Common Sense Is Not So Common

Common SenseTwelve 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.

Bathroom stall feetA 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?

In his highly acclaimed book “How We Decide”, author Jonah Lehrer offers this summation:

“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”.

BlinkSince 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.

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Love the story. I think “common sense” is often easier said than done as well. And it’s often easier to skip right to the difficult, complex stuff because the common sense solutions are either too straight-forward or hard. Think about the people that create complex solutions to solve a personal problems when they really just need to have some common sense and have a 1 on 1 chat and work through the issues.

Daniel Hudson

Mark, Good points about common sense. There is something to be said for the art of dropping the “white noise” and going with your gut feeling. I am a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his book “Blink”. I recommend reading the “Artifact” story in this book. We need to get back to the basics and sharpen our “common sense” skills. I have seen Brilliant and Lazy people accomplish amazing things with simple solutions using gut instincts. Hope to see more!

Moira Deslandes

good decisions don’t just happen – that is true – involving the public in decision-making is not just part of the election cycle and I encourage gov loopers to review tools and techniques in public decision making offered by IAP2 – some of the members are in gov loop – and may want to add their own response to this – as I have to declare my interest at their Exec Director. Readers may also be interested in case studies that are included in each year’s State of the Practice report

Faron Akins

As the CEO of a small company that is attempting to gain federal and state funding for a research project, I have found that sometimes common sense appears to be hampered by a reliance on education.

Our concept is a rather simple solution to a problem that has been around for decades. A problem responsible for billions in loss every year and which has had enormous amounts spent on its research. During our experience, it appears that there is a tendency for some with a higher education to try to over complicate our simple concept to the point it is unrecognizable and difficult for them to understand. In contrast it is has been shown to be very simple for 100’s of people who have a limited education and common sense to understand.

I believe education is a vital part of our lives; however it is meant to be a tool in our life and not the sole basis for our decisions. Education only teaches us what others have learned. Education teaches us the limitations discovered by others. Education does not ever teach you of things that have not yet been discovered and if used improperly can be used to close doors to exploration into areas with enormous potential.

History shows that often times what we are taught is found later to be incorrect. To progress forward in anything, you must combine the tools of education with your own common sense. Education is meant to build on your knowledge base and be used with your common sense, not replace it.

Your common sense is what you have been taught through living your life. Interacting with others, experiencing events and their outcomes or observing others doing the same. Common sense is knowledge brought to you by the world you live in and it is far broader and more inclusive than that provided by any University.

Common sense is your own compilation of all the knowledge you have obtained. It is ongoing and continuously evolving. It allows you to examine even complex issues at your own level of comprehension. Common sense can help you to find the simplest solution to the most complex problems and when combined with your education of past knowledge, it is the key to making the simplest and wisest decisions. (Occam’s Razor)

Common sense, in essence, is your brain’s processor of all available information and just like in a computer it returns the right answers very quickly in the form of “gut feelings”.

When I was in the Air Force learning to work on ICBM’s, our instructor told us before each exam, “go with your gut feeling, you know the answers, you have been taught the subject, just rely on your first instinct and pick that answer, don’t question it or change it and you will be fine.” I followed those instructions for all the questions, except for two. I second guessed those two questions and actually changed them from correct answers to wrong ones. If I had not done that, I would have tied the highest training score ever achieved in the history of the installation (100%), but instead I only got second place (99.9%).

If you learn to trust your brain’s processor, it can provide you with good decisions, make things much easier and more efficient, but if you work against your processor and second guess what your brain has already decided, you may be facing poor decisions, a hard road and a system’s crash.

By using the tools of education and common sense, you can unlock your mind’s potential to provide even greater possibilities and opportunities. It can help to unlock your imagination. Imagination is the key to progress, innovation, opportunities and all things that make our lives better. Without imagination, we would still be living in caves and hunting or foraging for food.

Always apply your common sense to all things, regardless of whether you do or do not have a higher education; chances are your decisions will be right most of the time.