Break Through Conventional Wisdom and Do Things on Your Terms


Are you the kind of person who accepts some things as true without actually questioning the facts and weighing the possibilities? It’s called conventional wisdom and we’re all susceptible to it to one degree or another. Who hasn’t heard that you need to spend three months’ salary on an engagement ring or you need to change the oil in your car every 3000 miles?

By the way, both of those pieces of conventional wisdom are actually wrong, but are generally accepted as true by a large number of people. While those things might not be that big a deal to you, there are bigger dangers to accepting conventional wisdom at face value. By tying yourself down to how you think things are supposed to be when it’s not necessarily true, you can miss a lot of opportunities to live life on your terms.

Thinking Outside the Conventional

First let’s go back several decades to the 1940s and early 1950s. One long commonly held belief back then was that no one could possibly run a mile under four minutes. Most doctors claimed that the human body wouldn’t be able to handle so much stress. Some even said that someone’s body would break apart before such a speed could be reached.

No one should have been able to break the four minute mile as that was the conventional wisdom at the time. People had come close, but no one could actually break that illusive barrier. But on May 6th, 1954 Roger Bannister broke four minutes by running a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds just barely making it.

Since then, the four minute mile has been broken on thousands of occasions because someone like Roger Bannister could show the way. But the breaking of the record isn’t even the amazing part of the story. This comes from the fact that two years before he broke the barrier, he almost decided to quit running altogether.

When Roger went to the 1952 Olympics, Roger felt he was ready. But due to an announcement that favored runners with different training regimens, he ended up finishing fourth just out of the reach of medals. Defeated and disappointed, he almost quit running completely.

Instead of quitting, he set himself a goal: break the four minute mile. Accordingly, he intensified his training and did hard intervals. Roger pushed himself as far as he could in pursuit of this one goal until one day he broke the record, broke people’s expectations and entered history.

Your “Four Minute Mile” Barrier

Are you someone who takes conventional wisdom at face value or are you a Roger Bannister who questions things and rejects limitations? For every piece of conventional wisdom there are thousands of people who accept it without question and only one or two who decide to put it to the test.

Some of the most popular pieces of life-limiting conventional wisdom I’ve heard is:

Conventional wisdom: Once you have kids, your traveling days are over.

My response: I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve seen many parents traveling with their children. And these countries aren’t just in first-world European capitals. I’ve seen children traveling with their parents through Nicaragua and Costa Rica. There are many travel blogs out there specifically aimed at how to travel with kids.

Conventional wisdom: Don’t burn your bridges.

My response: Sometimes burning your bridges is one of the best and quickest ways to success. When Cortez arrived in the New World, the first thing he did was burn all the ships. For him, there was either victory or success.

Conventional wisdom: You need to go to college to become successful.

My response: Many successful people have dropped out of college including Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Bill Gates. College is a great way to conventional success, but it isn’t completely necessary.

Doing Things Differently

Don’t always accept everything as it is. The majority of people do what they are doing because they see everyone else doing it. They don’t take the time to think and question how everything is done. Often, they will dismiss unconventional ideas simply because it isn’t what is expected of them or because they don’t see anyone else doing it.

The biggest thing you can do to develop an unconventional mindset is to question the accepted norm. Why is everyone doing things the way they are? Do you have to do things this way or are people missing something? Look for as many alternatives as possible.

Think about everything in these terms. Do you want to live your life the way everyone else has accepted as the way to live it or are you going to make things work for you even if everyone says it can’t be done? Just like Roger Bannister set his goals and persevered despite the opposition, you can set and achieve your life goals.

Following what’s conventionally considered the right path can be hard to avoid. After all, if that way of living and thinking is the route most people take then it is the one most readily available and easiest to do. That’s why questioning conventional wisdom is so important. It helps you see opportunities you might otherwise miss.
photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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  1. Hey Steve,

    this is another wonderful article. In fact, we do a lot of things on auto-pilot because if we didn’t and had to consciously think before making any decisions we’d actually never get anywhere. Therefore we are programmed to repeat things to a certain extent – in fact once we’ve programmed ourselves to react to certain situations (if that makes any sense).

