A Proverbial Life
On his 68th birthday, Kevin Kelly decided to give his kids advice. He wrote down 68 bits, one for every year he’d lived.
He posted his advice on his website, and the post was more popular than he thought. He also discovered that he had more to say, so he kept writing down more advice each year.
Recently, he compiled some of his best advice in a book called Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier. Don’t expect a normal book with chapters and a flow of thought. Expect a book of pithy sayings — proverbs — that give you quick insights that apply to your life. Some samples:
- Learn how to learn from those you disagree with, or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.
- Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.
- Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.
Ray Dalio, a billionaire investor, has done something similar, although in a very different format. He’s published his book Principles. The book begins:
I’m passing along these principles because I am now at the stage in my life in which I want to help others be successful rather than to be more successful myself. Because these principles have helped me and others so much, I want to share them with you. It’s up to you to decide how valuable they really are and what, if anything, you want to do with them.
The book’s a long one — 592 pages — and is written a little bit more like a traditional book. Dalio’s followed up with Principles: Your Guided Journal, which promises to help you create your own principles to get the work and life you want. He wants us to convert our experiences about how reality works to principles that we can refer to and pass on to others.
I have a third book on my bookshelf that promises something similar, except for pastors. Ministry Mantras by J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt argue that mantras — pithy, catchy, significant, and easily remembered phrases — can cast vision and bring clarity in small, bite-sized portions. They’re right. Some of the mantras in the book are both catchy and profound. I’ve seen the power of a good leadership proverb. They can be overused or abused, but they can also help provide clarity and remind people of important truths.
It seems that we’re made for proverbs — or, more accurately, that proverbs are made for us. They’re a helpful tool to remind us of what matters most.
It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful for the book of Proverbs in Scripture. A proverb states a general truth in a way that’s pithy and easy to apply. Even back then, similar — sometimes identical — proverbs were common in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Aramaic wisdom texts. But Scripture does us a favor: it gathers them under the rubric of building a life centered around God and provides practical instruction on how to live.
A friend of mine is known for his wisdom. People often ask him for advice and ask him how he became so wise. His answer: he’s memorized almost all of the book of Proverbs. It’s shaped how he thinks and feels.
We seem to need proverbs. They give us handles on truth and help us remember what matters most. I’m so grateful that God has met our need and given us his truth in many genres, including Proverbs.
So buy books of proverbs. Benefit from them if you’d like. But, above all of them, treasure Proverbs in your Bible. Let God’s practical wisdom shape you, and you will develop the skill of living wisely and well in the world that God has created.