Common sense is common, average, mediocre

People telling me to “Use your common sense” I list as a pet peeve, along with “Change is good” and “Just be yourself.” All of which I find meaningless; cognitively, at least.


Adults have been telling me this as far back as I can remember, to which I’d ask, “What does that mean? What is common sense?”

The mom of one of my best friends once responded with, “Well, if I have to tell you, then you obviously don’t know.” Not helpful.

My dad once gave me the same response when I asked how to boil an egg. He forget to mention the part about how hot and how long in the water. He said put water in the pot, and the egg in the water… That’s it. I never turned on the heat. Three hours later the egg still wasn’t boiled, but I did follow his instructions precisely.

First, define common sense. At least two definitions: (1) that which is commonly understood; and (2) that which is readily apparent to the senses (i.e., the common senses), to direct experience or to remembering previous experience.

If my friend’s mom intended the first meaning, then that adds up to her telling a child that he should understand that which other people already commonly understand but that he has yet to do so. This of course begs the question. What did you want him to understand in the first place?!

If she intended the second meaning, well… Let’s talk about that. Perhaps the listener hasn’t had the experience. Perhaps his experience differs. Perhaps his interpretation differs.

More to the point, common sense is overrated. How do we know what we know? Two ways: (1) reason, (2) experience.

If I were to stand on top of the tallest point in the land and look around, what would my common senses tell me about the shape of the Earth? Round or flat? Flat! My common senses alone tell me that the Earth is flat. For generations, people believed that to be the case.

Sitting on a chair in a place located near the equator, what would my senses tell me about the speed I’m traveling? Sitting still or 1,000 MPH? Sitting still. However, seeing how the Earth is about 25,000 miles around the equator and that it makes one rotation every 24 hours, I’m actually moving about 1,000 MPH relative to a fixed point in space.

If I look up at the sky for 24 hours, do my common senses tell me that the Earth revolves around the Sun? Or that heavens revolve around the Earth?

Or how about whether a doctor should wash his hands between conducting an autopsy and delivering a baby to reduce spreading infection to the mother (like what commonly happened before Louis Pasteur and germ theory)?

The list goes on. How do we know our answers today to the above questions now? Through common sense alone? Or through reason and perhaps with help of instruments augmenting the limits of our common senses? Telescopes and microscopes aren’t common sense; the naked eye is common sense.

Common sense tells us less than half of the story. It takes a step beyond common sense – it takes reason – to see the whole story.


There exist two types of change: (1) making it better, (2) making it worse.

Clearly, one doesn’t mean that making it worse is good.

And to say that making it better is good… well, no shit. What other type of change does good mean?


Let’s say that yourself is an asshole, and that yourself isn’t accomplishing what it hopes to in dating, employment, sales or college applications.

Your assholishness is failing you yet, that which you are, is an asshole. To accomplish the success you want, should you continue being yourself? Should you continue being an asshole?

Or should you become better (meaning, grow above the asshole you are now)? To tell a failure to be himself is to advise him to keep being a failure.

From a psychological point of view, I understand the appeal. One of the first things (if not the first thing) we look for in another person is safety to ourselves, and to what extent we may trust the person.

If man has no natural predators, then the most dangerous animal to a man is another man. (Not entirely true. Human beings kill each other about 800,000 times per year. One animal kills even more. Mosquitoes kill about 1,000,000 human beings a year.)

Subconsciously, we notice the hands first and begin looking for inconsistencies between what someone says (the outside) and his body language (the inside). Lie detector tests aim to do this. Presumably, the more inconsistencies, the less honest, the less trustworthy, and maybe the more dangerous.

And so, the advice translates into, “Be genuine” or “Be authentic.”

Still, even then, I find the advice less useful than, say, “Be useful” or “Be helpful.” How one delivers the message matters, but more than the message itself?