Everyone has lapses in common sense. Common sense isn’t a one-stop-destination; it’s a way of thinking that needs constant nourishing and application, and this article provides one way of looking at developing your common sense a little further. Common sense can be learned and applied in everyday situations regardless of your background, training, Intellectual Quotient, social status or experience. The more we’re trained to think one way (by our workplace, family, culture, etc.), the greater the chance that sometimes we allow sloppy or auto-pilot thinking to take the place of common sense.
We are human; we are fallible. And our brains work in certain ways as a means of providing shortcuts to ensure survival in a world where being chased by predators could end your life. Like the saying “Things are not usually the way they appear”. Smart people do not always do things in a smart way; sometimes smart people can do irrational things like gambling away all their money on the stock market, having extramarital affairs that destroy their marriage and their political career. While each of us creates a reality out of our own experiences and makes sense of our world through this personal lens, for the most part, we understand that our sense of reality is only a small portion of a much larger picture. For some people, however, their sense of reality becomes the only sense of reality and they believe that they can manipulate or magically transform situations to turn out the way they want them to be. In steps irrational behavior for some and insanity for the less fortunate.
What is the purpose and meaning of common sense?
According to Merriam Webster, common sense is about exercising « sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts ». This definition suggests that common sense depends on not over-complicating the situation (simple), applying experience and general knowledge to the situation (sound and prudent judgment), and implicit in this is self-trust that your considered experience is valid for future situations.
Karl Albrecht calls common sense 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. As to the purpose of common sense, it is basically thinking that prevents you from making irrational mistakes or decisions, a thinking approach that may open your eyes to the possibility that insisting on being right prevents you from seeing the bigger picture.
• Common sense can also serve the purpose of removing you from being hidebound to rules, theories, ideas, and guidelines that would hamper or stifle the best decision in a particular situation. In other words, just because something says so, or just because it has always been done that way, is not a reason to abandon common sense about present needs and changed circumstances.
How to apply common sense
• Start by taking a look at your own emotions, beliefs, and practices to make sure they’re not overriding your common sense. Test different scenarios in your mind to try and ascertain the practical consequences of applying the decision or action the way you want to. Is it practical, have you accounted for everything, and what will happen if things go wrong? If things go wrong, can you fix them and if you can’t, what will be the consequences?
• Consult with others. If your reality is clouding your judgment too much, reach out and discuss the situation with others to gain wider appreciation of their perspectives and ideas. This is most important where you are too close to a situation and any decision or action you take might be infected by your proximity.
Daniel Willingham cites examples of people who throw money at the stock market, or people who choose unsuitable life situations as people who made decisions or took actions without using reflective thinking. Rationalizing that external signs seem fine while ignoring complete mismatches to the person you are or the beliefs you hold is a denial of common sense. In other words, just because other people do or use something effectively isn’t a sign that it will suit you too; you need to put your own reflective mind to work on each situation to decide whether it will be a fit for you, your lifestyle, and those around you directly impacted by your decisions.
Reflective intelligence is about being able to stand back and view the bigger picture so that you realistically appraise the situation or environment directly around you rather than forcing yourself to conform to its suitability or practicing wishful thinking. After an accurate appraisal of the situation, a reflective mindset enables you to set goals that are realistic given the parameters you’re working within, and to take sensible actions toward meeting those goals.
Do less, think more. Siimon Reynolds says that many of us are suffering from « Obsessive Do-Itis ». This simply means we’re obsessed with doing more all the time instead of thinking. And while we’re running around frantically being busy all the time, we’re not being productive and we’re contributing to a culture that admires incessantly busy people. Is this common sense? Hardly. It is about working harder and longer without taking time out to reflect.
Allocate thinking time every single day, even if it’s only 20 minutes. Siimon Reynolds suggests that you try this for one week, and says that at the end of it, you’ll notice much reduced stress levels. And your common sense will improve markedly.
How to learn things that are basic common sense
There are things that every human being should know how to do and not leave to another person, things that go to the heart of personal survival, self-knowledge, and long-term health and safety. In this way, you can learn common sense through practical knowledge and application, informing you accurately when times are harder or when you must react quickly.
• Knowing how to cook and how the food gets to your table. For every person who proudly proclaims that he or she does not know how to cook, there is a person easily persuaded by others that any food is suitable for them, no matter how unhealthy or how unethically or unproductively sourced. It’s no badge of honor to not know how to cook for yourself; it’s often a sign of laziness or a rebellion against supposed domesticity. Knowing how to cook is basic common sense because it will ensure your healthy survival under any conditions. And, no matter how infrequently you use this skill, it’s enjoyable and rewarding.
• Knowing how to grow your own food. Being able to grow your own food is an assurance of self-survival. Learn the skill if you haven’t already and instill it in your kids.
