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Common Sense

When common sense is not right.

Try to name an example of when common sense would have been the best course to follow. Certainly, you can. Every one of us has a good story about someone not using common sense. (If you’re short on examples, try The Darwin Awards or People of WalMart.) In general, following the advice of common sense is usually best practice, but not always.

By definition, common sense is not best or wisest, but merely common, meaning it occurs more often. Common sense is the collective set of norms, mores, and good advice to which statistically most people adhere. If we asked 10,000 people if lighting fireworks indoors was wise or not, probably some idiot would say yes, but most people would have the sense to say no. So common sense (e.g. the consensus of the majority) usually serves us well, keeping us out of dangerous and/or embarrassing situations.

However, the mob is not always right and occasionally an uncommon sense is superior. Common sense is what separates the majority from the idiots and geniuses.

Image of common sense along a Bell Curve graph

An Example

When I was in high school, my dad sent me to pick up a large load of wood mulch at a nearby landscaping supply yard. He let me borrow his truck and trailer, which I had driven only a few times. As I was returning home on a four lane highway with the huge load of mulch in tow, the trailer began swaying back and forth, causing the truck to fishtail. As an inexperienced driver, I resorted to my common sense and hit the brakes. To my surprise, this actually made the situation worse. The truck and trailer swayed back and forth even harder. Pushing the brakes did nothing. I was completely out of control, being pushed sideways down the road at 45 MPH. The truck and trailer eventually whipped around completely and came to a stop in the ditch, narrowly missing a mailbox and light pole. The rear bumper was bent up and I was shaken up, but very little damage was done.

Obviously, my common sense had failed me, so later I asked my dad, who has driven with a trailer many times, what I should have done in that situation. He replied:

Slam on the gas.

His answer seemed crazy. Hitting the gas in an out of control vehicle was contrary to everything I had been taught about driving, but he explained the reason this would work. When I hit the brakes, the weight of the loaded trailer had pushed against the hitch, lifting the back tires of the truck up slightly. Since the tires were not well connected to the pavement, my brakes no longer worked very well. It was like pulling the hand brakes on the front wheel of a mountain bike while going full speed. To stop the trailer from swaying back and forth, I needed to get it moving in the right direction. The trailer needed to be yanked forward into a straight line again. Stepping on the gas would stop the swaying action.

That bit of uncommon sense held the essence of true wisdom. I felt like I was the Karate Kid and my dad was Mr. Miyagi unlocking the secrets of “paint the fence” and “wax on, wax off.”

“Show Me” Scene from The Karate Kid

Lesson Learned

When venturing beyond the confines of the common sense domain, knowing which end of the bell curve you are entering into can make all the difference. Hitting the brakes is almost always the right answer, but sometimes the best thing to do is to slam on the gas. Having wisdom is knowing when to ignore common sense, proceeding though it may seem crazy. The wisest people often look like fools.

And wisdom isn’t lazy reliance on fortune cookie mantras for the right answer either. Wisdom is a ceaseless, persistent and active discernment of every situation. Or as Jackie Chan says in the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, “Everything is Kung Fu.”

If you’re not sure which end of the bell curve you’re on, sometimes it’s best to just keep quiet.

That said, what do you think? 😉