I write and think a lot about thinking. One of my goals for this year is to challenge my own conventional thinking. What is conventional thinking? It is “the generally accepted belief, opinion, judgment, or prediction about a particular matter”. We use it all the time to get through life. It is a wonderful tool for making decisions and keeping us healthy and happy. But sometimes, especially when we don’t know what we don’t know, or accept the convention without some skepticism, we can go wrong.
Rose and I just got back from 10 days in Ireland. There were two small instances that came up that really struck me about how we go about misusing conventional thinking. And the mistakes, or at least misconceptions, that can occur. Neither item caused a problem, but both are illustrative.
The first instance dealt with stories and with historical remembrance. In a museum, we were reading about an 11th Century battle that was very important to Irish history. As I read more about the story, it was clearly stated that there is no written record of the events. In fact, no artifacts are to be found from the time. The exact location of the story, the names of the characters involved and the decisions of many are laid out as the history as we can surmise it. Many brilliant scholars have contributed their (learned) thinking to create our collective knowledge of what might have happened on those crucial days.
I started to contrast this “story” or interpretation of history with some myths (as told by storytellers) that Rose had read about the exact same 11th Century event. Because the myth includes things we believe are wrong, such as “fairies” causing things to happen or animals taking on human-like qualities, we judge them to be “made-up”. But could it be that the myth teller was simply using a metaphor, or passing down the conventional wisdom that had been interpreted over the millennia? Might there be more “truth” in the storyteller’s version?
Must we simply accept the story that is told? Or is it okay sometimes to say to ourselves, “this is what we know and can extrapolate from what we know. But this other interpretation might be okay to consider also”?
It was conventional wisdom once that the world was flat
The second instance deals with assumptions we make – and how they lead to being in the wrong place. Assumptions are a huge part of conventional wisdom. Rose and my story about assumptions is a fun one. It begins with the fact that greater than 70% of Ireland’s people self-identify as Catholic. We wanted to go to Catholic mass Sunday morning somewhere cool in Dublin. Why not pick St. Patrick’s Cathedral? It is one of the largest churches in Dublin. It is named for the saint we all think of when we think of Ireland, Patrick. And a Cathedral is usually the biggest and best place. So we checked out the mass schedule the day before and scheduled our morning. We got to church on time the next day and sat in a pew. As the church service was getting ready to start, I quickly realized this was not a Catholic Mass. St. Patrick’s is a Church of England, Episcopalian church!
We still sat through the service, but in the end were disappointed. Think about how we used our conventional wisdom to get to a reasonable- but VERY WRONG – conclusion. In addition, neither of us EVER thought to question the other. Predominantly Catholic country, biggest name, cathedral? Check, check and check. Our decision must be right. Let’s not spend any time verifying the decision. Unconsciously, we both know we are right. Great group think. But it was inaccurate group think!
We laughed about our situation later. It did not end up in disaster. Not a big mistake. But how many times do all of us make similar assumptions about the “facts” and have it really come back to haunt us? Maybe that house we bought. Or that person we decided to have a relationship with who seemed to “check” all the right boxes? How about the job we are in right now?
Often, it is what we don’t know we don’t know that can get us into trouble
That leads me back to my personal challenge. When faced with something that might have long-term implications, take a moment. If I KNOW I am right, it never hurts to reconsider the facts and make sure my “checks” are sound. Sometimes when we are most sure we are right, it emerges from a series of stacked assumptions. Much like a stack of blocks, pulling out one of the assumptions may cause the whole thing to tumble down. Perhaps that saves us.