June 27 , 2019 /


Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” is a phrase attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the late nineteenth century. The phrase is actually a misquotation of the statement:

“If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

The phrase “build a better mousetrap” turned into a metaphor about the power of innovation and is frequently taken literally, with more than 4,400 patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office for new mousetraps, with thousands more unsuccessful applicants, making them the “most frequently invented device in U.S. history.”

It might have been Atul Gawande’s second book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes On Performance (2007) that ignited my conscious thinking about what the word implies, especially in the arena of health care and medicine, and for that matter, in any profession.  His other three books were welcome additions to my library. The first, Complications: A Surgeon’s Note on an Imperfect Science (2002). The third: The Checklist Manifesto (2009) a fascinating account that also shows how to make things better.  And then the blockbuster, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In the End. (2014). It was aimed at making things better toward the end of life.  Atul has dedicated his life to making things better and his TED talk is legendary.

I have been consciously ruminating about “better” off and on for the past five years.  Here are a few more thoughts.

  1. I realized that much of my own career was trying to make things better through improvements in programs, practices, policies and people.
  2. My word for 2019 this past January was “better” and how to consciously apply it where and when possible.
  3. When someone asks the proverbial, “How are you?” rather than the automatic response of “ Good” or “Fine” I now often say, “Better.”
  4. Maya Angelou’s quote resonates: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
  5. Think of all the people and their efforts to make things better – safer, healthier, quieter, smarter, cooler or warmer, cleaner and the list goes on.
  6. Better is comparative, best is superlative and for now I’m grateful to “be and do better.”
  7. What are you doing and what could you do to make things better, not just make better things? Faster and bigger are not necessarily better.
  8. Better applies to relationships, health, living conditions, education, work, writing and many more activities and skills. Figure out which you want to work on, if any.  I know I could be a better fisherman and so I’ll have to practice.
  9. Sometimes we can make something look, taste, smell, sound or feel better if we’re willing to make the effort and put in the time.
  10. We had a worker friend who said often he wanted to make something “more better” and while not perfect English, I loved his attitude.  Luis Hernandez was committed to “better.”

When we make a commitment and dedicate ourselves to making things better we may well run into challenges but those are merely opportunities waiting for solutions.  May you find ways to make your life and that of others better in whatever ways you can.




Comments (6)

  1. I like that. I’m going to start using it.
    How are you doing? Better.
    I can’t wait to see the quizzical looks on their faces… and how many will ask in reply… “better than what?”

    Perhaps better becomes really significant when it is used in the context of “betterment of our world” – within and without us… a spiritual practice of sorts… Namaste. – K

    1. Better than I was last year, hopefully anyway. Would seem rather amazing if we could convince more people to commit to making the world better wherever they are. That can start in very small ways in almost any area of interest or endeavor and it applies especially to relationships between people who are different. There are numerous things we can do to improve those. Then, think in larger terms in the fields of science, medicine, engineering, the environment, art, education, health care, safety from violence, wars and whatever else you can think of that begs for becoming BETTER. It’s why I like my friend’s compounding of better by saying “more better.” It was a double dose!

  2. This is a very thoughtful post! There are so many ways to perceive “better”. We should always be trying to do better while not assuming what is best. Best implies that we reached the end while better leaves us open to endless possibilities.
    My word for 2018 was resolve because of the different meanings to that word as well. We can resolve conflicts or we can commit to a course of action.

    1. So, we can put these together and “Resolve to be and do better.” Bingo! You have nailed it perfectly and in your world that’s probably called symbiosis or synchronicity. Classic example of the sum being greater than its parts. Why can’t we all work together this way not only in schools and classrooms but in the larger world too? Thanks for your most thoughtful comment.

    1. Likewise. The more we connect the better we can become at whatever we’re doing, especially on behalf of others. Synergy, synthesis, call it what you will as it seems to give energy both ways. How good is that!

Please share your thoughts and opinions