Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

People use quotes in books to illustrate a point. I use them in my trainings. People perk up when you show them a quote. Especially, when I ask: “Would anyone like to learn how to figure out the person behind the quote?” One way is to uncover the person’s meta-programs.

Meta-programs are perceptual filters. We use them to pay attention to things and sort out what is important. They are context-dependent. This essay explores using meta-programs to understand quotes.

A Fork in the Road

One of my favorite quotes is from the baseball legend Yogi Berra:

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It.

The quote circles around the Operational Style (procedures, options) meta-program. A procedures-oriented person might think it is the ultimate procedure. I can hear him say: “It is a lovely paradox that will stymie those options-oriented guys.” Yet, the options-oriented guy might find three ways to make sense of it. And, even apply it to his life.

In the Summer of 2018, I gave a presentation on Un-insultability at a trainer’s training. Michael Hall, introduced me as having a PhD in Physics, and then smiled and said: “I wonder why he is here?”

Here is one answer. When I was growing up I choose theoretical physics over psychology. Although science fascinated me as a kid, I loved Freud’s book “The Interpretation of Dreams.” And, because of his book I thought of becoming someone who studied the mind. Half-a-life later, I discovered I liked people. And through Neuro-Semantics, I took the other path while maintaining my first choice.

You can read Berra’s quote and assume it means take the “fork” at the same time. Or, you can revisit the fork later and take the other path. Or, like me, find a way to combine the paths. I love options. Yet, if not for procedures, I would not get much done.

Sometimes taking either path can lead to the same place. According to Berra, he was giving directions to his house. Either option in the fork would have led there.

Beyond Schooling

Pick up any non-fiction book and you will discover it contains at least one quote. In the book Executive Thinking, Michael Hall uses an aphorism from Mark Twain:

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

What meta-program does the aphorism illustrate? Let’s explore its historical context. Grant Allen expressed a version of this quote before Twain. Allen said:

One year in Italy with their eyes open would be worth more than three at Oxford;

six months in the fields with a platyscopic lens would teach them [students] strange things about the world around them that all the long terms at Harrow and Winchester have failed to discover to them. But that would involve some trouble to the teacher.

What a misfortune it is that we should thus be compelled to let our boys’ schooling interfere with their education!   

The aphorism illustrates the “induction” distinction of the Scale meta-program (induction, deduction, abduction). People use induction when they go from the specific to the general. Twain or Allen might have said:                                                                                     

Schooling is learning with prescribed methods behind closed doors. Education is learning with any method anywhere.

The aphorism also illustrates the mis-matching distinction of the Relationship Comparison meta-program. It mis-matches their culture.



Figuring Out the Person

As mentioned, quotes can you tell something about the person who originates them. To illustrate this, list a few quotes from the same person. Then, let’s look for repeated meta-programs. Here are three examples.

Thomas Edison. The quotes are in the context of his work as an inventor:

I have not failed. I’ve have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent.

Hell, there are no rules here – we try to accomplish something.

Do you see any patterns? The quotes illustrate the Motivation Direction meta-program. Its distinctions are “away from” (problem-oriented) and towards (solution-oriented).

Edison first mentions something to get “away from” and then something to move towards.

Edison said: “Go away from failure, things that won’t sell, and rules.”

And, then “Towards discovery of what works, things to invent, and accomplishing something.”

The “away from” approach aligns with Edison’s reputation as a problem-solver.

Dr. Seuss. The quote is from his book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.”

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself.
Any direction you choose.

This might be Dr Seuss’s response to people who have problem deciding for themselves what to do. Is he directing people to the internal side of the Authority Source meta-program? Dr Seuss’s words show us he falls on the playful side of the Attitude (playful, serious) meta-program.

Henry David Thoreau. The quote is from his book “Walden.”

Things do not change, we change.

To explore the context of the quote, I looked at its position in the book. Two sentences later in the book, Thoreau writes:

The philosopher said: From an army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought.

Both quotes illustrate the internal distinction of Authority Source meta-program. It is likely Thoreau took the philosopher’s quote from Confucius, who said:

The Master said: You can snatch away the general of a large army, but you cannot snatch away the will of even the lowliest of men.

A Challenge

As a challenge, can you select a meta-program and find a quote that illustrates it? I threw a dart and picked the Philosophical meta-program. It has the distinctions “Why (origins) and “How and What” (Solutions). Here are three examples:

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Many mention this quote when talking about operating from our highest intention.

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it (Charles Swindoll).

This quote might occur in a discussion about self-leadership. And, then lead to a discussion of the Somatic Response meta-program. It’s distinctions active, reflective and inactive.

You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not? (George Bernard Shaw).

This quote takes the “why” in a new direction. Shaw is mis-matching those who say “why.” Thus, illustrating the Relationship Comparison (matching, mis-matching) meta-program. He is also moving towards “Why not” and away from “Why.”

I threw another dart and picked the Modus Operandi meta-program. Then, I found this poem from Shel Silverstein that illustrates it.

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

Does it illustrate any other meta-programs?

Final Thoughts

I use quotes to foster discussion and learning. “Discussion” is key. In this post, many of my assignments of a meta-programs to quotes are speculative. The point is not to get it right, but to encourage discussion. Can you see where I winged it? If a person tries to identify meta-programs from quotes they are reading them all with a purpose.

Don’t stop at meta-programs. You can also use quotes when responding to someone’s statement. Ask participants for possible statements. Here is a version of Edison’s quote:

You have not failed. You have found twelve ways that won’t work.

It could be a response to my made-up statement (and true situation) by J.K. Rowling:

Twelve publishers rejected my Harry Potter series’ synopsis.

When you meet a person at a party. Ask them if there are any quotes they like. It is another way of gathering information. And a new road to discovery. Please have fun with quotes. As Dr Seuss says:

Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if you only try.


Here are some references (with links) to help you work with quotes.

1. James Geary’s books.

we are what we think (2005)

wit’s end. What Wit is, How it Works, and Why We Need It (2019)

List of Geary’s aphorisms. Some examples:

Our mistakes make us interesting.

Having a map doesn’t prevent you from making unexpected discoveries.

I would rather be a voice in the desert than a face in the crowd.

There are certain mistakes we enjoy so much that we are always willing to repeat them.

Sometimes, you need a door slammed in your face before you can hear opportunity knock.

By looking at Geary’s aphorisms, can you identify any of his meta-programs?

2. Meta-Program Mind-Maps.

I recently completed a third (of six) meta-program mind-maps. The book Figuring Out People (2005) by Hall and Bodenhamer is a primary reference for the mind-maps. Here is Part 3. And if you missed them: Part 1 and Part 2.  Shelle Rose Charvet’s book Words That Change Minds (2019) is another recommended book on meta-programs. 

3. Quote Investigator. This site investigates the origin of quotes.


Thanks to my wife Claire Kurs for her edits and suggestions. Thanks to my sister Carol Bilbao for bringing Thoreau’s quote to my attention.

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