Proverbs and Parables: Advice that Sticks

Sung Hee Kim, University of Kentucky

We advisers wear many hats, including those of guidance counselor, motivator, cheerleader, and life coach. As such, we give many suggestions to students, ranging from the general—“keep trying,” “aim high, jump even higher,” “you can do it, go for it,” “manage your time well”—to the specific—“while studying or attending class, make sure to turn your phone off,” “go to every class,” “if you are an evening person, don’t sign up for an 8:00 a.m. class, if avoidable,” “sit in a front row in class,” etc. Perhaps more often than not, however, our advice has little staying power in students’ minds, and important changes fail to happen.

What’s an adviser to do? Arguably, advice is most effective if it first sticks in students’ minds (Gino, 2013; Heath & Heath, 2007; Kim, 2014), and I have found proverbs and parables to be helpful in this regard. Most of them are simple, concrete, and credible, and many tell a story. These features are exactly what some researchers claim can make things memorable (Heath & Heath, 2007).

Below are examples of three proverbs I often use with students who are in certain situations and facing particular challenges. Let’s start with students we might call “Regretters.”

Regretters

Scenario: An advisee in her senior year asked about the likelihood she would be accepted into a clinical psychology graduate program. She revealed that, although her GPA is decent, she had little research and clinical experiences, two of the most important components in graduate school applications for clinical psychology. Her eyes filled with tears, and she expressed deep regret about how unwisely she spent the previous three years.

I see many students in this predicament. Facing approaching graduation, students like her often seem to be trapped in cycles of regrets and self-reproach. Though reflecting on and even regretting past choices can serve a useful purpose by helping us to avoid poor decisions in the future, regret and its frequent companion, rumination (repetitive thoughts), often tax our limited cognitive resources—the mental energy we need to move forward (Lyubomirsky, Tucker, Caldwell, & Berg, 1999; Ray, Wilhelm, & Gross, 2008). Chronic regret is linked with a variety of negative outcomes such as low life satisfaction, poor mental health, high self-blame, and frequent physical illnesses (Bauer & Wrosch, 2011; Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002).

What proverb might help students like this advisee redirect their cognitive resources toward a desired future self?

This is the one I use:

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time to plant a tree is NOW.

I urge my students to say this Chinese proverb aloud several times. I often join them in reciting it. Afterward, we explore what they could do now. In most cases, once students start to focus on NOW, they seem better able to calm down and come up with several solutions. One student, for example, thought about volunteering at a mental health clinic to gain clinical experience and also contacting clinical faculty members for a possible research assistant position. She even entertained the idea of delaying graduation one semester so she could gain necessary experience.

I often find ways to reinforce the proverb. Before students leave my office, I might urge them to recite this proverb whenever they catch themselves falling into the automatic default setting of regret and rumination. If I see them on campus, I might ask, “The best time to plant a tree was how many years ago?” “Twenty years ago,” they reply. Then I ask, “The second best time to plant a tree is …?” They usually say with a laugh, “NOW!”

Pessimists

Scenario: One evening at 10:00 p.m., I received an emergency email from an advisee. Although I had difficulty discerning the exact nature of her problem, one thing was clear: She was in a whirlpool of panic. I responded by asking her to meet with me the following morning at which time she arrived wearing a “my life is ruined” look. I urged her to breathe deeply and tell me her story. She explained she had received a rejection email regarding a research assistant position she had applied for. She had high hopes for this position, as it would have allowed her to work with a professor whose research interests aligned well with hers. Now she worried she may not receive any offer for a research assistant position in other labs.

Students like this advisee tend to see life events, even minor ones, mainly through pessimistic lenses and worry excessively about outcomes yet to occur. Ample research shows the detrimental effects of pessimism (and the upside of appropriate optimism) on many domains such as mental and physical health, academic performance, and coping strategies (Carver, Scheier, & Segerstrom, 2010).

My assurances of “don’t worry, everything will be okay” and “of course you will work with a different professor” seemed barely to register. My words needed a more effective way to reframe a negative event.

For students like this, an effective proverb might be:

It takes time to know whether good luck turns out to be bad luck, or bad luck to be good luck.

I tell the students this proverb is an interpretation of a Korean saying, “Saeongjima” (say-ong-jay-mah), which means “the horse of an elderly man living on the border.” After telling them there are several versions and interpretations of the parable (i.e., life is full of ups and downs), I proceed with the story below and the interpretation I grew up with, which is similar to the one Smith (2015) describes:

Once upon a time in Northern China, an old man lived in a village near the border of a barbarian country. One day, his horse, his most valuable property, ran away across the border. All villagers came to offer their sympathy to the old man: “We’re sorry about your misfortune. It is a terrible loss.”

To their surprise, the old man did not appear to be that upset. All he said was, “Who knows?”

Several months later, his horse came back—with a wild horse. This time, all villagers rushed to the old man’s house to congratulate him for his luck: “We’re very happy with your good fortune. How lucky you are! Not only did you get your horse back but also you now have another horse.”

Once again, to their surprise, the old man did not appear to be that happy. All he said was, “Who knows?”

One day, his only son fell from the wild horse and became permanently disabled.

Once again, all villagers came to offer their sympathy to the old man: “We’re terribly sorry about your son’s injury. What bad luck!”

The villagers were expecting a strong reaction from the old man this time. After all, his only son became disabled, which reduced the son’s marriage prospects to almost zero. But to their surprise, the old man did not appear to be that upset. All he said was, “Who knows?”

