There is common sense, and then there is a common sense. For this post, I have in mind an idea of unsophisticated sense. That quality of an person’s inherent capacities prior to training or education. This is a sense of being able to confront novelty and conceive a plan of action that is both doable and will somehow address the issue. There may not be much wisdom in the approach taken. The point is the ability to conceive of something that can be done, and then proceed to do it.
What I have in mind is usually acquired and refined by experience, but that experience is more haphazard on-the-job kind of experience rather than formal training and testing. So some people may have more of it or a better quality of it than others.
The opposite of this idea of common sense is being pre-qualified to the task through formal training and testing associated with education degrees or professional certification.
A piece of wisdom handed down to me when I was a child was an observation that the more education one has, the less common sense he has. It was a nugget that had an immediate ring of truth even then. At that time, I probably interpreted it as somewhat derogatory as suggesting that educated people sometimes do unwise things. It was probably uttered shortly after such an event occurred.
But over the ages I began to see a different interpretation, and one that probably was closer to what was originally intended back then.
Paralysis can come from education. An person is much less likely to volunteer a solution or action in an area that is outside of his expertise. In addition, an education person may prevent others from proceeding unless they recognize specific qualifications. The result is that some urgent matter is left untouched until the experts arrive.
I can imagine two forces in education and training that could explain this conditioning to suppress a pre-existing common sense reaction.
One is that educational process involves constant testing that penalizes for making errors. Although the quizzes are often abstract such as worded questions, the training is to treat all problems as if they were abstract word problems that will eventually get graded on how well the answers match the globally accepted idea. Some training even penalizes more for making a wrong answer instead of leaving the question unanswered. The more advanced the education, the more time a person has been conditioned to think this way about all problems. In addition, this conditioning also develops a skill in distinguishing different levels of confidence internally where low confidence is a warning to slow down and think more before answering.
The other force is learning to be defensive of ones earned prestige. The education person is more alert to potential risk of tarnishing his reputation among his peers if an unqualified action were to proceed in his presence.
Combined, these two limit allowed actions to what one is most confident about. Any lack of confidence will halt or at least dramatically slow down the action to allow more time to think it over. Such a person will even demand others to slow down or halt if he doesn’t trust the other person is competent to judge his own confidence.
Another way to describe my idea of common sense is the ability to act without appealing to confidence. Action is less deliberative and with less fear of failure. Only if someone asks would a person respond that he knows what he is doing. That could be considered a false sense of confidence. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be the best possible outcome, the common sense person is less likely to fret about it. He may learn from mistakes but he is not burdened with that same kind of shame of being wrong that a more educated person is trained to feel.
Common sense rules often in ones own home. A person who has no skill in carpentry doesn’t think much about adding an additional nail to something that appears to be getting loose. But if you think about it, this is actually something that could have right or wrong answers. What are the forces that are causing the loosening to occur? What is the best type of fastener to use and where is it best applied? What is the more professional way to apply the fastener that shows high quality workmanship? These questions that could be asked but we never even think about asking it. We grab a hammer and a nail, hammer the nail in, and then move on.
I’ve read recently about there even being a right way and a wrong way to even hold the hammer and this takes training. I’m sure I don’t know the right way.
Even within the home, there are signs of erosion of our faith in common sense. I suspect one of the reasons for the growth of visits to primary health care is to get expert opinions on something we once just brushed off. We respond to even minor mishaps with a trip to the doctor to have it checked out for possible infection, bone fracture, or whatever. We don’t trust our common sense.
A person who doesn’t trust common sense at home will certainly not trust it in the workplace. A manager is not going to allow someone to act on common sense (that is if the rules don’t prevent him from that option in the first place).
I’m reminded of my pre-college work experience of working for businesses that were family-owned and operated. While there may be routine duties that can be done independently and predictably, any surprising or difficult challenge became a team effort. Perhaps a challenge would be part coming loose on a tractor while working the field. We all became instant mechanics and tool-makers. That is not say that every problem was solvable this way, but we didn’t stop from trying to figure out a solution with what we had available in terms of inventiveness, tools, and raw strength. Often the solution was not even a memorable event. We just did what came to mind as something that might work.
This kind of improvised expertise or common sense no doubt still exist in very small businesses. I don’t know because I went on to college and my experience work experience became limited to large businesses.
In larger businesses there is better access to specialized expertise for things that non-specialists may be able to figure out on their own. It is good sense to accept the delay in summoning the expert to perform even an obvious task. Sometimes it is imperative such as the case of vendor-warranty contracts.
On the other hand, there are still the kinds of problems that are similar to my experience in small business. These are problems that are somewhat urgent but no one is around to fix it. I’ve even encountered problems where the expert present to fix the problem doesn’t know what to do to fix it. The examples that come to mind are too specific to relate in a blog post, but it might be summarized as someone out the blue suggesting “maybe if you do this”. The suggestion often seems ridiculous.
What happens after a common sense suggestion? Do we allow ourselves to try it, or do we disqualify ourselves for lack of confidence it would work?
I can think of several trivial examples involving computer mouse devices. The reaction of the screen cursor to the mouse movement may be sporadic. Do we dare open the bottom of the mouse to check out its moving parts? When new and unfamiliar optical versions came out and their erratic behavior can not be explained by moving parts, do we try to move the mouse on a different type of surface? There were occasions where an expert had to come to solve these problems: in the latter case supplying an optical mouse pad when in fact a plain sheet of paper would have done the same trick.
I have in mind much more consequential circumstances that come up on the job. In these cases, there is a sense of not having any option that falls within our areas of expertise. Perhaps the problem is so unusual that we don’t even know what kind of expert would even be able solve the problem, or even if such an expertise even exists.
It is my impression that the culture of work has changed in the past several decades where an earlier culture would not be as readily paralyzed as we are today. There was more encouragement for someone to speak up if they had any idea. There was less reluctance to try if it seemed at all possible to make some progress in the matter.
I don’t really agree with the earlier mentioned rule that more education means less common sense. Common sense isn’t replaced by education. Instead education and training restrains common sense or even quarantines it so it can’t get out.
We increasingly encounter situations where a common sense solution would possibly have helped but instead we accepted defeat as a better option than allowing us to act on our common sense. It can be discouraging to experience such a failure that might have been prevented with something we wouldn’t allow ourselves to try.
I’m also thinking that in the past we were more open to consider common sense as a qualification for employment. Someone who shows a good head on his shoulders would be hired and allowed to use his head without having the credentials. We recognized a value in permitted unskilled labor to be inventive. That spontaneous and unexpected inventiveness could have had broader benefits of providing a greater sense of team confidence to tackle the unexpected.
Some people may offer their most value as spontaneous thinkers and actors. Either we ignore them in favor of credentialed candidates, or our employment offers make clear they will be prevented from exercising their common sense skills. Such people may decide that the workforce no longer welcomes their participation.