    Having said that, this should be for our own convenience, it’s not exactly the same concept as conventional wisdom (as we could also be following a different path on auto-pilot) and you’re absolutely right, when we do make conscious decisions we can choose how we do that – either following the norm or challenging the status quo. I agree with you and think the latter is healthy – at least ask the question…

    a final thought, most of the great people we know didn’t become great by following conventional wisdom (e.g. that guy from Apple…) 😉

    • You raise an interesting point about the things we do on auto-pilot. Can you imagine how hard it would be if we didn’t automatically make some decisions? It certainly makes life easier and quicker when you don’t have to think about things and can just react.

      But of course there’s the other side of doing things without questioning them. Now those things you do on auto-pilot can be working against you. So I guess a balance needs to be struck between the two sides.

      • Exactly – we can’t just ditch our auto-pilot tendencies altogether or we’d never get anywhere, but we can perhaps train ourselves to stop and think and recognize good moments as you say to question the status quo, stray from the usual path, experiment, adventure… it’s what life is all about 😉

        keep rockin’ dude!

  2. For me it is more a matter of being mindful. If I’m doing something just because it is expected (or just to be contrary!), and there is no meaning behind it, it is wasted energy. I’m looking for my life to have purpose.

    I don’t want to be a hamster in a wheel with all the days blending together and nothing of consequence getting done. Long ago I was taught that if I wanted to be different, I had to do different. That’s hard when facing the criticism (real or imagined) of those around us. But the easy path seldom has the best views.

    • I like the way you put that: the easy path seldom has the best views.

      You raise a good point about being different and facing criticism of those around you. I think that’s why mose people tend to fall into line with what is expected of them. Why put all that energy into something and possibily get negative attention? But if you want to live life on your terms, you have to take that risk.

  3. I think that this post is so important and the points you make here are valuable to everyone. The concept of thinking outside of what society or convention would have you do is the only true way to experience life to its full extent. Human beings are made to problem solve, critically think, and innovate in new and exciting ways. Without breaking down convention we could never do that, and thus never be engrossed in our humanity for all it has to offer. In fact this concept is so important my entire blog is dedicated to this very topic. Thanks for the post!

    • You put that well. You can’t live life to the fullest without breaking down convention a little. Getting the most out of life starts with looking past the conventional and into the possible.

  4. abhishek sharan says:

    i must say that this is a piece of article i m gonna keep anf share with my friendz and co-workers. really a good one and one that motivates me to do thing the way i like, break the convention and prove it to the world. thanks for sharing you wonderful ideas :)

    • Hi Abhishek Sharan, I’m glad you like the post. It’s great that it motivated you to do break down convention and do things the way you like. Thanks for the commment.

  5. Steve I really liked what you had to say.

    There is nothing wrong with conventional wisdom but rather too many times we accept it as the ULTIMATE and ONLY answer or way of doing things.

    Plus,the ones in this life that DO NOT accept that status quo are the ones that do great things in this life.

    • Hey Annie, yeah, it’s true that there isn’t anything wrong with conventional wisdom by itself. It’s more of following it without question that I think is bad. I agree that those who don’t accept the status quo are the ones who do great things in life.

  6. My life has become pretty unconventional the past couple of years because I was living in and traveling through the Middle East and I’m home now only for a while before I head back to Egypt to live. What’s good for most people isn’t good for all of us, and while it’s really nice to lead a comfortable, conventional life, it can also be quite boring and unfulfilling, and if you feel this way it’s probably good to switch things up a bit. Most people believe it’s always a good idea to follow your dreams. Some people’s dreams lead them down unconventional paths. So since it’s a good idea to follow dreams, isn’t it also a good idea for some of us to sometimes live unconventionally? I do believe so.

    • Sabina, I’d say that is a pretty unconventional way to live too. Many people can only consider living in their home country and not even consider living abroad.

      I think living conventionally is ok if that is what you want, but many don’t want that. Convetional living can be boring and dull. I know that I’d choose to live abroad and live unconvetionally than have something stable, but boring.

      You raise a good point that chasing your dreams often means taking the unconventional route. So that means living unconventionally is important in order to reach those goals.

  7. Going to college guarantess nothing…despite the conventional wisdom that it entitles us to a great job.

    • It’s surprising how many people I knew who went to college and thought it gaurateed them a high paying interesting job, but struggled once they graduated. While I do think going to college is usually a great idea, there are other options you can consider.

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