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  • Great Quotations and their explanations #1 “Where the road bends abruptly, take small steps.” Japanese Proverb

     

    Chalkboard small steps

    This is the first of many of my favourite quotations which I intend to thoroughly investigate one by one.  For me, nothing could be more natural than unravelling the deeper meaning in the short phrase handed down, perhaps by some giant of philosophy whose wisdom has survived some 87 generations of potentially withering academic scrutiny.   Not only survived, but prospered to become famous, commonplace, part of the shared sagacity of a population, possibly many populations.

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    If not from ancient thinker, the quote may be straight from a contemporary (or not long passed) author, blessed with an elevated intellect which he or she shared via their writing.  Otherwise it might arise from a business book written by a leader in their field, whose extraordinary clarity of vision proves their success was not simply a matter of luck.  And sometimes, a politician, a popular public figure or even someone like you and me can say something inspired in a flash of pure genius.  It might be a once in a lifetime thing so thank goodness it was recorded.

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    I’ve collected, filed and organised them all and to me, their weight in meaning when compared to entire books (which I also adore) is like rhodium compared to the random contents of a wheelie bin.  But I have learned courtesy of blank stares, puffed cheeks and frowns of disdain that not everyone is as impressed by these things as I am.

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    For some people, these quotes are little more than stating the bleeding obvious and so this little misunderstanding is where we will start.

    Why exactly does anyone need to be told that where the road bends abruptly, (we should) take small steps?  isn’t that just plain common sense?  Yep, and you know what they say about common sense (if not, fear not it’ll be the subject of one of these musings in the future).  The answer lies in human behaviour in its normal, daily functioning.

    Here are four of many aspects which can compromise our actions:

    1. Our basic estimation of ourselves is flawed. What we think we would do in a given situation, isn’t always what we actually do when the time comes
    2. Thinking and doing don’t always coincide. With our minds engaged to an idea we evaluate a situation and come to some sort of conclusion, but in everyday life, we often operate on a kind of autopilot, not actually engaging at all.  That’s one reason why when we think about it we would do something different to when we don’t think about it
    3. Movers and shakers versus, being moved and shaken. In order to actually cause some sort of outcome, we generally have to take action to be at cause, but much of the time people are at effect, simply suffering the consequences of events and the actions of others
    4. Here I go again! We are creatures of habit and so mostly repeat ourselves.  As do others and so we do what most other people do in similar circumstances most of the time.  It’s what makes us familiar and somewhat comfortable to others and also allows us to be a bit predictable.  That’s fine, unpredictable people can sometimes be unreliable or unsafe so what you sacrifice in terms of excitement, you get back in dependability.

     

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    So, where the road bends abruptly, take small steps say the Japanese.  Most quotes are self-explanatory, especially if they’re good ones and this is a good one and not especially dense so at the surface level it quite clearly means when things get more difficult, slow down, take a little extra care and to borrow a western version of the same sentiment, look before you leap, except that conjures up slightly more drama.  Don’t we all know to slow down for a sharp bend?  Apparently not, otherwise fewer vehicles would need pulling out of the hedge.

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    For one thing, we get complacent, simply carrying on numbly as if everything is blending into a mush of opaque mundanity and this tendency to repeat behaviours can lead us into trouble.  We make the same mistakes more than once, sometimes over and over like a broken record, hoping that one day things will turn out better and the universe will bestow the reward we have surely earned from all of our trouble, toil and failed attempts!  Well you know what they say about doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result right?

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    We also walk right into fresh problems because we missed the warning signs and thought things would be okay.  Sometimes that’s because we frequently possess a sense of immortality about ourselves, especially when young (it could never happen to me) and sometimes it’s because we have another bias which is to trust people even when we shouldn’t.

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    So what this Japanese proverb is saying is first: Recognize what’s different in a situation.  Eyes and ears open, be alert, life’s more fun for people who notice and time passes more slowly when you are engaged with the world so pay attention.

    Secondly, take small steps, so slow down, think, then act (test) notice what happens as a consequence, think, adjust, act and so on.  Fools rush in, you don’t have to.  Probably…

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    At some point in this series I’m certain to endorse another quote urging action, bravery and faith in your abilities, countering this one which advises caution and so seeming to contradict it.  Well, that’s the thing about quotes, there’s one for every occasion pretty much.  Of course the thing is; bravery sometimes, caution mostly, so you need to know when to apply which behaviour and that’s quite different from just wandering mindlessly into something and repeating your mistakes because you weren’t aware it was necessary to engage your intellect.

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    This also suggests a level of control and responsibility:  You are the driver in your life, paying attention to the road and slowing down for a sharp bend, not the passenger staring out the window and just letting all pass you by until you wake up upside down in a ditch.  Your life, your road, your journey, take charge, be responsible and enjoy it.

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