head down. mouth shut. (or “discretion if the better part of valor”)

I’ve never liked how I worded number three on my list of rules to live by. When taken by itself, the phrase “head down, mouth shut” seems to imply looking the other way in the face of atrocity (much like the German baker in Band of Brothers, who claims not to have known there was a concentration camp down the road from his bakery.)

In revising these rules, number three ought to read “Discretion is the better part of valor,” meaning know when and when not to speak.

While working at a theater company in my mid-twenties, I sat in on a rehearsal where a director was trying to block scene changes that involved a multitude of actors. In the midst the logistical difficulties, one actor continually chattered about how they could assist and make things easier. This actor took on unnecessary responsibility, stepping beyond the bounds of their assigned role and ultimately derailing the director’s concentration.

“Do me a favor,” the director finally said to the actor. “Don’t help.”

There are moments when speaking up only adds to the noise in the room. In order to be truly helpful, you have to know when you’re actually contributing.

This rule doesn’t mean “don’t speak.” It simply means, “only speak when you can add to the conversation.”