The title to this piece is perhaps one of the most valuable pieces of wisdom that can be imparted to young people as they begin to make their way through the complicated modern world.

More often than one might expect, though, young people resist understanding either the meaning or importance of putting the maxim into practice. Both are perhaps better grasped with a few examples of the power and utility of that wisdom.

Consider the child whose parents urge him to do better in school. He promises to try harder and get mostly A’s from now on. If he ends the term with A’s in five of his six classes, his parents are impressed. But if instead he gets all B’s he is likely to be criticized. The difference is simply where the bar of expectations is set. It is smart to set the bar low enough to be readily achievable (almost a sure thing, if possible), but high enough to warrant true appreciation for the achievement.

Doctors face these questions daily. How long am I going to have to stay home? When will I be back on my feet? How long do I have to live? Good judgment suggests that doctors be less than perfectly frank, both to keep their patients looking forward and to keep them pleased with the doctor’s advice and performance.

Lawyers face a lot of the same kinds of questions as their doctor friends. What are my chances of being sued? Winning? Will I get into trouble with the IRS? Again, calibrating where to place the bar is the trick. Like doctors, a lawyer’s reputation and success turn as much on how they are perceived as advisers as it does their skills in their respective fields.

Politicians face the problem almost daily. They need to be aggressively optimistic but not to the point of being Pollyanna. If they are not positive on a topic, they cannot lead either citizens or colleagues in crafting political solutions. On the other hand, they must be shrewd vote-counters so that they develop a reputation for being a reliable predictor of outcomes. It is much safer to always exceed the expectations one creates. Again how do they figure out where to put the bar?

In business and finance, this wisdom comes into play all the time. How many widgets can we sell next year? How much money can I count on from your investments in my account? What earnings do you expect in the next quarter? In cases like these the bar is frequently set in purely quantitative terms so that ones’ promises come home to roost in a painfully clear way. If the bar is too low, the predictor is judged to be not ambitious enough. If the bar is too high, the predictor risks falling short.

The sooner young people learn about the need to calibrate the bars that set the standards by which they will be measured, the sooner they will acquire good instinctive skills to navigate between too low and too high.

Where, you might ask, is the advice about how to compute high and low? There can be none, because the variables are far too many. That leaves the answers to the individual actors who must develop and learn through their own life experiences.

The starting point is to know and learn the maxim.


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