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What's the Chengyu 成語 for this financial investing idiom, “don’t buy gold/mine for gold in a gold rush; sell shovels and pickaxes”?

Google Translate output “當淘金熱時,賣鎬和鐵鍬。” But I got no idea if this makes sense in Chinese. "The first is, obviously, not to translate the idiom literally if it makes no sense in the target language. The translator should also keep in mind that a wordplay in one language might not be translatable into another wordplay in a different language.".

Here's the context. When There’s A Gold Rush Sell Picks and Shovels | Hatch

Sometime in my young adult life, I heard some advice that has stuck with me. I don’t really remember who said it, where I heard it, or why it came up. I do remember the message though because it was so important to an entrepreneurial mindset. The saying goes “when there’s a gold rush sell pickaxes and shovels.”

During the California gold rush, thousands of entrepreneurs and land speculators ventured out west to try and strike it rich. The truth is that most of them never struck it rich and were victim to a lot of hype and a crowded and competitive market. Gold was the glamorous business, the shiny get-rich-quick strategy. Gold was actually an incredibly risky venture because it involved buying expensive land with slim chances of it holding gold.  The entrepreneurs who made the most off of the gold rush didn’t go down that path. The ones who built great businesses were selling pickaxes, shovels, and everything else that those thousands of gold rush dreamers needed. Levi Strauss, Samuel Brannan, and John Studebaker were among the entrepreneurs who built incredible business off the gold rush, but not gold.

This advice doesn’t just apply to the gold rush. There are always going to be hot industries hot products, and glamorous opportunities that everyone and their mothers chase after. Don’t buy into all the hype. Instead find the opportunities just outside of the hype. Sell complementary goods and services instead. When demand is skyrocketing for gold, demand will also be skyrocketing for pickaxes and shovels, but (hopefully) much fewer people will be chasing those markets.

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There's an article on Zhihu with the title:

淘金先富卖铲人

The paper talks about the exact phenomenon that you mention above.


Xueqiu also ran an article mentioning this adage:

有句俗话叫“淘金先富卖铲人”,出自这样的典故:当初美国西部出现淘金热时,真正能在山沟里淘到黄金的人不多,倒是向淘金者出售铲子、牛仔裤等装备器材的商家更容易发财。


It is the exact phrase that you are looking for. It isn't widely known, though, and may take the correct context to make it well understood depending on your audience.


Some other variants:

It is quite interesting that "卖铲人" has become a sort of a phrase in and of itself to talk about those people who make money off of other people's pursuits.

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I think the essence of this idiom is to not look at the short term interest/hype. If I'm understanding correctly, the Chengyu for looking at the short goal is 急功近利. So you can use the antonym of it: 深谋远虑. However, this Chengyu does not capture the original meaning of doing something alternative in high demand; it only means to do good planning and look at a longer-term goal. I am also having a hard time coming up with a Chengyu that similarly captures the whole meaning of the idiom. Google Translate gave a literal meaning (does make sense in Chinese if with context) of the idiom, but it is very accurate in doing that.

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“when there’s a gold rush sell pickaxes and shovels.” -- something like "work smart, not work hard"?

An idiom says, 别出心裁,(Bié chū xīn cái), (adopt a different approach; be original)

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  • Thanks. I feel 别出心裁 is less specific and more vague than “when there’s a gold rush sell pickaxes and shovels.” – I never attended university. Dec 5 '20 at 3:39
  • “when there’s a gold rush sell pickaxes and shovels.” is also just general advice, but a good "sound bite" because pickaxes / shovels happens to be related to mining. You could sell dynamite, tobacco, even provide prostitutes to gold miners. The underlying idea of the advice is do not rush along with the crowd and be just another miner; sell something which miners need. Besides pickaxes / shovels, miners need a whole lot of other things & services; in other words be original, be smart, do things differently which is good advice for all professions, not just mining. – Wayne Cheah Dec 5 '20 at 3:52
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I would say

機靈務實 - Clever and pragmatic

機靈 (clever; smart): In the context of the idiom -quick to notice opportunities. understand the relationship between demand and supply

務實 (pragmatic; deal with concrete issues): for most people, it is just a dream to get rich by finding gold, most of them fail. While selling tools (e.g.pickaxes and shovels) to those dreamers is a certain way to make a lot of money

當淘金熱時,賣鎬和鐵鍬 does make sense

做人要機靈務實,當有淘金熱時,賣鎬和鐵鍬 - Be smart and pragmatic. When there is a gold rush, sell pickaxes and shovels (you have a better chance to make money than join in the gold rush)

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When there’s a gold rush sell pickaxes and shovels.

In my opinion, this is modern version of an old saying:

Make hay while the sun shines.

Succinctly put: 把握时机

Or longer:

如果你想成为百万富翁就必须把握时机。
If you wanna get rich, you've gotta seize the moment!

(This proverb (Make hay while the sun shines) is first recorded in John Heywood's A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, 1546:

Whan the sunne shinth make hay. Whiche is to say.
Take time whan time cometh, lest time steale away.)

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