Common Sense is Not So Common?
June 1, 2012 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me cultivate common sense? I am very book smart - gifted/high IQ, excel at work, etc. I am relatively street smart - no walking down dark alleys at night, etc. But I fail spectacularly at common sense, and I've given a few examples below.

It seems like common sense is supposed to be just that- common to all- but sometimes I feel like most other people were taken aside as children and secretly taught common sense because I do not have it (this is generally observed and acknowledged by my friends and family). I'd like to cultivate common sense because it would save me from having to learn some things the hard way and because it's a societal shame to be seen as flighty or lacking common sense. Techniques? Tips? I saw this post, but it mainly focused on being on time, and being organized, which I have no problem with.


Once I had the "great" idea to shortcut and save time by ironing my corduroy pants while wearing them. I don't iron often and I am pretty bad at it- by the time i work an iron on fabric (having to move and turn the garment all the way around the board in the process to get all parts) it seems wrinkled at the beginning part again. I figured the material was thick enough to keep the heat from passing through but I was SO WRONG. burn burn burn. Everyone who found out about this expressed this was a common sense issue that would be obvious to everyone. But it wasn't obvious to me!

Another time I wanted to pick up gardening. I prepared, bought a gardening book and noted that the authors always showed starting little plants in little pots and then slowly transplanting them to bigger pots as they got bigger. I thought it weird/silly to go through all those tedious in between steps just to end up in a big pot anyway so I planted all my little plants in giant pots where they subsequently died from their root systems not being able to get the water (because the water collects at the bottom of the pot). Lesson learned the hard way.

I wear dresses a lot. Sometimes I forget to put on panties before leaving. I kid you not. A friend suggested i switch up my routine and put my panties on BEFORE my dress and that has made all the difference but that never occurred to me until they suggested it.

I never had a house with an attic as a kid or had friends who did either. All exposures to attics are in movies- like Home Alone where the kid gets sent to the attic for punishment. Also a coworker of mine has an attic with her office in it and talks about working in her attic. We decided after moving into our new house (with an attic) to clean the attic. I went up into the attic. I took a few step across the room toward the corner where some boxes were. There was insulation on the floor, but I prided myself in being smart enough not to walk on it until I'd covered my feet because I know insulation has fiberglass. once feet were covered off I went and promptly fell through the attic floor/second level ceiling and hit the second level floor before tumbling down the staircase to the landing. Rushed off to the hospital, terrified. I could have died! And all my friends thought that it was common sense to know that attic floors can't be walked on -that attics are not "finished" by default.

I cook frequently and my dinner parties are very popular among friends. I'm told I am an excellent cook and hostess. Once, I left oil on the electric stovetop in a wok and forgot it when I went upstairs to check email for a minute (forgetting the oil I decided to take a nap). When I woke up about 10-20 minutes later to the smell of smoke I assumed that the oil had browned too much based on the smell and I'd have to start the meal over. Imagine my surprise when I went downstairs to the kitchen and discovered THE KITCHEN CABINETS, WALLS, ETC were on fire. On fire! I was baffled as to how it was even possible since there was no match to light a fire. I seriously (and I am again allegedly a high IQ smart girl with tons of accolades at my computer science job) thought it was some weird case of spontaneous combustion until my husband told me when oil gets hot enough it can just burst into flames, without an active flame-like a match- touching it. Anyway it was months of repair and expense and blah. My friends gave me funny nicknames over the incident and tease me and apparently it is common sense to know about flashpoints.

Another time I attempted to scan in cash for deposit. Our bank has mobile deposit- you can scan in your checks or take a pic of it for instant deposit. I had collected a bit of cash for an event I was hosting where everyone paid me in cash and I paid the bill on my credit card and hubby asked me what I was going to do with all the cash and I told him I was going to deposit it via scanner. He just stared at me and we had this situation for 2 minutes where he repeated the question and I repeated my answer until he got so frustrated he explained why that wouldn't work. "But even if i write void on the money and tear it up after?" was my response before he left the room.

Last one: I often went to place B from place A. I knew the route like the back of my hand. So when hubby and I moved to place C and had to go to place B one day I drove us to place A first b/c I knew how to get to place A from place C and how to get to place B from place A so that made the most sense to me. Hubby felt that it was common sense to research how to get directly to place B from C instead. While that was a great idea I felt ashamed it never occurred to me to do it that way.

I'm also going to note that I totally fail at understanding sarcasm most of the time. That seems relevant.

