over 350 years, we have been told to deal with the negative in our lives and just move on. If we cried over everything that went wrong or made us upset, we wouldn’t be able to learn from our mistakes and reach a happier and more successful future. More to the point, if you are cyring over the spilled milk, guess what you are not doing? Cleaning it up! This proverb tells us to fix the problem and stop complaining. Still upset over a sale that didn’t close? Or a bad day at the office last week? Crying over split milk from five minutes ago is just as useless as crying over something that happened a year ago. You are in the wrong mental place to learn from failure in order to improve in your future.
Similarly, warning someone about the “pot calling the kettle black” calls on us to pause and look inward at our own shortcomings, however minor, before criticizing another. Are we being contradictory or hypocritical? This phrase stems back to at least the 1600s, when pots and kettles were both warmed over open flames, turning copper finishes black with ash and smoke. It suggests a certain blindness to one’s own personal characteristics. We must avoid the temptation to call out someone else when they err, as we know that all humans make mistakes. Instead, lend words of encouragement and support. Be a better colleague and mentor, and challenge yourself and those around you to do what is right and just.
While these three sayings are most commonly used to teach children, they each have important reminders for those of us who have aged into the business world. The things we learn as children aren’t childish at all. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from these idioms.
In business, you can’t continue to make the same mistakes without consequences. You’ll plateau, incur the wrath of your colleagues, or worse yet, get fired. Each failure should contribute to growth and change. While working to further your own future, you must remember not to get sidetracked by others’ perceived successes, instead focus on your own progression and wellbeing.
Not only do these idioms provide children with guidance, they also remind adults that to be human is to err and we must be conscious of that reality. As we go about our business and grow as adults and employees, we learn that everyone has hidden troubles and the seemingly greener grass may simply be an illusion. The only way to move forward from misfortune is to grow and learn from it.