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In his article “Aphorisms,” John Stuart Mill said, “There are two kinds of wisdom.” The first, he said, “depends on long chains of reasoning…The other is that acquired by experience of life.” And he adds, it is “….drawn by acute minds in all periods of history from their personal experiences.” Mill called this second type “the wisdom of the ages” and it is the type most often expressed as aphorisms.

Why are aphorisms important? They can be powerful teaching statements in trainings and impactful points in talks. Akash Karla is author of How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. In this book he suggests “creating a repeatable power phrase” for your talks. Aphorisms can serve as these power phrases. Here is one from Epictetus that a trainer might use during a meta-states training:

What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things.

We can also use aphorisms to govern our behavior. Here are two:

The meaning of communication lies in the response you get.

The person with the most flexibility exercises the most influence in the system.

I have used these two NLP presuppositions as personal mantras during difficult times. To me, creating an aphorism is “capturing a piece of wisdom.” Can we create brand new aphorisms for our field of interest, or fresh NLP presuppositions? The rest of this post discusses how to identify and create aphorisms.

Capturing Wisdom

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For most of my adult life, I collected aphorisms and did not know what they were. If I heard the term, I may have thought it was some sort of microbe. The word “aphorism” has been around for a while. Hippocrates first coined the word in 400 BCE. To identify and create aphorisms, it helps to know what they are. Here are a few attempts to describe them:

Clever and concise expression of observations or philosophical ideas.

Short phrases that evoke big ideas.

A statement of truth or opinion expressed in a concise and witty manner.

As descriptions, they are fine, but they don’t help us create aphorisms. 

Expressing Wisdom

To create aphorisms we turn to the book, We are What We Think  where James Geary lists five laws of aphorism. These laws can help us decide if something is an aphorism. They also can guide us on how to create aphorisms. I’ll describe each law and illustrate them with examples.

1 – It Must be Brief

If it is brief, it is easy to remember. It can also serve a repeatable power phrase. In another of Geary’s books, Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorisms, most aphorisms are one sentence. Few are more than four sentences. Here is a short one I like from W.H. Auden:

Knowledge may have its purposes, but guessing is always more fun than knowing.

2 – It Must be Definitive

Create aphorisms as if you are an Oracle. This is not the time to be wishy-washy. If your aphorism is definitive, it is a forceful expression with the trappings of truth. Are aphorisms always true? John Stuart Mill says, “they are very seldom exactly true.” The power of some aphorisms comes in assuming they are true and using them when needed. NLP presuppositions are one example.

3 – It Must be Personal

Aphorisms reflect the frames and meta-programs (perceptual filters) of their authors. When I coach someone, I try to resist my tendency to rely on my intuitions, and instead, listen to my client. Fritz Perls may have expressed this with the aphorism:

Lose your mind and come to your senses.

Here is an aphorism I wrote for my coaching dilemma:

Trust your intuition and you will not ask. Without asking, you will not explore. Without exploring, you will not learn.

That cautionary aphorism is appropriate for me since I value learning.

To illustrate how aphorisms can be personal, here are two contradictory ones:

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Never too old to learn.

4 – It Must have a Twist

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If an aphorism is brief, it is easy to remember. But, having a twist makes it memorable. It also makes people think. Karla lists several rhetorical devices for creating repeatable power phrases. These devices can also help give aphorisms a twist. I will cover three: contrast, rhyme and chiasmus.

James Redfield said:

Where attention goes energy flows; where intention goes energy flows!

His statement uses rhyme. It does not contrast “attention” and “intention. ” And so, it does not have much of twist. Consider, this aphorism from Michael Hall. 

Energy flows where attention goes, as determined by intention.

It uses rhyme and also contrasts “attention” and “intention.” That contrast gives it a memorable twist. Michael said he was not aware Redfield’s statement.

The aphorism by John Leslie Brown is another example of contrast:

No one rises to low expectations.

Chiasmus is the rhetorical device I like the most. It reverses the order of words in two phases. Here is an aphorism I created for a creativity and innovation training:

An idealist dreams of creative acts, while an innovator acts on creative dreams.

5 – It Must be Philosophical

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Aphorisms are thoughtful fragments that reflect a larger canvas. An aphorism can be a signpost someone leaves about a life issue. Here is one from Ashleigh Brilliant:

I feel much better, now that I have given up hope.

Maybe Brilliant was referring to a state of glorious hopelessness. Then, he can do anything because there is nothing to lose. He also said:

I can do great things, if I weren’t so busy doing little things.

Isn’t that a philosophical reflection on life?


Creating aphorisms makes you think through the material you are teaching. Can you create them to enhance your presentations? Here is aphorism I created to use when teaching meta-programs.

Our mind filters what we perceive. Our wisdom perceives our filters.

It satisfies all five laws. It also reflects the theme of this post. Create aphorisms to capture wisdom. Reflect on how you perceive the world. And, share this wisdom with others.

For Further Reading

This essay was about creating aphorisms. If you liked this essay, read my last one: “When You See a Fork in the Road, Take It.” It was about understanding what an aphorism says about its author. 

I mention meta-programs (perceptual fliters) in this article. You can learn more about them on my Resource Map page.

Learn about Meta-States

Suppose you see a potential danger and feel fear. The state of fear is called a primary state since it is triggered from outside of you. Being human, you will probably reflect on that fear. Many of us have been ashamed of being afraid. That is a meta-state, a state about another state, and is triggered from within yourself. It sets a new frame of meaning for that original state. Now, your relationship with the state of fear is shame: shameful fear. How would you experience fear differently if instead you were curious about your fear? All states that begin with self (e.g., self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy) are meta-states. Sometimes this self-reflection places us in a state of mind (e.g., feeling anxiety) that is not useful. Other times, our self-reflection and meta-states place us into highly desirable states, such as joyful learning or intelligent, fearless risk-taking. Self-reflection can give us the ability to gain new perspectives, understandings, insights, and choices.

Using the Meta-States Model lets you look at your meta-states, and the actions, beliefs, values and decisions they drive. This enables you to use them to actively manage your mental and emotional states to enhance your well-being and performance.

See the mind map “Meta-States and Frames” for more information.



Thanks Claire Kurs for her insightful edits.

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