Putting the common back in common sense

Posted on Sunday, November 25th, 2012 at 1:35 pm by Diamond Jim

common_sense_back.jpgPUTTING THE COMMON BACK IN COMMON SENSE AGAIN by Bill Cottringer

Why do some people succeed and some fail in life? Why do we all sometimes fail and sometimes succeed? Can we do anything to improve our chances of success?

In studying success and failure for over 40 years, I have uncovered as many reasons for these different outcomes, as there are people. What I have recently concluded from all this practical research, is that all these “reasons” make up something that many of us do not have a very clear definition of—common sense.

What exactly is common sense? I think Mark twain hit a bull’s-eye with his definition: “Common sense is the simple knack of seeing something the way it really is and doing something the way it should be done.” That just about covers it, except for a nagging question. Is common sense something you either have or don’t or can common sense be taught?

Many problems in business, government, other organizations and people’s lives are caused by a lack of common sense; so if we can figure out a way to teach common sense, it would certainly have a big payoff.

When we have the creative courage to question a status quo popular belief, we can begin to make some real progress eliminating unnecessary problems. The common belief in this case is that common sense isn’t so common anymore with the most popular qualification being that you either have it or don’t.

Part of this problem may be that we don’t have a very clear definition or understanding what common sense is. Try this out: Common sense is a process of making good judgments to avoid making mistakes. Oddly good judgment is based on experience and experience is often based on bad judgment. When we get up close and personal, common sense and the lack of it have a common denominator: personal experience.

Common sense is not something we are born with. We are born with brains to discover common sense. Personal experience is usually why we believe a certain way or another—including the belief as to whether or not common sense can be taught. Maybe if we get a clearer picture of what we can teach about common sense and how we can best teach those things, we will all be more successful.

Also, maybe common sense can be better understood in terms of thinking and acting. When we take the time to think about something and then choose to take the action that is quickest and easiest, with the least “cost” or side effects, that gets the best results—isn’t this an outcome of using common sense? Just like building rapport—it is both some things you do and the outcome you get from doing them. That’s why it seems so difficult to do! Perhaps common sense is an outcome of using our full brain power—thinking logically, creatively and practically.

If common sense is based on good judgment and judgment comes from our thinking and acting experiences, what are some easy ways to learn more common sense? Below are ten tips for improving common sense.


Many assumptions are made that need to be questioned—such as common sense being something you either have or don’t. It is common sense practice to make the effort to dig below the surface and understand the real heart of something before you make a judgment and react wrongly. Also many “problems” never get resolved because they are symptoms rather than real problems.

Things are rarely as they first appear and sometimes down is up. For instance, do something different the next time you meet a person you dislike or disagree with. Take the time to listen, understand and learn something from the person. Once you get past your dislike, you will probably learn more than from people you like. Also, the next time you experience failure, look at all the possible reasons so that you can take advantage of the next opportunity armed with the right information.


Asking good questions is the best way to get useful information that can help you avoid unnecessary problems. Thinking a question is a dumb one and then being afraid to ask it, will only cheat you from valuable information. People with a lot of common sense ask a lot of questions. That is a big source of their common sense.

For example, asking another person point blank what their main motivation for doing something may be the best way to avoid making wrong assumptions and taking actions based on those wrong assumptions. When a person says he is only reacting with anger because of her own defensiveness to what you are saying, the person is giving you a valuable insight as to what you might do to stop saying things that cause defensiveness in others, such as trying to be over-controlling, professing superiority and certainty, making judgments or being insensitive—none of which help communication and human relations.


There is rarely a time when you can’t stop and think about what you are doing before you have to do it. What is most helpful during this time is to think about the likely outcomes of the choices you have. You will begin to notice that your attitude and approach have a lot to do with the quality of the outcome. Learn to notice the connection between your choices and the results they get. Keep evaluating your choices until you get the desired results.

A good example of this is in trying to deal with a difficult person who gets overly emotional when discussing something and the situation typically escalates into a heated argument. Stop and let the other person vent all their emotions about the topic and then try to go back and talk about the issue in a less personal way. And something else to think about—sometimes you don’t have to react at all. Silence can be very powerful.


I remember hearing a boss of mine once say that a person who doesn’t make any mistakes doesn’t make much of anything. It is okay to make mistakes, but try to learn something important from the mistakes you make so that you don’t make them again. Making the same mistake over and over again certainly is not showing good common sense.

