Fill in the Blank: X 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 that blank.

Because I’ve been writing and thinking about habits for so long, to write Better Than Before, my first answer is, no surprise, habit. And indeed, habit is a good servant but a bad master. A very, very good servant, and a very, very bad master.

Other possibilities…


Technology (or 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.

  • aleishacd

    Your list is a good one. I’d add “sleep” because for me there a fine line between getting enough rest to feel healthy and be productive and getting too much sleep and feeling guilty, wasting time, etc.

  • penelope schmitt

    This is very interesting. I think that the things that are of NO concern to us are the ones we probably have in proper boundaries. Television springs to my mind. I don’t bother with it very much so it does not to be put within boundaries. Now I am retired ambition is not in there any more either.

    • Holly

      Penelope, your comments are always so interesting! It makes me look at it in a different way. Thanks!

      • penelope schmitt

        P.S. I think that perhaps the ‘total abstinence principle’ works because of this. If you no longer have french fries in your life, you don’t have to worry about whether they are a servant of hunger or a master of your cravings . . . just an example. Anything that is ‘of no real interest’ to me, or that I have put out of my way entirely, cannot be either servant or master. The things one HAS to deal with, and yet responds to in conflicting ways, these are the ones we have to work to make our servants. And really, how much ‘staff’ can a person control? It gets to be like herding cats. Can’t do it. I totally sympathize with those who never take a drink or have managed to banish credit cards from their lives, for example. And the things we HAVE to do — who can go ‘off grid’ about food? — are the enduring plagues.

  • Kristine

    I wonder what’s true for the opposite way….what is a good master but a bad servant? I think your conscience would work…..can’t think of anything else.

    • For me, God is a good master but a bad servant.

      • Chris B. Behrens

        Great observation.

  • Chris B. Behrens


  • Do you think one could add

    happiness ?
    joy ?

    interesting …

  • Caroline


    • Yes! This is the one I was going to say.

    • Molly

      Oooo…good one! I am guilty over and over again!

  • Paigepink

    I would add listen to music …. and Drink Champagne

  • Randee Bulla

    Lists Ha! Lists are beautiful, helpful things…until they aren’t.

  • HEHink


  • jane

    Curiosity, flexibility & humor

  • Priyanka


  • HL

    Isn’t almost everything a good servant but bad master, except for your own will? “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” – Invictus, William Earnest Henley

    • gretchenrubin


      As an Upholder, I would say that my own will is a good servant but a bad master.

      • Gillian

        I guess this is the equivalent of saying “discipline” is a good servant but bad master?

    • HEHink

      Hmm…This is the second time I’ve seen a reference to that poem this week. The first was after taking a “What poem describes you/your life?” or some such quiz linked from Facebook. Guess I’d better look it up and read the whole thing.

      Which brings to mind, all those online quizzes are probably bad masters. I’m not even sure if they’re good servants. Maybe they are, in that they can increase our self-awareness, but only if we question the results as we take into account what we already know/believe about ourselves.

  • Holly

    How about boyfriends? 🙂

  • Amy H.

    If I’m remembering correctly, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, “Ambition is a good servant, but a bad master,” in “The Long Winter” or “Little Town on the Prairie,” when she was tasked with writing an essay on ambition when returning to school as a student after having taught her first term.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ambition is an excellent one!

  • Agnes

    I commented on the “list” topic a few days ago, but it could go here as well. “To-do lists are a good servant, but a bad master”.

  • This reminds me one of my favorite quotes, by Einstein:

    “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

    I can’t really think of anything that makes a good master, aside from, perhaps, intuition. But, that may be the rebel in me speaking! 🙂

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Love the quotation. I am a student of Jung, but did not capture that one. Now I will try to memorize it.

  • Hi,
    I’m going to be very British and say the weather. It’s bad to let our moods and lives be controlled by it (except for extreme conditions/disasters) and we can often do what we want despite of it.
    I guess we could view many other things we don’t control in the same way. Don’t be a slave to the uncontrollable.

    • Gillian

      I so agree. I so often plan my activities around the weather. It wouldn’t be so bad if the forecasts were accurate. I have so often decided to not do something I want to do because bad weather was forecast, only to have the weather turn out just fine. It doesn’t control my mood, just my activities. I resolved some time ago not to be quite such a slave to it.

  • Tom Hogenson

    The Internal Revenue Service!

  • Abby

    Such an interesting conversation!

  • Schedules!

  • Molly

    All the above are good. But I would say technology is too often a vice and electronic procrastination. I’m not even addicted to social media, but it still robs so much time.

  • Pat


  • Dianne Ochiltree


  • I love this concept overall – it turns everything up-side-down to become … “how to does XX serve me?” and not being controlled by the tools.

  • Chloe

    My mind.

    Sometimes I wish there was an ‘off’ button. Yet to find it.

  • swest

    relaxation or down-time. Finding your ideal amount between revitalizing and laziness can be challenging for certain people.

  • Judy


  • John P. Daly


  • Sue

    The first one that came to my mind is “pleasure.” I’ve spent much of my life being its servant, though slowly learning to manage it and not be managed by it.

  • mscrysta

    100% I would say the human mind!

  • Nancy

    Lori hit the nail on the head I think. Judaism teaches that there is *nothing* that cannot be a good servant but a bad master, with the exception of the Deity. Anything else, however good it seems, risks being an idol. I fill in the blank with: Punctuality.

  • Anna

    Weather (in the context of climate change)