Conventional Wisdom: Ignore It

A graphic personification of Wisdom QR-Code co...

A graphic personification of Wisdom QR-Code content : (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

You have to be willing to do what other people won’t… period. And it all starts with one thing… A Decision. Stepping into fear and taking action anyway, to do what it takes to grow and prosper in your business, is a choice. We’d often like to think that our lack of success or things not going as “planned” are due to outside sources beyond our control.  When in actuality it’s ALL in our control. It all starts with us and our choices.

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:

The ones who eventually succeed aren’t the ones who mitigate risks all the time. They’re the ones who take them, over and over and over again with the fear in the pit of their stomach, until one pays off.

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,

…if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it’s that planning for the future is an act of faith. Supply chains and software eat our jobs. Financial wizardry eats our savings. The cost of insuring against these risks — that is, both college and literal insurance — is rising…It’s no wonder that in an environment that punishes the long-term faithful, more young people are planning month to month.

A large house with complex rooflines under con...

A large house with complex rooflines under construction in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

They’re the ones who don’t believe in us. Who bring us down. They take us for granted. The ones we allow to steal our most precious asset of time. . . Stop worrying about whom you’ll offend and start honoring yourself by giving yourself the room to be humble and develop relationships in every aspect of your life that matter. There are people who need to go. You know who they are.

Alain de Botton spoke (video here) at TED about external influences on our feelings of success:

A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own.

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.

Michelle M. Welch

Michelle M. Welch (Photo credit: FarPoint Media)

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.



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  1. says

    Hi Betsy .. I agree we can spend far too long following the crowd, and not thinking out of the box at alternatives. We all think we need jobs – some have managed to release the shackles of their minds and moved on to do other things … following our dreams can be a challenge. We may not know which way to turn – I somehow wish I’d been shown alternatives – or at least had peers who did different things and been to turn the penny/dime over – and seen life on the other side.

    Well I have a second life now … so I can move forward in another way … I feel more comfortable and hopeful for my future than I might have done being stuck in a rut …

    I know you and Pete are already on that course and loving the choices you’ve given yourself and through the process found are available to you …

    My post of today ties in – Dream Catchers … good synchronicity – funny how these things happen around the internet …

    Cheers have a lovely weekend .. Hilary
    Hilary has an awesome blog post here: Dolce Via … DreamCatcher … World Story Telling Day was Tuesday!My Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Hilary – I had dinner with a childhood friend last night whose circumstances have mandated a reinvention. We both agreed that this is exciting and exhilarating for her. Embracing change she had not sought and an optimistic outlook are key parts of her being able to look at things in this light. I’m certain she is fearful, but she is also confident in herself. All this boils down to two things: trusting your abilities and being willing to put forth an effort. You’re right, this can be a big challenge. I’ve lately observed so many people who are putting up with the status quo with rationalization: they’re too old, there are no opportunities, etc etc. This sort of self-inflicted defeatism is disheartening, and it leaves one open for exploitation of all kinds. Thanks.

  2. says

    Hi Betsy .. I think I was thinking of everyone with little or no money – and that makes it very challenging.

    But I agree people as they get older think that’s it – seems crazy to me .. but that’s the way they’re succoured to be … and the thing I hate at the moment is everyone is saying go get a job .. when perhaps they should be saying what else can you do …

    As you say the self-inflicted defeatism is disheartening and leaves them open to all sorts of exploitation.

    People who don’t want to increase their skills have a problem .. and that will increasingly be so …

    Cheers Hilary
    Hilary has an awesome blog post here: Dolce Via … DreamCatcher … World Story Telling Day was Tuesday!My Profile

  3. Julie says

    Acquiring risks and succeeding new challenges are just few of the things that one person wishes to achieve. I also believe that living in a bigger and bolder state of mind can make good things happen. Hurray for the boy!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Julie – Welcome to PassingThru! You’re right, risk and challenge are definitely related. Thank you.

  4. Asher says

    I like this blog as well as it without doubt has given me A few inspiration To succeed, so Thank you. =)


  1. […] Launching a side hustle is easier than sustaining one.  Working on what is essentially a second job with few initial rewards and no guarantees are not the sort of career goals many of us have been conditioned to make. Yet, good hustle encompasses this reverse conditioning which conventional wisdom warns against. There’s very little payoff when you begin any sort of entrepreneurial endeavor, and there’s always the chance there won’t be any later. Many well-meaning naysayers will continually bring up this risk. Good hustle in your side hustle requires you ignore them. […]