- The Cliche Clean-Up: Making Our Old-School Sayings Work For Us
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July 14, 2023

If there's one thing I've discovered during my explorations at the crossroads of coach, work, and life, it's this: Our language is the mirror to our minds. And guess what, folks? The mirror is coated with cliches. 

We seem to have a profound love for recycling these well-worn phrases. They are the linguistic fast food of our communication — convenient but not necessarily nourishing.

Now you may be thinking, "Hey, George, aren't cliches just harmless sayings?" In the grand scheme of life, they may seem insignificant. Yet, these time-tested truisms are powerful tools that shape our identity, culture, and behavior. What's truly interesting is the cliches themselves and what they say about us as individuals and communities.

Research into linguistic relativity and cognition suggest that language doesn't merely reflect our thought processes but actively shapes them. If this holds, then cliches — the currency of our everyday conversation — wield far more power than we'd imagine.

The cliches we default to reveal much about our personalities, values, and outlook on life. For example, if we keep stating, "It is what it is," it could indicate a level of acceptance or even fatalism. If "Every cloud has a silver lining" is our go-to phrase, we might be optimistic or at least hopeful in the face of adversity.

But here's the kicker, friends. It's not just about recognizing these cliches and their potential meanings; it's about actively challenging them, testing them, and, when necessary, rewriting them. Our challenge is to interrogate our cliches to check if they still hold relevance in our lives if they truly reflect who we are, and if they align with the principles we wish to embody. Think of it as spring cleaning for our linguistic closets.

So instead of saying, "Better late than never," why not encourage timeliness and respect for others' schedules with something like, "Better on time than testing patience"? Or instead of "You can't have your cake and eat it too," why not promote abundance thinking with, "There's enough cake for everyone"?

A study from the University of California found that tweaking common phrases can change people's actions and attitudes. If we reframe our cliches, we can subtly nudge our behaviors and perspectives in the desired direction. Consider this my call to arms, a rallying cry, if you will. Let's start paying more attention to our cliches. Are they just thoughtless verbal habits, or are they subtly shaping our attitudes and behaviors? If it's the latter, are they nudging us in the right direction, or are we parroting words that perpetuate values and norms we'd rather not endorse?

In other words, let's make our cliches work for us, not against us. After all, words aren't just sounds that fill silence; they're the building blocks of our thoughts, values, and actions.

The choice is in our hands. Let's stop using cliches as conversational crutches and start wielding them as tools for personal and societal change. Language, cliches included, is a powerful weapon. It's time we learn how to use it to our advantage.

Here are a few of my own twists:

"Money can't buy happiness."

Now, we all know what this one is getting at, but it seems a bit too cynical, doesn't it? Instead, let's flip it and dip it into positivity. How about "Money can't buy happiness, but it can fund the search"? This acknowledges that while wealth isn't a magic ticket to joy, it can provide opportunities for fulfilling experiences and alleviate certain stresses

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks."

Well, that's just ageist, isn't it? Our capacity to learn doesn't evaporate as we age. Let's refresh this cliche with a more growth-oriented mindset: "You're never too old to learn a new trick." Not only does this version embrace lifelong learning, but it also emphasizes our potential for constant growth, no matter our age.

"All good things must come to an end."

Sure, nothing lasts forever, but this one feels like a buzzkill, doesn't it? Let's rephrase it to capture the full scope of life's cycle: "When one good thing ends, another begins." Now that's a whole lot more positive! It recognizes the inevitable endings, but also looks forward to the new beginnings they make room for.

"Better safe than sorry."

This one tends to encourage risk aversion. But hey, taking calculated risks is part of life and often leads to growth. Let's tweak it to: "Better to risk and learn than always play it safe." It propels us to step out of our comfort zones, learn from our mistakes, and grow.

"Don't put all your eggs in one basket."

While diversification is generally a smart strategy, this cliche can discourage full commitment to a single path or goal. What about: "Carefully choose your basket, then commit your eggs." This version emphasizes informed decision-making and the value of dedicated effort.

With a bit of linguistic vigilance, we could see cliches for what they are: opportunities. Opportunities to reflect on our values, our biases, and our goals. Opportunities to mold our thoughts, change our actions, and shape our communities.

So the next time you catch yourself or a friend dropping a cliche, take a moment. Ponder. Reflect. Challenge. Because, as they say, words have power. And cliches? They're no exception.

author avatar
George Morris
I use my 20+ years of entrepreneurial experience and training to coach businesses on scaling up rapidly using Verne Harnish's Scaling Up framework. By doing so, my clients are more efficient and profitable, giving them the ability to make bigger impacts in the world. I deeply believe entrepreneurs are the best equipped to be the vehicle for meaningful change, and in the decade ahead, we'll see a substantial shift in how business is done. We'll move to a model where company purpose, impact, curiosity, and team health will be differentiators in overall business success. As Simon Sinek has pointed out, the finite games are the legacy of the past; we're moving to an infinite game.