Twelve years ago I was working for a rapidly growing technology provider who was preparing for one of their most important client meetings to date. The deal alone – if secured – would crush their revenue goals, so preparedness was key and professionalism paramount. Keep in mind that we were a “fun startup” in the heart of Silicon Valley who prided ourselves on a relatively loose, relaxed and prank-laden culture.
A few weeks prior to the big meeting, a regional VP of Sales thought it would be hilarious to grab an inside sales rep by his ankles while he was in a bathroom stall. You know… drag him off the toilet and under the partition. So he did it. Hilarity ensued, the inside rep was red-faced and the incident was retired to the annals of our corporate lore.
The day of the big meeting arrived and the inside rep saw his opportunity for revenge. The regional VP was nervous so he decided to use the restroom stall about thirty minutes prior to the session. As you can likely guess, the inside rep snuck in and grabbed the VP by his ankles, pulling with all of his might. The only problem was that he completely tore off one leg of the VP’s suit pants in the process. Hilarity did not ensue. Instead, the 6’4″ VP told the 5’10” inside rep to take off his pants and give them to him. He promptly complied. When the yelling stopped, the inside rep (in only his boxers) frantically sought a dry cleaner that can mend at a moment’s notice. The VP looked like a giant in children’s clothing. If not for the client meeting, the CEO might have thought it was funny….
Voltaire was right. Common sense is not so common.
Why do we often ignore common sense?
You can read this story, roll your eyes, shake your head in a “What was he thinking!” sort of way and see at least a dozen opportunities for someone – anyone! – to have stopped the madness. But that’s the thing about common sense. We know certain activities are a bad idea. We are fully aware of the possible shortcomings of our decisions. So why do we so often find ourselves in situations where common sense was completely ignored?
“The first step to making better decisions is to see ourselves as we really are, to look inside the black box of the human brain. We need to honestly assess our flaws and talents, our strengths and shortcomings.” (pg. 259)
But is that how we really make decisions?
Lehrer suggests that we need to put ourselves under the microscope. To pause, take stock, and let the rational brain process information, right? Sounds terrific, but in the real world, we rarely take that kind of time. Take a few lessons Malcolm Gladwell’s wildly popular book “Blink”.
Since the human brain can only hold three to seven pieces of information at a time, Gladwell suggests that we don’t have time to focus on more than a few points, so snap decisions are naturally impaired. You have two seconds to react. More information tends to create “noise” and cloud your judgement. So what do you do? In any number of instances, you may make the wrong decision, but with training, Gladwell suggests you can learn to ignore the noise and effectively teach yourself to react in what we might generalize as a common sense approach.
Should common sense be “common”?
But is common sense always a good thing? Einstein offers a contrarian view, concluding that, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” And Descartes quips, “Nothing is more fairly distributed than common sense; no one thinks he needs more of it than he already has”. If you think back through history, what was thought of at the time as “common sense” is now often believed to be absurd and shortsighted.
So should common sense be common? I struggle with this question. On some issues (the Golden Rule, toilet stall dragging), the answer seems painfully obvious. On others (the healthcare reform debate, the plight of the unemployed), common sense is in the eye of the beholder. I think Lehrer was right in suggesting self assessment. Instead of judging everyone else for their so called “lack of common sense”, a simple mirror might do the trick. Perhaps embracing a two second Gladwell-ian flash of reality and your role in it? I’m really not sure.
At a minimum, my common sense lesson from our opening story was this – be prepared to stomp on mysterious hands. In the meantime, try not to get yanked out from under the bathroom stall, share your thoughts on common sense and let’s keep the conversation going.