Let’s say you are presented with a risky investment opportunity. If the investment pays off, it pays off big. But there’s a chance it won’t pay off, and your investment will be lost. As you ponder what to do, an old chestnut comes to mind: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Aha! You have your answer. Until you remember that other chestnut: “Better safe than sorry.”

Both of these sayings pass themselves off as folk wisdom. But neither is “wisdom” in the sense of helping you know how to navigate the world. It is true that, in many areas of life, you can’t gain anything if you don’t risk anything. It is also true that, in many areas of life (and all things being equal), being safe is better than being sorry. The whole concept of risk revolves around the fact that both of those things are true simultaneously. The real use of these sayings is in a) providing language to justify what you have already decided to do or were inclined to do anyway, or b) giving you something to say after the fact, once a venture has either paid off or failed.

Once you start looking for contradictory nuggets of conventional wisdom, it’s surprising how many pairs you can come up with. “He who hesitates is lost.” But also, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” “The early bird gets the worm.” But also, “Good things come to those who wait.” Again, these sayings appear to be the sort of thing that can guide one’s choices; after all, each of them is true. You have seen people whose alacrity and decisiveness have gained good things for them, and you have also seen people whose patience has gained good things for them. The question isn’t whether or not these proverbs are true, but whether or not they are applicable to a given situation. And you don’t really know which proverb is applicable in a given situation until after you have seen the outcome.

The above proverbs are contradictory (and less useful than they appear) because they are so broadly true. If my risky investment fails, I can still say, “Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.” And if my risky investment succeeds, I can still agree that being safe is better than being sorry; I’m just relieved that, in this case, I wasn’t sorry. But there’s a whole other set of proverbs that contradict because they make specific claims that actually are incompatible.

Let’s say you have a sweetheart, and you and your sweetheart have to be apart for a period of time. You can comfort yourself with the old proverb, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Or you can torment yourself with another old proverb: “Out of sight, out of mind.” Which is it going to be? You’ll just have to wait to find out. If your sweetheart ghosts you, you can say, “It just goes to show: Out of sight out of mind.” If you and your sweetheart have a joyful reunion, you can say, “It just goes to show: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

Here are a few more pairs of contradictory proverbs:

  • “You’re never too old to learn.” vs. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
  • “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.” vs. “Misery loves company.”
  • “Many hands make light work.” vs. “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth.”
  • “Opposites attract.” vs. “Birds of a feather flock together.”
  • “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.” vs. “The more the merrier.”

None of these proverbs are much help in predicting what is going to happen in a situation. They are to be pulled out after the fact and prefaced (tacitly) with the clause, “It just goes to show that…” It just goes to show that birds of a feather flock together. It just shows that opposites attract. Actually, the unspoken preamble should probably be, “It just shows that, in this case…” It just goes to show, in this case, that birds of a feather flock together. Which isn’t especially helpful, but harmless enough—unless it turns into “I should have known that…” or “You should have known that…”

The contradictory nature of folk sayings is not a bug, but a feature. They allow you to nod sagely after the fact and say“I knew all along that…” or “I could have told you that…” Thanks to these contradictory old chestnuts, you can always be right—after the fact.

The logic reminds me of a baby doctor from my hometown. To a pregnant patient he would confidently announce what the sex of her baby was going to be. But in her chart, he would write the opposite. So he might say, “Mrs. Johnson, you are going to have a girl!” In Mrs. Johnson’s chart he would write “Baby’s sex: Male.” Then, if Mrs. Johnson had a girl, she would marvel at the doctor’s foresight. But if she had a boy, and if she questioned the doctor about it, he could point to the chart to show that he was right all along.

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