Most of us rely upon conventional wisdom when we’re making decisions. We’re comforted by doing what we think we’re supposed to do. We’ll use “rule of thumb” benchmarks to assess, check and balance our actions. We’ll consult widely-accepted sources of information, particularly the media, for guidance and justification regarding our decisions. But using conventional wisdom to evaluate a plan or an idea can do more harm than good. If you’re determined to make better decisions, your process needs to be more relevant.
Conventional wisdom can hold you back by magnifying a perceived risk. When we attempt to diminish or mitigate risk, we sell our own courage short. Michelle Welch, who writes at NewBizBlogger, explains that new wisdom requires we be ready to do what it takes:
Courageous people aren’t any less fearful. They just decide to go ahead despite their fears. Christine Kane reminds us that self-esteem shows up when you take action in the scary moments. New wisdom requires that we exit our comfort zone and live big. Check out an inspiring video of a 9-year-old ski jumper who finds this out (RSS readers click here):
Conventional wisdom can rob you of joy. The 9-year-old’s elation at completing the run in the video is pure joy! Imagine what might have been if she believed that 9-year-olds shouldn’t be ski jumping. Yet, we’re making analogous decisions every day and allowing our risk tolerance to be governed by artificial restraint. Amber Naslund, writing in Brass Tack Thinking, puts it this way:
Conventional wisdom can cost you thousands of dollars you didn’t have to spend. Consider today’s employment landscape for those who hold degrees in liberal or fine arts versus those who are trained with technical skills. Sarah Gilbert points this out by likening higher education to an illegal pyramid scheme: “The big problem isn’t so much the cost of higher education (although that too is inflated by government subsidy). The real problem is that we’re making bad investments. We still act as if all college degrees are created equal.” Yet, how many still think that the “best” pathway for a high schooler is a four-year college degree?
Julie Meyer, writing a Jobs Manifesto for Young Europe (and the Rest of the World) in the Harvard Business Review enumerates new realities:
- Jobs you can get may not be like the jobs you had
- Each job in government that gets created is just a further weight around a country’s neck
- Your employer could be on the opposite side of the world. Think global, not local.
- The government cannot help you. Governments never spend ahead of the curve.
- Find out where smart money is and new jobs are by looking at entrepreneurs
Many of us who are in the market for a job are having a hard time letting go of the traditional ideas that we need to work at what we’ve done in the past for an established company within a certain commute, or that we should turn to government programs for specific training or relief. Jonathan Mead of Illuminated Mind believes the time has come to take a stand against the system that’s “designed to make us despise our work, and start being part of a new movement where work is centered in joy, contribution, and community.” See more at the Harvard Business Review’s series on New Rules for Getting a Job. Hint: you’ll have to raise your risk tolerance level.
Conventional wisdom can set you off on a path to enslavement. In The End of Ownership: Why Aren’t Young People Buying More Houses, Derek Thompson tells The Atlantic readers,
New wisdom requires shorter term thinking. A heartbreaking theme emerges in the comments section of Thompson’s article: “we wish like hell we had never bought.” Conventional wisdom has long held that a house is an investment, but now the math adds up differently. “We are tied to a place that is prohibitively expensive to live, requiring both of us to work instead of one parent staying home. Homes require constant upkeep and expense. Psychologically, young buyers like us fail to truly do the math on property taxes, homeowners insurance, flood insurance, earthquake insurance, plumbing, yardwork, general maintenance, drainage, so on and so forth.”
From new wisdom comes new advice: “Do not buy a home for equity. Do not buy a home as investment. The starter home is a thing of the past.” and “The world is a big place, but you won’t know that if you’re stuck in a house that you can’t sell.”
Elsewhere in The Atlantic, Megan McArdle points out that it’s not the luxuries that usually get people into trouble–it’s paying too much for “the basics.” Conventional wisdom bases what you “should pay for” certain things on the “certainty” of your monthly income and your credit score. New wisdom reflects more of those whose risk tolerance is tied to a lower threshold in part because they value flexibility and freedom over the obligations of higher bills.
Conventional wisdom will cause other people to be apprehensive and non-supportive. People tend to project their own risk tolerance. We’ve said previously that family and friends who aren’t on board may be passing along their own issues with risk. Approval from others shapes our own perceptions because we are hard-wired to look for feedback when we’re dealing with uncertainty.
New wisdom acknowledges that to move forward, we think about “leaving people behind who clutter-up our lives,” as Redhead Writing advises.
Alain de Botton spoke (video here) at TED about external influences on our feelings of success:
This new wisdom celebrates a more independent spirit while acknowledging the external inputs that govern our feelings about risk. Preventing conventional wisdom from lowering our risk tolerance enables us to grapple with the increasing fluidity which Amber Naslund cites as an emerging reality in business.
Conventional wisdom can influence you to reject something (or someone) wonderful. Many is the would-be lover who has allowed an impossible standard or the influence of others, well-meaning as they might be, to derail a fulfilling relationship. As summarized in the New York Times, researchers at Northwestern University found the most common regret among American adults involves a lost romantic opportunity, and they were likely to hold on to that regret for a very long time.
Conventional wisdom often has people gauging how appropriate a potential partner might be against a checklist, no matter how unrealistic the list might be. If you’re not succeeding by doing what you’ve always done, what could it hurt to try a different approach?
Overall, conventional wisdom lures you into “group-think.” This is convenient for marketers, high-level investors, political pundits, government bureaucrats, and corporate management. Their offers to others will be presented within a widely-accepted framework. Yet the inner circle will often bet against the bigger crowd for higher gain.
In every age, innovators and leaders have questioned, and frequently ignored, conventional wisdom. Embrace uncertainty, let go of your fear of failure, and position yourself against conventional wisdom for bigger possibilities.
- Keeping Your Options Open Will Cost You (passingthru.com)
- The Lure of Conventional Wisdom (taylordavidson.com)
- Where Conventional Wisdom Fails (beyondskeptical.wordpress.com)
- Your Job: Why You Can’t Bring Yourself to Quit (passingthru.com)
- Want to Simplify Life? Dare to Think Tiny (entrepreneur.com)