From Where Did It Come?

Bill Abbate
Photo created by Author in PP

Practically everyone is familiar with the term "use it or lose it." From where did it originate, and what exactly does it mean? Could it have been related to our body, money, or something else? Let's find out!

From experience, we all know if we do not use our skills and abilities, we lose them. This is also true for our muscles. If you quit using them, you lose them. But the most important thing to use is your mind. Heaven forbid you quit using it! The term applies to other things in life as well.

One of the oldest references I can find using the exact words "use it or lose it" is in a quote from none other than the man who first mass-produced cars.

"Writing is the only profession where nobody considers you ridiculous if you earn no money. Money is like an arm or a leg; use it or lose it." Henry Ford (1863-1947)

Ford's use of the term equates the use of money to the use of your muscles. Using an arm and leg keeps it strong. Not using an arm or leg creates atrophy and weakness, losing its utility. The same is true for money. Putting money to use creates more where not to put it to use makes it lose its value and its utility.

From where did the term originate?

After researching who originated the thought, I came across the words of the famous Italian polymath, artist, sculptor, theorist, engineer, scientist, and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. There may be an older version of "use it or lose it," but I haven't found it yet. If you know of something similar stated before 1500 AD, please let me know in the comment section below. More than 500 years ago, da Vinci wrote:

"Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity, and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind." Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

It is easy to see his words relate directly to using it or losing it. By not using iron, rust makes it waste away and water not used becomes useless. But most importantly, inaction will sap the vigor of your mind.

Da Vinci made an essential point for every living, breathing, thinking person. Use your mind, or lose it! You may not lose it completely, but you will most definitely lose some of its vigor, strength, or vitality.

Use and gain, disuse and loss

A case in point is when I had some major medical issues a few years ago—spending 55 days in intensive care on my back in bed. I lost so much muscle mass I had to relearn how to stand and walk. Fortunately, being an athlete for many years, I knew I could regain much of my strength with some hard work, and I was right. But more importantly, my mind was affected by being sedated so much for so long. I was unable to think clearly. It was like I was in a constant fog. The problem with this fog is it took nearly two years to lift!

Not only was I an avid athlete before my heart issues, but I have been an avid learner since I hit my late twenties. While I was working hard on my body and getting back in shape, I realized after many months that I needed to exercise my brain! I started reading again and working on my book as much as possible each day. I completed it within less than a year, and it was published. A lifelong dream that nearly escaped me finally came true!

While my unfortunate "use it or lose it" health experience was beyond my control, this is not the case for most of us. And yes, I include myself in the following!

When we do not use these amazing mental facilities God created in each of us, we lose our mind's vitality over time. Who would purposely allow such a thing? Too many of us, I am afraid. Not convinced? Read on.

When you were in school, do you remember how you could study and learn a great deal quickly? What happened to all of that information you learned? If you didn't use it, you lost much of it. Sure we remember some things, but the amount forgotten because of disuse is more than you realize. To validate this, take some of those old exams once again and see how well you do!

The same thing is true for skills you may have developed at one time. For example, while I learned to type on a manual typewriter in high school, I lost it for years until I got my first computer in the mid-80s. Suddenly I needed to use a keyboard, but I was so rusty I had forgotten where some of the keys were! I lost this skill because I failed to use it for nearly 15 years. Fortunately, I learned to type once again. Today, many decades later, I can type like the wind because I use a keyboard all the time.

After our education, too many fail to continue exercising our minds by reading and learning. I missed a good ten years of my life, mostly in my twenties, where I accomplished far too little. Had someone told me I could achieve far more and live a better life by even lightly engaging my ability to learn and grow, would I have listened? Maybe, maybe not. I would hope I would!

What have you quit using and lost? Here are a few areas I often see people lose some of their ability because of disuse.

  • Sharpness of mind
  • Desire to learn and grow
  • Emotions
  • Inspiration
  • Drive
  • Vitality
  • Happiness and joy
  • Closeness to others
  • Spirituality
  • Strength/muscle mass
  • Manual dexterity
  • Playing an instrument
  • All kinds of physical activities (running long distances, throwing a ball, swimming laps, lifting weights, playing tennis, etc.)
  • Cooking skills

You can add more to this list if you wish. What comes to mind for you? I would love to know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Final thoughts

If you take anything away from this essay, I hope you come to the full realization that inaction will sap the vigor of your mind. You want a vigorous, strong mind, don't you?

Take what you read here seriously, as it will make an enormous difference in your life if heeded. Had I read something like this article, given it some thought, and acted on it, there is no telling how much more I could have accomplished in my life. Thankfully I found the secret of "use it or lose it" when I was around 30 years old and put it to good use!

Regardless of age, there is no time like the present to use your God-given ability to learn and grow and become all you can become in the time you have left!

Why not choose to learn and grow the rest of your life? If you don't do it for yourself, do it for those you love. I assure you they will appreciate your effort and the legacy you leave.

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA

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