Aphoristic aphasia

Here’s a reason why sports figures should not be quoted, ever. Except for Yogi Berra, of course.

I came across the following quote, attributed to John Wooden, a former basketball coach at UCLA.

“My father used to tell me: never try to be better than someone else, but never cease trying to be the best you can be.”

This is a nice sentiment, and a worthwhile idea, rendered horribly.

Granted, this statement may have been made on the spur of the moment, without much time to think through a better way of making the point. But still, it’s a very poorly designed aphorism.

The first part, “never try to be better than someone else,” excludes the possibility of being better than others naturally (i.e. without trying). And the position of the negation is wrong (grammarians might have a fancier name for this).

The second part, “but never cease trying to be the best you can be,” exhibits a different structure and so loses the point. What is needed is some sort of symmetry between the two parts to emphasize the point being made. And seriously, who uses “cease” this way?

Indeed, the point of this stillborn aphorism is to identify where your attention should be, not the success or failure of your attempts, so even the choice of “trying” is poor.

Here are some suggested alternatives, all of which I think make the point more clearly.

  • Don’t worry about being better than anyone but yourself.
  • If you can always do better than you did, you’ll eventually beat everyone else.
  • You are your own best competition.
  • Compete against yourself and eventually you’ll beat everyone else.
  • Improve your self; screw the rest of the world.

Please note that I came up with these in less than two minutes. Those more inclined to clever language use would very likely do much better.

The point is this: if you want to make a good, meaningful point, you need to design how you say it.


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