The Wise Proverb

If you face a tough problem, obvious solutions will usually not suffice. To tackle truly tricky challenges, you need unusual approaches. Creative thinking techniques can help you find such approaches.

There are many thinking techniques to choose from. Some are easy, others require a bit of practice. But all have one thing in common; they make you approach your challenge from a different angle.

The technique I’d like to share with you this week is ‘The Wise Proverb’. It’s very similar to the False rule’ technique, though a bit more difficult. Where the false rule forces you to use a rule out of context, the Wise Proverb makes you apply a random saying to your challenge. The more inapplicable your saying seems, the more powerful it tends to be.

The Wise Proverb is a technique that consists of three simple steps:

Step 1. Pick a random proverb
It doesn’t matter where you find your saying. Grab a dictionary of proverbs, search for a random saying online or use a pre-compiled list of proverbs, like the one at the bottom of this article. Whatever you do, make sure you pick the saying at random.

Step 2. What’s its meaning?
Write down the message this proverb is trying to convey. Use a dictionary or the power of the Internet if you are not familiar with the saying.

Step 3. Connect the proverb to your challenge
What kind of ideas does this random saying spark? How can you apply its wisdom in your current situation? The less sense the saying initially seems to make, the better. It will force you to come up with unusual solutions.


Let’s take a look at how this technique works in practice:

Office noise
Imagine you are struggling with a common office frustration. You have lots of work to do, but during the day you can’t concentrate because of the noise. Sound carries through the building and colleagues are not particularly quiet…

After many unproductive hours in the office, you decide to give ‘The Wise Proverb’ a try.

Step 1. Pick a random proverb:
You grab your Dictionary of Proverbs from the shelf, and you open it at a random page. The first proverb you see is ‘The early bird catches the worm’.

Step 2. What’s its meaning?
Luckily you know the meaning of this one: if you want to be successful, start your day early.

Step 3. Connect the proverb to your challenge:
This is the tricky part. You now have to find ways to use this wisdom to tackle your challenge. An obvious solution would, of course, be: starting work an hour earlier. If you come in when nobody is at the office yet, you’ll have some time to do your work without being disturbed.

But creativity requires many ideas. So ask yourself: ‘what other, less obvious, ideas can you come up with?’

In this case, you might think of the following solutions:

– You can make an agreement with everybody in the office: the first two hours of the day are ‘silent hours’. Nobody is allowed to speak (unless you are in one of the allocated meeting rooms). This will give everybody at least two hours of undisturbed working time a day.

– Of course, this could also work the other way around. Perhaps people are only allowed to talk in the morning. This way early birds get rewarded with more ‘talking-hours’.

– You could also change your own working rituals. For instance, you could decide to start working at night, when nobody else is there to disturb you.

Of course, these are just some of the many possible ideas you could come up with. The longer you’ll think about the connection between the proverb and your challenge, the more ideas you’ll find.

Don’t be afraid to write down ideas that are only slightly related to the meaning of your proverb. If ‘catching worms’ (like you might do before a fishing trip) sparks an idea that has little to do with the meaning of the proverb, just write it down. You should be aiming for as many ideas as possible after all. Perhaps you take the early bird literally… Playing bird sounds in the office might very well calm people down. You could go one step further and start a campaign: ‘If it would scare the birds away… it’s too loud!’ In addition, you can even connect the bird-sound installation to a sound level meter. If the office noise exceeds a certain number of decibels, the bird sounds abruptly stop. This will subtly notify everyone in the office that they’ve been making too much noise.

As you can see, a single ‘random proverb’ can spark any number of ideas. Give it a try and see if it can lead you to a brilliant solution to your problem.

As you might not have a dictionary of proverbs on your shelf, here’s a list of 6 random proverbs to get you going:

1. “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”

2. “The early bird catches the worm.”

3. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.”

4. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. “

5. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

6. “Good things come to those who wait.”

The next time you face a tough challenge, just roll a dice and let the proverb that matches your number guide you towards a creative solution.


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Showing 2 comments
  • Peter

    Wow, this is really nice.

    Good advise you are giving here, even while reading I could see it happening.

    As timemanager the example of too much noise also relates to what I hear very often. People do complain there is too much noise, they cannot concentrate, people walking around all day, they cannot focus. I have a set of advises that I give, and that might be even more thanks to this article. I’m going to do some creative thinking on how I can help my customer focus and concentrate more using this technique!

    Thank you for the inspiration!

    • René de Ruijter

      Hi Peter, thank you for the nice words. Please let me know what you came up with while using this technique!

      Best regards,

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