A common sense way to cut your losses with a mistake that effects others is to: (1) own the mistake (2) apologize (3) come up with a quick fix to keep things from getting worse, and (4) develop a long range cure to keep the mistake from happening again. Very few people will find fault with that approach. When you keep making the same mistake that mainly affects your own welfare, look for something little you are doing to keep the mistake recycling on its own, such as not learning the intended message, or having to figure it out all by your lonesome.


Just about the time you figure out the answer, someone changes the question on you or as you approach the finish line, it gets moved back further. Solutions in solving life’s problems become obsolete quickly. If you don’t succeed using one approach try varying your approach. And if your cake-baking recipe doesn’t work sometimes, mix up the ingredients or the order in which you mix them.

For example, success in business sometimes requires new sales, sometimes it demands that expenses be cut, and other times a little of both. In dealing with people, sometimes you compromise, sometimes you cooperate, sometimes you dictate and sometimes you just avoid the other person. There is a time to think and there is a time to act, and they both vary according to the situation. Of course, easy decisions should be made hastily and difficult ones with thoughtful deliberation.


Watch how a person with a lot of common sense thinks and acts and learn from him or her. Feel free to copy their ways of thinking and acting, but don’t expect them to tell you how to get common sense because they are too busy practicing common sense to have the time to talk about it.

When you take the time to observe people who use a lot of common sense, you will see some things the have in common, such as preparing to get things right from the start, knowing when to hold and when to fold, and being very sensitive to moments of danger vs. opportunity. You will also notice that they use their natural creativity in effective but non spectacular ways, are likable and know how to deal with people, trust their intuition, and don’t overload their brains with useless information. They also have an uncanny way of knowing when others don’t have common sense and are not impressed by people who think they do and really don’t.


There are many operating principles in nature that offer valuable clues to succeed in life. Mighty oak trees start from a tiny acorn and two thirds of most trees have there foundation underground. And rivers always find the path of least resistance. Individual hemp fibers are very fragile, but when woven together, they can easily pull a several ton boat.

Many of our wisest sayings come from realities in nature, such as what goes around comes around. There are also several valuable laws of nature that can help us succeed. One is the law of reciprocity which means the give and take of things. When you try to take more than you give, your bank account will be overdrawn. Another is that all events occur for an eventual beneficial purpose. Uncomfortable, unpleasant conflicts occur to teach us important lessons and skills. We fail so we can learn how to succeed. And there is no harvest without planting and much care.


Knowing how things work is powerful information because you can fix them when they break, or better yet, keep them from breaking. This is one “academic” aspect of common sense that requires study. Most parts of anything work together in a system and the system takes some time to understand. Take a car for example; there are literally hundreds of parts that have to work together for the car to move. Begin to think about how a computer works and you will learn a lot about your own logical brain.

One of the best applications of common sense is in dealing with people—knowing what makes them tick so you can get along with them better, resolve differences productively, and be more of a positive influence with them. People have a lot of similarities—we all need to be understood, recognized, appreciated and treated fairly; but at the same time we also want to be respected for our individual uniqueness—to be free to think and act as we choose and to be autonomous. Accommodating both aspects of human nature is a smart application of common sense.


If common sense is not so common anymore, it may be due to a large extent, to the unproductive habit that many of us have in spending so much time getting the least results—the old 80-20 rule. A useful application of common sense thinking looks for the little things to do which will get the biggest results. Well-timed and well-placed little interventions can often have monumental impact. As the saying goes, “In anything, timing is everything.”

Why try to impose your information onto another who is not asking for it, when we all know that unsolicited feedback is rarely taken gracefully? Why bother criticizing someone for the way he or she is doing something, when you can just go ahead and show the person the right way to do something? If you have worked hard to get a good handle on common sense and want to give your wisdom to other people (like your children), why not wait for teachable moments to come along?


Take time to laugh—especially at yourself, and never take life too seriously because after all you’ll never get out of it alive! Life is a mixture of humor and tragedy, but when you start focusing too much on the serious side of life, you may start missing the point —which is the biggest common sense discovery of all.

Sometimes you can all get too easily overwhelmed at all of life’s problems, discomforts, and hardships. And sometimes the only antidote is humor. Trips to the zoo, the humor section of book and video stores, and Internet jokes, can offer some welcome relief when needed. Take time to laugh. It will always make you feel better and who doesn’t want to feel better?

When you take the time to define what common sense is—thinking and acting to get the easiest and best results with the least harm or “cost”—you can then start learning and practicing thinking and acting that gets a common sense outcome. You can challenge assumptions, ask good questions, think proactively, learn from your mistakes and vary your approaches. You can also observe other people and nature, study how things work, practice good timing and laugh more. The outcome is living proof that common sense isn’t something you either have or don’t.