Simon Terry

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Conventional wisdom is not so wise

The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events. – John Kenneth Galbraith

In life we are given lots of advice by well meaning friends and colleagues. Rarely is this advice formed from reflection, experience or debate.  This common advice is the conventional wisdom passed on to us.  

Conventional wisdom is usually a distillation of the way things used to be or how people think it should be. Conventional wisdom tells us how the system wants us to behave. Advice like this is full of platitudes and an implicit message not to rock the boat:

  • Look after yourself first
  • Do what your boss wants
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself
  • Knowledge is power
  • Make sure you don’t fail
  • Make things perfect before you share them
  • Take the credit
  • You only get one shot
  • Never admit you don’t know
  • Appear strong. Always grow your power

Conventional wisdom is rarely wise. Here’s why:

Don’t Judge the Future on the Past:  Change is happening faster than ever. Look around. There is extensive discussion of how rules are changing and the future requires different behaviours. Basing your behaviour on advice from the last century may not be much value.

Great Advice is Tested by Conflict, Reflection and Experience: Ask people why they are giving you the advice.  If the answer is ‘I heard it somewhere’ or ‘everyone knows’ then take it with a grain of salt. Conventional opinions rarely get challenged. They live long beyond their expiry date. Great advice is the result of personal experience and insight, usually where it has been tested against opposing views in conflict. Conflict, reflection and experience keeps advice relevant. Make sure you are not someone else’s guinea pig.

Conventional Wisdom Conflicts: Should I ‘Not draw attention to myself’ or ‘Take the Credit’?  Conventional wisdom reflects the complexity and conflicts of the system.  This advice can be used to support any personal opinion.  It has not been reconciled for your circumstances.

What Reflects the Average, Does not Reflect You: You circumstances are different to that of the average. You may well be trying to make yourself even more unique. Advice that reflects your unique purpose, strengths and opportunity will rarely be conventional wisdom.

Value the people who give you unconventional wisdom.  Go gain some yourself in debate, reflection and experience.


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