“The only thing a person can never have too much of, is common sense.”
—–Kathryn Smith—Anna & the Duke
Success is the perpetual pursuit of all working human beings. There are innumerable ingredients for success, but one of the most essential one I find today is commonsense. The term is best defined as “the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts”. Incidentally whoever called it common must have had a twisted sense of humour for as Ralph Waldo Emerson aptly says “Common sense is as rare as genius.”
Why commonsense? People with education & experience have the knowledge to tackle most problems in a logical manner in most predictable situations. However what is missing today is predictability in our work environment & in business. We are consistently facing ambiguity in our working life. Educated & smart people tend to go into an auto-pilot mode of thinking & tend to get bound to rules, theories, ideas and guidelines that would hamper or stifle the best decision in a particular situation. The fact is that just because someone says so or just because it has always been done that way, is not a reason things will work when circumstances change. This is where commonsense comes into play & as Victor Hugo has rightly said “Common sense is in spite of, not as the result of education”.
A good technical definition of commonsense is “sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge.” One doesn’t needs to be a Ph.D. to exercise commonsense. It’s a trait one develops through purposeful awareness and habit. Commonsense equates to wisdom, whereas an academic understanding of specific areas of life equates to knowledge. In simpler terms, what commonsense boils down to is a sound understanding of how life works. Karl Albrecht, author of “Practical Intelligence: The Art & Science of Common sense” refers to common sense as “practical intelligence”. He defines it as “the mental ability to cope with the challenges and opportunities of life”. He explains that common sense is situational, dependent on context and that your common sense in one aspect of your life might be excellent while failing abysmally in another aspect of your life.
Albert Einstein’s quote “Nothing happens until something moves” is the epitome of profound common sense. Millions of people seem to be waiting around for something good to happen in their lives, while expending enormous amounts of energy complaining about their “bad luck.” In practical terms, I find this trait very common in most people I have worked with. Those who were successful yesterday, fail today simply because their experience gives them reactive thinking to every situation, while what is required is reflective thinking. People tend to react to similar situations based on their knowledge & past experience without adjusting to context & without modifying their thought processes, hence they tend to over-ride common sense & make erroneous judgements.
I have observed a lot of people who are obsessively hard workers, who work incessantly & yet fail to achieve the same goals they achieved earlier. This is because they have an absolute black and white way of thinking about the world that never allows space for doubt. For them the “one right way” is the only way and therefore they fail to apply commonsense. They fail to reflect at what is going wrong & what do they need to do differently. They do not take time out to sit back & think rationally & let commonsense prevail. Reflective thinking is all about being able to stand back & take a holistic & a realistic view of a situation & then taking an action with a reflective mindset rather than conforming to what you have programmed your mind to see. Doing this as a regular routine can hugely increase the use of commonsense.
It is important to remember that commonsense is not a destination but a process. To win through commonsense you need to develop mental flexibility to enable you to think “out of the box” & to stretch yourself beyond the things you think you already know. You need to have affirmative thinking & perceive yourself in a positive manner. More than being highly educated you need to be open-minded & curious about ideas.
The context of this article is my recent struggle in finding the right talent to handle an increasingly complex business like executive search. We generally hire for certain attributes & not necessarily from within the industry. While differentiating between those who are quick successes & those who struggled over a long period, I noticed a distinct lack of ability to understand the basics in the latter, while the former had a reflective mindsets & were coming out with answers faster. Commonsense I realised was truly at a premium. Today this attribute is amongst the top 3 attributes that we seek in all our new hires. People with chequered & simple-educational background but surfeit of commonsense are any day better than highly educated fools. The adage that “Knowledge counts but common sense matters” truly makes for so much commonsense