What's so 'wise' about conventional wisdom

September 21, 2009
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Summer becomes but a memory for most as Labor Day signals the transition from warm sunny days to cool crisp mornings. Fall signals the transformation of nature with trees exchanging their coats of green for hues of yellow, red and orange. Once-soft grass becomes brown and brittle under our feet. Lakes lose their blue luster, taking on the drab grey reflected from cloudy autumn skies.

For those accepting conventional wisdom — and there is plenty of that to go around — summer fades as quickly as flowers exposed to the season’s first frost. For those seeking their own reality, however, a change in season can bring a new beginning.

As a summer person, I hold on to the season for as long as possible. Rationalizing that there is less congestion on the lake in September and October than in August, we replace summer’s cloak of mosquitoes with our woolen blankets as we venture out for a nightly vigil upon the waters. (We once had to chop our boatlifts out of the ice — that year, I guess we held on a bit too long!)

Such were the thoughts that filled my mind this past Labor Day weekend as I watched the endless parade of boats leaving the lake. Following conventional wisdom, those lining up to leave “at a reasonable hour” were reaping traditional rewards. They could look forward to an early arrival home, an evening of unpacking and cleaning up before returning to work, undoubtedly feeling as though they’d left a small piece of themselves behind. As with anything, those following the crowd will share both the rewards and the regrets of their fellow travelers.

To my surprise, however, as I drifted lazily past the flotilla awaiting retrieval from the calmest waters of the season, I saw an occasional individual bucking the trend by launching their boat amidst the throng of ships abandoning their stations. Knowing the beauty they were about to share by going against the tide brightened my day. While I may not have welcomed the handful of battered and bruised boats that were being inserted into my lake by these “Johnny-come-lately” folk, they were at least actively swimming against the tide to discover the peaceful treasure left behind by the fair-weather crowd.

Important life-lessons can be learned when we take the time to watch the little things that happen around us. As I saw the mass exodus from our lake, I noticed the “yellow ski boat” that terrorized our quiet bay every weekend — its owners greeting the dawn and saying goodnight to the dusk — throughout the summer. A faded green speedboat fitted with a trolling motor and multiple fishing poles slipped quietly into the water as its replacement.

Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but all part of an ongoing continuum. It seems that only when one recognizes that much can come from seeking a different reality than that chosen by the crowd will he or she begin to realize one individual’s loss can become another’s gain, that one’s beginning can be another’s end, and that as dreams fade and die for one, they can come alive for another.

Nature senses a change in activity as the seasons change. Where once our lakefront was crowded with ducks seeking scraps of bread from our neighbors, it now becomes a sanctuary to a pair of swans gliding gracefully upon the water. Had we followed conventional wisdom and left with the crowd, we would never have seen two blue herons perched silently upon the dock seeking an early morning meal. We may not have seen the spectacle of swans preening themselves, slowly and majestically stretching their wings out as if to say, “Look at me; I didn’t leave!” Fishermen fill the now tranquil waters. The angry buzz of personal watercraft is replaced by the muted splash of a fish leaping from the water. The joyful laughter of children swimming no longer masks the haunting cries of gulls as they dive down toward their unsuspecting prey. To those following the crowd I say “thank you” for leaving this rich reward to those of us intentionally choosing to remain.

Since this is a column entitled “People Matters,” what does all this rambling have to do with “people”?

I would offer that, in today’s world, far too many diminish their potential by following the crowd. They choose to take the easy route — the path of least resistance — and in so doing, lose any chance they may have to establish their individuality. People often suffer in silence rather than identifying and addressing the issue that most concerns them. They do what everyone else does so as not to attract individual attention. Peer pressure drives decisions, a “flock” mentality replacing what was once individuality.

Saying “no” to conventional wisdom — and in doing so, establishing one’s own hopes, dreams and reality — should never be viewed as being detrimental to the whole. Had Fulton listened to conventional wisdom, would he have invented the steam engine? Had Edison listened to conventional wisdom, would he have harnessed electricity? Had the Wright brothers listened to conventional wisdom, would they have pioneered flight?

What might you be able to accomplish — what potential might you be able to realize — if you refuse to listen to conventional wisdom?

While I don’t fault the many who left the lake in early September, I might be more apt to celebrate with those who remained, who bucked the trends and stayed behind, joining me in refusing to accept the conventional wisdom that summer has ended, and in doing so, accepting that there is wisdom far beyond the conventional.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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