(Edited to be more clear)

One can find plenty of witty advice catch phrases that appear to be in direct conflict with each other: "Early bird gets the work, but the second mouse gets the cheese" (from a comment below)

You can also find this with things that are more detailed frames than cliche advice. One that I've been mulling over is "decision makers need skin in the game to not be act stupid" and "asymmetric justice (people being punished for messing up) incentives inaction."

The "quality" of any advice varies wildly with what you are trying to do and what your specific context is. It's not going to be the case that the "best" thing for everyone to do is either follow the mandate of "have skin in the game" or "avoid asymmetric justice". In fact, you might be thinking about ways that those to ideas aren't even really at odds with each other. Yet my personal experience was hearing about skin in the game, going "that sounds obviously important", hearing about asymmetric justice and going "this sounds obviously important", and later in a conversation with a friend going, "Wait a second, my low resolution understanding of these ideas puts them in direct odds with each other."

I've learned a bit from hunting for pairs of advice/principles that both sound like good ideas to me, but at first glance seem to be at odds. Then exploring "why do they feel like they conflict?" Sometimes I find that they don't actually advise completely different approaches. Sometimes I find that each piece of advice is paying attention to a different dimension of trade off, and that conceivably I could do well by paying attention to each dimension separately.

I'm inviting people to use this post to document paradoxes you find in your own thinking. Explore where the sense of conflict comes from, what there is to learn from each side of the, what a synthesis might be, or when one might apply more than another.

Don't feel like you have to solve the whole thing, just try and unravel the problem space a bit.


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I once saw a meme that said "If actions speak louder than words, why is the pen mightier than the sword?"

"Learn from the best" vs "Don't watch what others do"

(variations "steal the best ideas" "don't reinvent the wheel", "do it yourself" "be original")

I've seen this conflict pop up both in the context of doing original research, and in making good art. On the art side, I've seen people warn me against watching too much magic, because then you start to sound and act just like everyone else.

Limits of Imagination

You have ideas about what is and isn't possible. Sometimes watching other people is awesome, because they boost you imagination by expanding what you thought was possible. It seems like the limiting move here is to let other people define your sense of possibility, rather than augment it. Maybe a catch phrase might be "Always let people tell you what is possible. Don't let them tell you what is impossible."

How to actually learn from others

One important dynamic is different ways you can acquire knowledge, skill, style. People seem to agree that if you discover a proof yourself, write your own code, create your own script, it sticks a lot more than if you just do/use what someone else tells you. People warning against "steal from the best" could be worried about you getting the trappings of an idea but not the actually useful stuff (don't cargo cult). People warning against "do it yourself" could be worried about you not being able to derive chemistry from scratch. David Chapman describes a nice interplay in upgrade your cargo cult for the win.

There's a problem solving move like "look directly at what the problem is and dwell on it" (similar to hold off on proposing solutions). In my mind I stereotype experts and more well read people to be likely to propose solutions right away. An outsider has no frame for the problem, and thus is forced to think directly about it. Now that I think about it, it seems that the "look at the problem" move doesn't have to be connected to your experience. You could put intentional effort into training this while still learning how people in a given field typically attack problems.

"Early bird catches the worm" + "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today"

vs "Look before you leap" + "Think before you speak"

Not completely opposites (I assume you are not expected to think 24 hours before you speak), but still going in the opposite direction: "act quickly" vs "be careful, slow down".

Advantages of acting later:

  • more time to think about consequences, can possibly lead to better choice of words or action;
  • you might even realize that not doing it or remaining silent is actually a better choice here.

Advantages of acting sooner:

  • being the first one gives you a competitive advantage;
  • ceteris paribus, people who act faster are more productive.

When I put it this way, I guess the important factor is how likely taking more time will allow you to make a better choice. When different actions can bring wildly different outcomes, take your time to choose the right one. On the other hand, if the results will be pretty much the same anyway, stop wasting time and do it now.

Specifically, when talking, taking time to reflect is usually the right choice. It doesn't necessarily improve the typical outcome, but may avoid a big negative outcome once in a while.

Problematic situations:

When there is a person you would like to approach... is it better to wait and prepare your words (risking that the situation chances, e.g. the person leaves, their phone will ring, or someone else will approach them) or act quickly (and risk making a bad first impression by saying something stupid, or just not focusing on the right thing)?

When starting a company... how much time should you spend analyzing the market, et cetera? There is a risk that you will spend the next few years doing what was predictably the wrong choice. On the other hand, markets change, you won't get perfect information anyway, and someone else might do the thing you wanted to do first and take over the market.

Early bird gets the work, but the second mouse gets the cheese. (From Steven Pinker, I think, not sure if it's original)

Was thinking of the same comment. Heard it from my nephew when he was living in my house shortly after he graduated.

FYI -- https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/25/second-mouse/ , the quip appears to go back to at least 1994.

I do see this...

"Work hard to reach your goals" vs. "Wish for it, and the universe will grant it to you"

"Stand out from the crowd" vs. "the tallest blades of grass get mowed down"

"Find the happy medium" vs. "Don't confirm to peer pressure"

We're surrounded by catchphrases of all kinds. Pick your favorite and let it motivate you! Often, answers are not succinct and we have to analyze them after saying "It depends". A strait and narrow path will have danger on both sides, and safety in the middle. The extremes are what we hear most...don't be far left or far right. Well, there is something to learn from each side to further reinforce our individually unique positions. What works for us may not work for others...but we can still preach what we practice.

"Necessity is the mother of invention" and "You can be more innovative with your hobbies than your job"

My current guess is that the difference has something to do with the context that is "demanding" innovation from you. "Necessity" makes thing of being trapped in a mine shaft and I need to find a way out, and the contexts of jobs and reliability in Sarah's post seem to be a much more abstract necessity. Yes, maybe you "need" to pay the bills, but maybe you know in the back of your head that you always have the option of going back on the job market.

I'm curious if something like "entitlement" is at play. I can imagine having a problem in my life that I more or less need to solve, but being stalled and angry and upset because for some reason I feel like I shouldn't have this problem. That feels like a very different mindset from the mineshaft.

Still dwelling on this one...

Hazzard, I don't think you're suggesting that such a paradoxical situation is necessarily false or wrong but wanted to check. If not, then part of the question might be when (necessary and sufficient condition if possible) are such paradoxes to be strongly questioned/challenged and when should we accept we do live in a world with paradoxes.

Looking at the equal and opposite link I came away with one main reaction: one size never fits all.

I realize I was a bit vague in my intro. I rewrote it. Does that address what you were thinking?

Yes, I think that helped.

Very relevant to this post:

"Don't over think things." versus "If it seems clear and obvious, you don't really understand it."

Thinking of the skin in the game and asymmetric justice example, I wonder if one aspect might be considering why the saying came about. Skin in the game seems to be something about *others* we interact with on something. We're happy to join in to play under those terms, perhaps some incentive to trust the other will also make an effort. The asymmetric justice aspect is more about how we might behave to a large extent independent of what the others are doing.

We might also want to say both are saying the same thing, but illustrating a different facet. If no one has any skin in the game how would mistakes be punished? The incentives for all having skin in the game is about getting people to join (play with the others) while the asymmetric justice incentive notes the cost of that buy-in to get a game played.

Not all all sure how far that get though. It is a very interesting thought you've given.