In 1958, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “conventional wisdom.”
Conventional wisdom is simple, convenient, comfortable, and comforting. Much of it gets passed down to us from parents, teachers, elders, bosses, clergymen, and other authority figures in our lives.
It’s essentially a body of ideas or explanations that the public and/or experts generally accept and propagate as the truth.
We associate the truth with convenience, Galbraith lamented. As anything that syncs with self-interest and personal well-being, and promises to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life.
To an extent, conventional wisdom is useful.
It saves us from overusing our brains every day (we don’t try drying our clothes in the oven), and keeps the community in motion (each of us knows our roles and duties).
But its pitfalls outweigh its usefulness.
The Unconventional Truth About Conventional Wisdom
For one, it makes people cling to the beliefs they find convenient, and dismiss any new information or explanation that might diminish such beliefs. As a result, progress stagnates among individuals and communities.
This inertia also makes us lazy in that we rely heavily on authority figures to tell us what to do. In the process, our lives turn into cheap models of what others want.
This dependence on others also gets exploited by vested interests. For instance, journalists and “experts” working together are underrated architects of conventional wisdom. They position fake or biased stories as conventional wisdom that push people to take extreme steps. Nazism, racism, sexism, organized crime, are results of such narratives.
No wonder Galbraith treated the term with disdain.
We have to be a part of society. But we don’t have to be a part of the herd. Belonging to the herd is conventional wisdom, and is dangerous because the herd gets slaughtered.
This is why the best skill you can learn is not one that promises a better job or helps you build a strong personal brand. It’s to think for yourself.
Running Opposite the Herd
Since the early days, “thinking” and making rules were tasks exclusive to community leaders. Thinking for oneself, searching for one’s own answers, were taboos.
Leaders greased the chains that held everything together and maintained the status quo. But the misfits, the contrarians, were the ones to help society make giant leaps.
Think about it (no pun intended). Would manned flight, electricity, personal computers, and other inventions exist if people didn’t explore outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom?
The same holds true for your life. Your path to self-discovery, improvement, and building a life you have better control over, begins with learning the skill of thinking for yourself.
Here are three ways that fuel self-thinking and open-mindedness:
1. Pose good questions.
In a world that reveres answers, asking questions feels like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.
But good questions can expose you alternate perspectives and open you up to new experiences. You don’t even have to change your perceptions immediately. Merely asking questions serves as flapping butterfly wings that turn into a tsunami in the long run.
Good questions begin with “What If” and “Why Not” more than “How.” The latter can quickly turn into “How can I strengthen my beliefs?” As David McRaney, explains in You Are Not So Smart:
“The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”
“Why Not” and “What If” questions enable you to break out of stagnant molds and see things in a new light.
2. Be okay with mistakes.
A life in which one agonizes over always being correct is a life that lacks involvement.
But stepping outside our comfort zone teaches us to balance multiple perspectives. We get better at making good decisions and building a life we feel involved in. And we own up to our mistakes and correct them rather than stubbornly denying them.
When you step outside your comfort zone, you’ll be wrong many times. Make peace with it. In fact, take it a step further. Try to prove yourself wrong.
“Uncertainty, fallibility, being challenged — they hurt. And you sometimes need to be shocked out of that… It isn’t easy. It’s incredibly painful.” — Tim Hartford
But it’s also incredibly rewarding and liberating. To know that mistakes are not fatal but integral to learning and that you’re capable enough to fix things by yourself.
When you stop being afraid of making mistakes, you’ll start enjoying the next step.
3. Learn by doing.
Conventional wisdom prescribes that we learn from borrowed concepts i.e. we follow the “curriculum” set by others.
Such guided learning is important. But let it serve as a means to an end — to structure self-learning — rather than being an end in itself.
Excessive reliance on guided learning limits our ability to retain and apply what we learn. Self-learning teaches us to plan, act, collect feedback, learn, and try again. It also makes us more resilient in the face of obstacles.
Let guided learning give you the building blocks to erect a structure that matches your style of learning.
You’ll find what works and what doesn’t. This cycle will keep you in the action habit and help you build momentum until you turn into an unstoppable force.
When the results that excite you today become normal tomorrow and those that excite you tomorrow become normal the day after, it means you’re constantly growing.
Mastery is a lifelong journey, not a destination.
The new economy belongs to people who master difficult things quickly and produce results at an elite level. You can do both when you learn for the right reasons, and they often contrast with what society wants.
Pablo Casals mused:
“[W]hat do we teach our children in school? … [T]hat two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you… You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything… You must cherish one another. You must work — we must all work — to make this world worthy of its children.”
A world worthy of its children is one that empowers them to think for themselves. To build such a world, we should start with thinking for ourselves.
No one holds the answers for your life; you must find them for yourself.
To find good answers, ask better questions, learn through actions, and allow yourself to make mistakes.
And always, always swim against the current.
You can either dismiss this and end up filling your life with regret. Or you can embrace it and fill your life with learnings that make it memorable.
What will you choose