by Liam McClintock
Shortly after I turned 24, my finance career came to an early end. Exactly one year after starting as a private equity associate in Boston, I made the decision to move to Denver and pursue a more risky route in the mental health space, bringing meditation to corporations and schools. I believe one of the reasons WTJ is so effective is that it gives social validity to a decision that goes against cultural norms. Conventional wisdom, the topic I’ve written about here, prevents many individuals from pursuing their dreams and aspirations.
All of us, more than we recognize, are products of the thinking around us. And much of this thinking is small. – David Schwartz
Understanding why conventional wisdom is so hard to overcome helped empower me to make the decision to jump. Even if you feel that the “little voice” in your head is correct, there’s always conventional wisdom tugging from the other side: Yes you’d rather pursue that exciting career, but it’s not prudent. It’s called work for a reason.
The story of conventional wisdom is the story of our species’ rise to dominance, and also ironically the roadblock that holds many people back from achieving their full potential. Here’s a short tale about the importance of questioning what we’re told. Hopefully this can help put the decision to jump into some perspective.
A Brief History of Human Dominance
Here’s the story of our species, homo sapiens’, rise to power in a nutshell:
Hunter-gatherers →Larger Brains →Language →Culture →Complex Societies
Our ability to describe abstract concepts (like gods and money) makes us unique as a species. This allowed for the most powerful driving force in human evolution: culture. With the ability to pass on our knowledge to later generations, we formed a ‘Collective Brain’ that selected for social learning and allowed us to constantly adapt to new environments. This Collective Brain is what we call cultural evolution.
Human Collective Brain, circa 200,000 BC
Subset of Human Collective Brain, 2018
With specialized jobs, new technologies and larger human networks than ever, the collective brain today is millions of times larger than that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
That’s where conventional wisdom comes in. It’s knowledge from our Collective Brain, like a piece of code, which gets passed down to younger generations. Those who didn’t accept conventional wisdom had a lower chance of surviving. For example, imagine that your grandmother told you not to eat red berries. She didn’t know whyyou shouldn’t eat them (“Because I said so,” she says, in typical adult fashion), but her grandmother had told her not to eat them either. Unknown to you or your grandmother, someone five generations ago had seen someone eat the red berries and, after emitting an odd gargling noise, drop dead. If you got really curious despite your grandmother’s warning and sampled those red berries, you were screwed. Everyone in your tribe who ignored their grandmothers’ advice subsequently died and didn’t pass on their genes. This is a morbid example of how listening to conventional wisdom (often life-saving informationthousands of years ago) was selected for. We’re programmed to mimic our ancestors and download their cultural survival “code.”
In this way, nature built our psychological hardware to blindly follow the advice of authority figures, rather than asking whyor trying to figure everything out on our own. As a result, we could receive and transmit knowledge without having each generation re-learn everything or needing it biologically programmed into them from birth
“As a cultural species, we have an instinct to faithfully copy complex procedures, practices, beliefs, and motivations, including steps that may appear causally irrelevant, because cultural evolution has proved itself capable of constructing intricate and subtle cultural packages that are far better than we could individually construct in one lifetime. – Joseph Henrich, Secret of Our Success
“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” - Tacitus
But it’s not just behaviors that we copy. Beliefs about how the world works in the abstract are also passed down from generation to generation. Beliefs based on previously held assumptions take a long time to change when they are taken as fact and transmitted generationally. In many ways, conventional wisdom is like a game of telephone, in which each generation whispers in the ear of their offspring all of the knowledge that they accumulated throughout their lives. But much as the word that is produced at the end of the game of telephone has changed, so too does the usefulness of conventional wisdom decline as the context changes.
Here are a few examples of modern conventional wisdom that is either outdated or worth questioning on an individual basis:
(Not too long ago, “Spank your children to get them to behave” would’ve made the list along with “Smack your students’ knuckles with a ruler when they are restless.”)
Much of this conventional wisdom is spouted from adults or encouraged by other authority figures, and most of us grow up without questioning it. But as we grow older it becomes clear that the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ can give false guidance on some very important life topics. As these examples demonstrate, popular beliefs are often outdated or just straight up incorrect. That’s not to say that conventional wisdom always gets it wrong, but those who blindly follow the crowd in some of these assumptions end up in regrettable situations.
Eat the Red Berries, You Won’t Die
When faced with career decisions, we often place our faith in the ‘wisdom of the crowd.’ But the herd doesn’t know what’s best for each of us individually – that is something that we have to figure out for ourselves.
As a result of conventional wisdom, it’s easy to understand why we are naturally risk-averse in our career decisions. But we should consider doing what our ancestors would never fathom. If that little voice in your head is telling you to jump, that it likely the part of you that knows what’s right… if you are willing to remove the shackles of conventional wisdom.