Sometime later, a war broke out between China and the barbarian country. By the king’s order, all young men of the village were forced to go to the war; none came back home alive. There was only one young man who was spared this fate—the old man’s son. Because of his disability, he was not forced into the war. Soon, he married and had many children, which made the old man very happy.

After telling this story, I emphasize its take-home message: Like the old man, we should not dwell on misfortunes. Rather, as he did, we should frame our misfortunes as harbingers of possible good outcomes in the long run.

I urge students to say aloud, “It could be Saeongjima!” whenever they experience a misfortune. More often than not, students discover that things do turn out for the better; their misfortune (missing out on that research assistant position, for example) can lead to a better research assistant position in the end. Perhaps the misfortune causes the student to consider and choose a better set of actions that increases their chance of getting what they have wanted. Quite often I will come across students who have experienced the wisdom of the proverb, and they say to me, “Saeongjima!”

Another category of students in need of a proverb might be called “Quitters.”

Quitters

Scenario: One advisee wanted to drop his chemistry class after receiving a D on the first test. I gently probed the implication of dropping the course, as it is a requirement of the pre-med program he desired. With a dejected look on his face, he mumbled, “Well, I can’t do chemistry. There goes my dream of going to medical school.” Based on his grim expression, I realized that my suggestions—How about getting a tutor? How about regularly meeting with the TA and the instructor? How about taking it next semester? How about joining a study group?—would do little for him in his current state.

Some students, like this advisee, at the first sign of academic difficulty (e.g., a bad grade on the first quiz), want to drop the course, or, in extreme cases, to change their major rather than give themselves time to persistently work at the task. Needless to say, dropping a course or changing a major can be a wise course of action. If students are not well prepared for a course (e.g., calculus), remaining in it will likely result in a bad grade, which, in some cases, could lead to losing a scholarship or failing to meet time-sensitive criteria. If students struggle with natural science courses, it may be wise to reconsider plans for medical school.

Yet for various reasons—fear of failure perhaps—some students seem ready to quit at the first sign of difficulty. By giving up too quickly and easily, students miss opportunities to learn to be resilient and perseverant. Fostering these qualities actually requires setbacks and failures. In addition, readily quitting over challenging tasks confirms and strengthens the fixed mindset (a belief that one’s intelligence or talent is innate; as such, efforts would not improve intelligence) (Dweck, 2000). Dweck and her colleagues’ research (2007) showed that students with a fixed mindset demonstrate poorer academic performance. By contrast, students with a growth mindset (a belief that one’s intelligence or talent is not innate but is something one can improve with effort and hard work) enjoyed an improving academic performance (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). The advisee’s comment, “I can’t do chemistry,” hints at his fixed mindset. In fact, we hear from many students, “I’m not good at _________.” We can easily fill in the blank with math, languages, writing, research, etc.

The proverb I use here is:

“Fall down seven times; get up eight.”

After offering this proverb (a Chinese, Korean, and Japanese proverb), I often talk about a South Korean woman in her 60s who had attempted a written driver’s license test for four years, spending more than $42,000 in application fees. She failed, failed, failed, but never gave up. In fact, she “fell down” numerous times (949 times to be exact), but she would right away stand up and try again. Finally on her 950th try, she passed the test by a score of 60 out of 100 (Associated Press, 2009).

The proverb, along with the story, seems to nudge students toward giving themselves the chance to remain persistent, despite the risk of failure and even actual failures. At minimum it seems to offer students a ready example of persistence that leads to ultimate success.

Students who decide to stay in a chemistry class in which they initially perform poorly may not receive the “A” they wished for, but even earning a “B” is a step toward mastery, accomplishment, and a different mindset for the future. Without persistence in the face of failure, these outcomes would never happen.

In Closing

Advisers offer a variety of advice to our students, but the staying power of our comments appears to be short-lived in students’ minds. I have found that proverb- and parable-based guidance can enhance the stickiness of the advice, often resulting in desirable outcomes for the students. Although I have not systematically compared the effectiveness of proverb-based vs. nonproverb-based advice, I can say that my students seem to remember proverbs and stories much better than other types of advice I have given to them. In many cases, these proverbs seem to prevent students from falling into automatic default settings of unproductive thinking patterns.

References

Associated Press (2009, November 6). South Korean woman passes driver’s exam after 950 tries. Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/south-korean-woman-passes-driver-exam-950-article-1.414360

Bauer, I., & Wrosch, C. (2011). Making up for lost opportunities: The protective role of downward social comparisons for coping with regrets across adulthood. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 215–228.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246–263.

Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism. Clinical Psychology Review30, 879–889.

Connolly, T., & Zeelenberg, M. (2002). Regret in decision making. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 212–216.

Dweck, C. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Boca Raton, FL: Psychology Press.

Gino, F. (2013). Sidetracked: Why our decisions get derailed, and how we can stick to the plan. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York, NY: Random House.

Kim, S. H. (2014, February 26). Evidence-based (simple but effective) advice for college students: Microaction and macrochange. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from https://dus.psu.edu/mentor

Lyubomirsky, S., Tucker, K. L., Caldwell, N. D., & Berg, K. (1999). Why ruminators are poor problem solvers: Clues from the phenomenology of dysphoric rumination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1041–1060.

Ray, R. D., Wilhelm, F. H., & Gross, J. J. (2008). All in the mind’s eye? Anger rumination and reappraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 133–145.

Smith, R. H. (2015, March 19). It takes patience to know bad luck from good luck. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/joy-and-pain/201503/it-takes-patience-know-bad-luck-good-luck

About the Author(s)

Sung Hee Kim, University of Kentucky

Sung Hee Kim, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of Advising in Psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. She can be reached at shkim00@uky.edu.

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