Chinese Idiom: 揠苗助长 (yà miáo zhù zhǎng)

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Let’s say you’re a kid again, and it’s the weekend. And because it’s the weekend, your parents have promised you pizza for lunch.

Mmm…pizza…

But there’s a catch here: your have to practice the piano. And you have to play perfectly in order to get pizza in the end.

Of course, like most kids, you hate being forced to play the piano. And you have to play again and again until you play perfectly. How long will THAT take? What in tarnation!

Ugh. Why should I waste time playing songs by dead people???

But you want pizza. And that’s the only thing that occupies your mind at this point in time. Now how can you play properly if you’re not concentrated on your music?

Eventually, after half an hour of practice, you just can’t handle the long wait. You’re getting really impatient. You think, Screw it, and call your parents in. You hope that your playing is good enough for them to be impressed so that they would order pizza.

You take a deep breath, and you put your fingers on the keys, and you start playing.

Unfortunately, what comes out of your fingers hitting the keys is a total cacophony – missed notes, misaddressed keys, misjudged tempos – and your parents are the opposite of impressed. In fact, they’re so unimpressed that they call off the pizza idea and tell you to continue practicing for five more hours – until way after lunch.

Feels kinda like this. Now just what the heck is this noise?

At this point, you realize that maybe you should have concentrated more and not been so impatient.

Ben Franklin once said that “a watched pot never boils”. And it seems like that pot will take ages to boil.

This was true for a farmer in ancient China, who worried day and night about the growth of his rice plants. Literally, the only thing he could think about was that his plants weren’t growing fast enough.

One day, the farmer decided that the shoots needed some speeding up. He got to his field and pulled up every single one of his plants so that they all looked taller. Genius idea, ain’t it?

Ancient Chinese Nobel Prize, here I come!

When he got home, he told his family, “Well, I worked myself to death today. But at least the rice in the field has grown taller.”

“What do you mean, Dad?” his son asked. Without waiting for a reply, he rushed out to the field. What he found shocked him: all the plants in the field had withered.

Not so much of a genius idea now, eh?

This story inspired the idiom 揠苗助长 (yà miáo zhù zhǎng), which literally means “helping young plants grow by pulling them upward”. Idiomatically, this means, “doing something against nature to get quick results, often spoiling it”.

Tells us something about rushing, doesn’t it?

For example, kids may sometimes rush through their math homework in order to get it done quicker – this way, they can dedicate more time to having fun. But then they never check their answers before submitting their homework – and then they get Es and Fs. Oops.

What are your parents going to say about that?

At this point, you can describe them as being 揠苗助长 – going against nature for the sake of speed, with negative results.

Or take the analogy from above – after just half an hour of piano practice, you decide to stop practice and show your parents that your playing is good enough so that you can get some pizza. But it’s expectations vs. reality – and in reality, your playing is the complete opposite of “good enough”. And that’s because you didn’t take your time to perfect your skills first – and now you can’t get pizza.

Now that – to me – is really 揠苗助长!

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