You Did What? (And How To Get More Common Sense)

Thomas Edison noted “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are first, hard work, second, stick-to-itiveness, and third, common sense.

Carol Dweck, Anders Ericsson, and Angela Duckworth have the first two qualities well-covered, I’ll take a crack at the third.

“Common sense,”  it’s been said (C. E. Stowe) “is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done.” That definition serves better than most, and unlike D. J. Chuang, I don’t think it’s a mystery where it comes from. Common sense comes from having three or four perspectives – filters really – that you use as you approach everyday life.

Here are four ways to achieve greater common sense:

  1. What would my boss, parents, or best friends, do (or think)? Sometimes getting some common sense is as simple as moving out the perspective called you, and taking on the perspectives of someone else you respect or admire. I call this the “headlines approach” as in “Company’s General Counsel Decides to Conduct Team Building Retreat at Exclusive Napa Valley Resort Three Weeks Before Company Lays Off 100 Employees.” It can help you from making dumb mistakes, and help you recover quickly since you have a sense of how badly they may play out.
  2. What are all the options – what are the consequences? Sometimes what leaps out as a choice is the sexiest, most intriguing option – channel David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, or Larry Craig –  but a little common sense and some self-reflection regarding the possible consequences may sober someone up to the potential of trouble. It helps to move from what you think will happen, to think about what could happen. A little paranoia, as Bill Gates might suggest, is not such a bad thing.
  3. Pay attention to the world around you. Bad decisions can operate in the light of day, but more often than not they operate in the shadows of the very few. It helps to ask yourself the question “What’s going on around me?” “Do I see other people making similar choices? Holding a business unit meeting at the Gold Club might be OK if you’re in the strip club business, but not such a good thing if you’re in any other business where things like trust, sobriety, and a sense of measured judgement are important. If you don’t see a lot of people doing something there may be a good reason; it’s a bad idea.
  4. Bounce the idea off your boss – even if it’s your former boss. A cardinal sin is to let your boss stumble onto a uncommon sense decision you’ve made that will embarrass everyone. Akin to the Harry Truman saying – “Never kick a warm turd on a hot day” – having your boss get surprised by something you’re about to do, doing, or have done – that is plain right dumb is not a step generally for career advancement. As Mark Hurd – formerly with HP and now with Oracle – might suggest, even what’s not illegal can be inappropriate.

While common sense can have a bad name – Albert Einstein suggested that “Common sense was the collection of prejudices accumulated by age 18” – decent common sense never got anyone into trouble unless they have mistaken common sense for innovation, creativity or imagination. You can be both creative, and have common sense at the same time.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). J. Mike Smith is a San Franciosco-based career, executive and team coach with an international practice. More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview at WhoHub, as well as participate in a learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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