Conventional wisdom. It’s the knowledge that people generally accept to be true. It’s what everyone thinks.
Sometimes it’s right. Some things stand up to the test of the ages. But it’s also staunch. Prohibitive. Safe. Boring. And it blocks creativity and fresh views.
The term is often credited to economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The phrase "conventional wisdom" became well known in his 1958 book, The Affluent Society. For Galbraith, "conventional wisdom" meant the stifling conventionality of elite opinion. He frequently referred to it as a way to describe the high degree of conflict found in academic economics to innovative ideas.
Society, he believed, rewarded those who repeated old facts, rather than the skeptics or innovators. He said:
“It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom.”
Falling Victim to Conventional Wisdom
We’ve all fallen victim to conventional wisdom. At one time, people believed that the earth was flat, that the “flying machine’ would never work, or that the car would never take off. Someone once told Debbi Fields (Mrs. Fields’ Cookies) that "A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make."
And let’s not forget that it was just last year when everyone laughed at the notion that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president. Seasoned pundits continuously rejected the showy Trump because his over-the-top antics would never play well in America. Yet here we are – less than 30 days from the November elections – and Trump is at the top of the ticket. Like him or loathe him, Donald Trump was having none of that traditional political wisdom.
Society does have a way of jointly falling into the trenches of conventional wisdom. A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who was diagnosed with cancer. I asked her about alternative medicines and holistic treatments. Her response floored me. She said, “I’m sure if that worked my doctors would have told me about it.”
She was seeing everything through a dated system and was consciously (or unconsciously) blinding her mind to healing alternatives.
Conventional wisdom lulled her into a false sense of security.
What Do You Let Conventional Wisdom Dictate?
What about you? How many times have you fallen victim to conventional wisdom? Have you ever been told your goals are too unrealistic? That your dream was too far-fetched? What did you do? Did you believe it? Did you end up lowering your expectations to fall in line with the expectations of others? After all, conventional wisdom dictates which of our dreams are too extreme, right?
In 2015, Harriette Thompson, 92, became the oldest woman to complete a marathon when she finished the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in 7:24:36. She was a cancer survivor, a concert pianist, and grandmother of 10. She covered the course in 16:59 per mile.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that someone who is 92 should not be running a marathon.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses (Grandma Moses) was one of the biggest names in American Folk Art and she didn’t start painting until she was 76. At age 88, Mademoiselle Magazine named Grandma Moses a “Young Woman of the Year.”
Conventional wisdom would suggest that if you haven’t made it by the time you’re 76, you probably won’t make it.
They didn’t care about conventional wisdom. They knew that revolutionary thoughts and actions are seldom born from conventional wisdom.
I once heard conventional wisdom referred to as social stagnation. That’s exactly what it is. It prevents you from seeing possibilities that are steeped in the impossible. The longer you are stagnant, the easier it is to risk losing your drive and ambition.
Maybe you like the way things are going for you but what if you don’t? Is it time to kick conventional wisdom to the curb?
It’ll take some guts. People will think you've lost your mind. They will disagree with you and you'll constantly have to support your decisions. But that shows you the importance of your support group and those you have chosen to surround you. If everyone in your support group has presumptions so entrenched that they can’t see other realities, be careful.
There’s an old saying that goes, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Rivers are ever flowing and never stagnant. Every new experience we have shapes us and changes us. Change is more than physical; it’s transformational from the inside out.
"Conventional wisdom is the enemy of transformation."
Personal growth keeps you moving forward and not backwards. Whether you are looking to grow in your relationships, at work, as a leader, or even in your spirituality, you won’t be able to do that without making conscious daily choices and acting on the behavior that enhances your growth and development. But how likely are you to have growth without the courage to challenge your conventional wisdom?
Breaking free from conventional wisdom can have a powerful effect on your success, mindset, and growth.