Fill In the Blank: “_____ Is a Good Servant But a Bad Master.”

I love to collect variations on phrases, such as the “X is the new Y.” “Orange is the new black,” “Breakfast is the new lunch,” “Forties are the new thirties,” “Halloween is the new Christmas,” or–and I was inspired by this one for Happier at Home–“September is the new January.” (I started this happiness project in September, instead of January, because September also seems like a good time for a fresh start.)

I came up with my own fill-in-the-blank phrase, “___ is a good servant but a bad master.” I’ve been thinking about different ways to fill in the blank, and I’ve asked people for their suggestions. It’s a very thought-provoking list.

Money is a good servant but a bad master

Technology (includes Facebook, Twitter, email…)









The flesh




What would you add? I don’t know why I get such a big kick out of lists like this, but I do.


The book give-away continues. If you’d like to win a free copy of Happier at Home, I’m giving away one book each day until publication. Enter your name and email in the sign-up form here, and every day, a name will be picked at random. U.S.Canada, and U.K. only–sorry about that restriction on the give-away.

If you’re wondering about the book, you can learn more about it here or…

–-read a sample chapter on the subject of “time” here

watch the new one-minute book trailer on “Ten ways to be happier at home

pre-order the book here (buy early and often!)

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • HelenTisdale

    Gretchen, I just can’t get enough of your work! (writings) So glad to be in contact with you through the internet! Your thoughts are such anspiration!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much! I appreciate your kind words.

  • Jill Q.

    The internet! it’s definitely a good servant, bad master.

  • Emily

    I would add Efficiency!

  • Shelley

    So, what is a good master?

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great question!!!! Hmmmm…self-knowledge is my nominee.

      • crispy

        I want to say good will or integrity

        • Polly Burns

          Self-discipline, definitely. The basis for so much and the foundation to overcome negative traits like laziness (speaking for myself!).

    • JENJEN

      love, joy, peace is my vote.

  • Theresa

    In your list, you had “the flesh”. I’m curious as to what you mean by “The flesh is a good servant but a bad master.”

    • gretchenrubin

      That was a suggestion from a reader. I think it means…the body is important to us, but to be mastered by the body is not a happy state.

  • sopranomom

    I would add “fashion.” I can use clothes to portray who I am and to suit the circumstances that I find myself in OR I can be a slave to what someone else says I should wear and feel pressure to have an up-to-the-minute wardrobe.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love this addition.

  • Carmelo

    Ahh, love this, Gretchen! I could add 20 or 30 but I’ll restrain myself. I’ll add a few however. And I’m willing to defend them. Ha! 🙂

    The Mind

    Okay, Carmelo, stop – someone else’s turn.

    Oh, and my nomination for a good master? Self-awareness (is that the same as self-knowledge? Did I cheat?) I’m torn between that and just saying “you” (the Inner You)

    • peninith1

      I’ve heard it said that ‘hope makes a good breakfast but a bad dinner’ . . .

  • peninith1

    How about habit / routine? A GREAT servant, but when need arises, must be set aside to address the immanent demand.

  • Colleen

    A credit card
    The scale

    This is fun! Was this meant to be fun? OK add Second guessing to my list please. 🙂

    • Colleen

      Home Staging (my pet peeve is that people have to have the perfect looking home to sell it and the buyers seem to have no ability to imagine what colours they could see in a home – that’s what TV shows promote anyway)

  • Viki

    Pop culture…

  • HL

    Gretchen, I thought this phrase came from Laura Ingalls Wilder, in her book “Little Town on the Prairie.” She had written in one of her school essays described therein, “Ambition is a good servant but a bad master.”

    • gretchenrubin

      Gosh, did she? That is wonderful! I am such a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Probably that phrase crept into my imagination! I’ve read that book at least 50 times.

  • discoveredjoys

    Self-improvement is a good servant but a bad master.

  • beth

    “Your child” 🙂

  • rebecca @ altared spaces

    Gretchen, I know you love children’s books. Has loves like this ever become a bad master for you? Even loves that seem so wholesome?

    • gretchenrubin

      Probably just about everything has the potential to be a bad master, but so far, children’s literature has not proved so for me. As far as I know!

  • Lisa Ham

    Reason (or rationality or intellect). It’s a tremendous tool, irreplaceable, but there are some crucial things in life – love, hope, grace, beauty, and others – that just don’t play by the rules of pure reason. And those things can be stunted or undermined when reason is followed in arenas where it should play only a minor role.

    • JENJEN

      I agree. But, my husband would totally disagree! LOL

  • Jane Lewis

    definitely retail!

  • Yeshanu

    Like Beth, I would say “your child” (or children). Also time, or things, or emotions. Or pretty much anything outside myself, because as an adult, I need to be my own “master” and make choices based on information gathered from more than one place.

  • Caitlin

    i would add procrastination. sometimes it is good to wait a little bit.. to get ideas flowing or take some time to provide a mature response.. but it is definitely a bad master!

    • gretchenrubin

      Excellent addition!

  • Mariajosé

    I would add your inner child is a good servant but a bad master

  • Hmmm… “Servant” and “Master”, I’m not sure I can overcome the connotations implicit with those words.

  • You are a source of inspiration and joy for me Gretchen,
    simply a big thank you from all my heart, Elena from Romania

    • gretchenrubin

      Thank you so much, Elena. I really appreciate your kind words.



  • Chlorophyllia

    Adrenaline for me. It serves me well when I need to accomplish so much in such a short period of time, but when it’s time to settle down I find it difficult to slow the momentum.

  • Varshith


  • CuriousB

    I’ve seen ’emotions’ used in this context and I think it’s a good fit. 🙂