Get a Degree in Common Sense

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbonYears ago I wrote an essay for leaders called “Increase Your Common Sense Capability” about ways to increase the practical and useful skills of people in an organization. Interestingly, that essay gets the most hits on my blog, as people search using the words “increase common sense.” Obviously, common sense matters, and it’s a rare commodity. So this month, I’ll talk about how to increase your common sense – or at least the perception that you have it.

The main premise is this: The more you know about the world and how to move within it, the more common sense you will have. Common sense (unlike “book sense”) comes from living among common-folk – that’s you and me and everyone else. It used to be that everyone in the community sortof knew the same thing. In tight-knit, stable rural communities, for example, every farmer generously shared what they knew, talking with neighbours and teaching the next generation. These days of high mobility and ever-expanding human endeavours mean there is too much to know and little time to learn. In competitive societies when jobs are scarce, knowledge is often hoarded because of its worth. Frankly, if you want common sense, you are going to have to go out and get it.

There are two levels of common sense: The “I know it because I’ve seen/heard about it” and “I know it because I’ve done it.” Both are useful, and depending on your tolerance for other people, and for risk, you get to choose which of each you’ll go after.

  1. Start by getting out more. Expose yourself to a lot of real-life experiences. Go to different neighbourhoods to hang out. Eat different foods. If you see a street carnival, or a church basement sale and you’ve never been, go and hang out.  Travel is a great way to gain common sense, and you don’t have to go to the other side of the world.  A few kilometres from work or home can make a big difference. I had never seen a girl’s lacrosse game until I went to a nearby village arena with a friend. Travel nicely combines exposure to new things with a need to think on your feet in unfamiliar territory.  When you see a poster for an event, take a friend and try it out. If you’ve never been to a dog show, now is a good time to learn about dog breeds.
  2. Widen your attention span. Read books that are different from your usual genres and about places or times you don’t know. Never been to Africa – read the richly descriptive stories in Say You’re One of Them to learn more.  Read biographies and autobiographies of people in cultures and occupations that are new to you.  Read survival and adventure stories. An old version of Robinson Crusoe I found at a garage sale has detailed and interesting footnotes in the margins. Do the same with movies. If you subscribe to a service like Netflix you can watch movies from many genres at low cost.
  3. If you don’t like to read books, or have little free time, pick up magazines you don’t normally read. Bookstore and airports have tonnes to choose from – some that are pretty obscure. The library does too. Spend an hour flipping through them. It’s fine if you don’t care about knitting, but recognizing a Fair Isle pattern might come in handy some day. Subscribe to a few blogs outside of your industry. is a good cornucopia of useful knowledge.
  4. Talk to old people. Many have better memories of the far past than they do of yesterday. An elderly person typically has a lot of common sense just by virtue of having lived life longer than the rest of us.  Suspend your judgment and listen with fresh ears for the drops of wisdom. Instead of just nodding at your Great Aunt’s quirky saying, explore it with her. “How’d you learn that?” Let them tell you stories.
  5. Play around for 30 minutes on Google or your favourite search engine. Start with a question you are curious about: “Where do peanuts grow?” and zigzag from there. Think of it like brainstorming or mind-mapping – just jump from topic to topic and soak it up. The main rule is to let go of your care about retention or about usefulness. Enjoy learning and be curious. Our brains are capable of storing and retrieving much more information than we think. Just trust the process.
  6. Ask casual and curious questions of people – not to grill them but to learn. Adopt a learning tone. When your mechanic changes the tool in his hand, ask him “what’s that and why did you change?”  Ask the salesperson the difference between a back-sleeping pillow and side-sleeping pillow. When shopping, ask the trained sales clerks for their knowledge. At the garden centre, ask questions about plants and soils. At the hardware store, ask about the difference in drill usage and wood types. Ask your butcher to explain the difference between sirloin and rib eye. People love to talk about what they know. My husband sells tires, and he can riff about all-season and winter brands for hours.
  7. Common sense includes the application of what you’ve learned. This means you have to try new things – even if you think you won’t get it all right. Be inspired by William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill for his village using his common sense and parts available to him.  You can start smaller. Try a recipe that seems daunting – that has 4 steps and has to sit overnight.  Solve your own irritating day-to-day problems. We recently fixed our dishwasher by reading an appliance repair forum online. It was fun, and it saved us the cost of a service call.  Let yourself make mistakes. Making mistakes is a great way to gain common sense. It’s only after you’ve done it the wrong way can you say with confidence, “Everyone knows you have to do it this way.”

A word of caution: Common sense is also about safety and security. Some things are safer to read about than to do. There are a lot of movies and books that explore the gritty reality of life in places where real danger makes it unsafe for you. Sometimes the best common sense comes from learning from others mistakes. It’s common sense to say, “I’m never going to do that.”

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