• Knowing about nutrition. If you’re cooking for yourself, and perhaps growing your own food, you’ll be more connected with your body’s need for healthy nutrition. Eat healthily most of the time, in moderation, and with an eye to meeting all appropriate nutritional needs for your age, gender, height, and personal conditions.
• Knowing and respecting your surrounds. It’s common sense to know what local conditions impact your life, from weather to wildlife. Take the time to get to know your local environment and respond to it appropriately, from adequately weatherproofing your home to removing invasive species from your garden.
• Knowing how to budget and not spend more than you’re earning. It’s common sense to only spend what you have. Sadly, many people manage to forget this in an orgy of frequent over-spending, behaving as if a bulging credit card debt came as a complete surprise to them. Over-spending is an irrational habit, as is hiding unopened bills at the back of a closet; reining in the spending with a budget and self-restraint is common sense in action. And make sure to get all important financial decisions and agreements in writing, from loans to sales; you can never be too careful when it comes to money.
• Knowing the limitations of your own body. This includes knowing which foods wreak havoc with your body, which foods work for you, knowing how many hours of sleep you need, and knowing the type of exercise that benefits your body and metabolism best; read widely but work out for yourself what harms and heals your body, as you’re the real expert on this topic. Moreover, you’re no super hero – ignoring bodily injuries is done at your own peril, such as continuing to carry heavy loads with an aching back, or refusing to acknowledge constant pains.
• Knowing how to analyze situations and think for yourself. Instead of digesting the pulp media thrown at you every day, and ending up in a state of fear because every second news item is a crime or disaster, start thinking about the reality behind the newsfeed and start thinking about life and happenings with a healthy, open, and questioning mindset. Help free others from the fear media by teaching them how to recognize the tactics used.
• Knowing how to repair items. In a world heavily dependent on disposal of items rather than repairing them, we’re adding to the Earth’s burden. And, we’re beholden to those who manufacture items with in-built obsolescence because we’ve lost the ability to tinker and fix things ourselves. Learning how to fix or mend clothes, appliances, household objects, car engines, and many other items that are important to our daily functioning, is not only liberating but is also an important way to exercise our common sense.
• Knowing how to plan in advance. So that you’re not doing things haphazardly, more expensively, or without an idea of the consequences, learn to plan ahead. Forward thinking is always a sign of good common sense, as is being able to review the consequences of different outcomes.
• Knowing how to be resourceful. Resourcefulness is the art of « making do »; it’s about taking small things and making them go a long way with a little imagination and elbow grease. It’s about being able to thrive under difficult conditions and still prosper and not feel deprived. Resourcefulness is a key part of using common sense, and again, it’s a skill that liberates you from consuming to live.
• Knowing how to connect with community. It’s common sense to be a part of your community; unfortunately many people prefer to bunker down and remain aloof or unhindered by the others around them. Connecting with others in your community is part of being human, of relating, and of opening yourself up to sharing and generosity.
• Knowing how to keep safe. Whether you’re in public or at home, safety is a matter of common sense. Pushing saucepan handles away from you on the stove, looking both ways when crossing the street, walking with a friend or group in dark areas of the city at night instead of being alone, etc. All of these are common sense safety actions that can be planned for and put into action before anything harmful happens; and doing so will often avert problems altogether. Think prevention, not disaster.
You don’t have to be highly educated; you do have to be open-minded and curious. And realize that this is a process, not a destination. You will have to make the mental effort throughout your life as to which messages you absorb and which people you allow to influence your thinking. Even this article is but one source of guidance on common sense – analyze it, critique its applicability to your own circumstances, and cherry pick, discard, or adopt those things that suit you or don’t fit with you. After all, doing so just makes plain common sense.
Here are some ideas to take into consideration when it comes to applying common sense
Keep in mind that manipulative and controlling strategies do not equate to common sense. These are signs of people who wish to change reality and cause other people to fit in with their notions of reality. You can’t change this type of person, so unless you’re paid to hear their woes, use your common sense and keep a good distance from them.
Listen to the world and people around you before speaking – particularly if you have something to say that might be considered judgmental. If you can’t add something meaningful, don’t say anything. This may not immediately increase or cultivate your actual common sense, but will give others the distinct impression that you do, indeed, possess common sense.
Common sense dictates that all important agreements, such as financial and marriage agreements, be in writing. Trust not to the vagaries of time and faulty memories.
Avoid speaking or writing about the unimportant things that primarily make up our daily lives and only weigh in on those things that are of genuine import. You will not only be perceived as having common sense, you will actually be using it.
Learn all you can of any parts of the universe that interest you before you die. This will allow you to cultivate common sense within a context. « Common sense » without any real knowledge is not even as good for humans as animal instinct.
Popularity does not equate to common sense. Think about the proverbial lemmings leaping off the cliff before falling for this one.
Common sense is learned through experience. Your friends and family will be more than happy to talk about basic dos and don’ts for any given situation with which they have familiarity if they know it’s about ensuring your own safety.