What Is Death By A Thousand Cuts?

Death by a thousand cuts is a figure of speech that refers to a failure that occurs as a result of many small problems. Death by a thousand cuts could refer to the termination of a proposed deal, a bankruptcy, or a scandal as a result of several small issues rather than one single major one.

This term could also apply to a product or idea that is destroyed by too many minor changes.

Key Takeaways

  • Death by a thousand cuts is a failure that happens because of many small issues that have accumulated.
  • The term is derived from a form of Chinese torture known as lingchi, where a person is subjected to hundreds of small cuts until death occurs.
  • Death by a thousand cuts is the opposite of a single major event that can ruin a business, such as a sudden fire or an earthquake. 
  • Death by a thousand cuts can nonetheless lead to a major event such as a plane crash or corporate bankruptcy.

How Death By A Thousand Cuts Works

This figure of speech refers to the idea that while a single small cut may not be not fatal, the cumulative effect of many of them could cause a person to bleed to death. The term is derived from an ancient form of Chinese torture in which the condemned person was subjected to a number of minor wounds until the accumulation of damage became fatal. This form of torture relates is known as lingchi, which loosely means lingering death. It was used as a form of execution until 1905 when it was outlawed. 

Major disasters, such as earthquakes and wildfires, can be detrimental to businesses; but, that is not what death by a thousand cuts is about. Instead, it is all of the small things that add up to an ultimate failure. It’s akin to the saying. "a man goes bankrupt slowly at first, then all at once". Death by a thousand cuts can thus “sneak” up on a business, where they are not expecting to go out of business or have to close shop so soon. Such micro-risks, which individually have a low impact, can add up. Because they are often small and overlooked, these seemingly small risks can lead up to larger events.

Example of Death by a Thousand Cuts 

An example of death by a thousand cuts might be a plane crash. The actual plane crash isn’t the death by a thousand cuts, but rather, the events that lead up to the plane crash could be considered death by a thousand cuts. Such “cuts” can include missed repairs, poor design, etc. 

The ability of individuals to overlook risks and believe they are not susceptible to danger is called the “halo effect.” The halo effect is more noticeable when it comes to lower impact risks. The other issue is that since these are low-risk events, action to correct them isn’t as pressing. Yet, it’s the cumulative effect of these events (i.e. cuts) that lead to a bigger event (i.e. death).