A friend once told me she thought all of my issues with common sense and sarcasm meant I had Aspergers but the rest of my friends, family and myself agree that impossible since I am a SUPER extrovert (can't stand being alone, like to be the center of attention, always hosting events and meeting new people kind of extrovert). I am so extroverted I even enjoy traffic jams b/c it brings a sense of camaraderie b/c we are all stuck in traffic together. I have no trouble with eye contact or other social customs. Other than failing at reading sarcasm I can generally read other emotions without issue. And I don't have any weird fixations on objects or repetitive movements or anything. I also don't think I have ADD because I can concentrate literally for hours on work or reading to the exclusion of everything else going on around me without issue (as in I forget to stop and eat lunch and don't leave my desk for 9 hours until someone asks me what I'm still doing at work or I can read while a traffic accident happens in front of me and I don't notice).

so there are some good examples. how do i fix this?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (76 answers total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
I am wondering if you have ADHD, actually, because the way you focus sounds like "hyperfocus," itself a symptom, and a lot of what you are describing sounds like an executive functioning problem. I would get tested, but Delivered From Distraction may have some ideas to help you in the meantime.
posted by liketitanic at 9:16 AM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

(Here's a good link about executive function.)
posted by liketitanic at 9:19 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Forgetting to eat is a classic ADD thing. Not saying you have it, though.

Some of these are due to you thinking you're smarter than everyone else and therefore have figured out a new trick no one's thought of.

Some of these are not common sense, but local or regional knowledge (the attic thing).

Some of these are not common knowledge to the point where they happen to many people a year (kitchen fires).

Also, some of these are just different, equally valid approaches (the directions).

So you think differently than "most" people, big deal. I wouldn't let people shame you for it. (Friendly teasing yes,
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:19 AM on June 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't know about Aspergers, but some of the things you describe seem highly unusual to me. In particular, this:
hubby asked me what I was going to do with all the cash and I told him I was going to deposit it via scanner. He just stared at me and we had this situation for 2 minutes where he repeated the question and I repeated my answer until he got so frustrated he explained why that wouldn't work. "But even if i write void on the money and tear it up after?"
is very, very strange. If someone I knew (who was a native English speaker, familiar with our monetary system, and of above-average intelligence) said this, I would find it very hard to believe she wasn't joking.

This seems like a great opportunity to see a psychologist, just to express your concerns, like you have here. It doesn't have to be a heavy conversation. "So I have these behaviors that are slightly concerning--what do you think?"
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 9:20 AM on June 1, 2012 [14 favorites]

I see two issues at work here:

1) General forgetfulness: I think most people struggle with this to some degree, and handle it with tricks (like putting on your underwear before your dress; putting your keys in a bowl next to the door, etc).

2) You think you've got it figured out: I'm going to posit that a lot of these issues are because you're a smart gal, so you think you've got things figured out where other people would proceed more cautiously. Look at the issue with the iron for example. I think most people really don't know for sure whether a thick corduroy would insulate their skin from the heat of an iron. However, most people would be too nervous to just go for it, and would start by doing a small test, for example. You, on the other hand, feel so confident in your smarts and wits that you just go for it. Same idea with the potted plants: you're not an expert, but you confidently believe that you can improve the process, so you go with it.

I'm also a scientist and I struggled with these issues a LOT when I started doing bench work as opposed to just working on a computer. Why do I have to transfer this to a slide, then put it in the glovebox, then make a new slide, then start the experiment? That doesn't seem efficient. I learned quickly that people who were just as smart as me, with the added benefit of experience, had already considered those angles and ruled them out wisely.

I think the answer is really humility and exercising caution. When you're new to something, trust the experts. You have a lot to contribute and are obviously smart and creative, but no amount of intelligence will automatically make you an expert in a new challenge.
posted by telegraph at 9:21 AM on June 1, 2012 [60 favorites]

On the one hand, you sound like a hell of a lot of fun. On the other hand, I worry about your safety!

I do some goofy things too, but like you, I'm smarter than your average bear. What helps keep me out of trouble is that I actively attempt to think though most things I do. After washing the cutting board, I pause for a moment to think, what is the result if I put it here? If I lean it at an angle, will it slide down? If it slides down, will it push anything off the counter? If I put it on the stove, will it melt? How can I test whether the stove is hot--touch the burners? No, they could be hot even after the flame is off. I know, I will put the cutting board on the table... It takes just a second to go through all of those thoughts, but it helps to organize the decision tree that way, particularly when something is new.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:23 AM on June 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

I do goofy stuff too, things don't always occur to me the same as to other people. Honestly, I think you are just going to have to live with it. Being aware and honest about it will help you as much as anything I think.
posted by Cosine at 9:41 AM on June 1, 2012

I agree with the suggestions to get assessed for ADHD/ADD. In the meantime, though, try to stop and think to yourself, "What could possibly go wrong here?" before you try something you haven't done before. It sounds as though maybe you're acting without thinking, which is something I do all the time. Making myself pause before acting and take a quick gut-check has helped avoid a lot of silly accidents, spills, etc. that used to happen on a near-daily basis.
posted by pecanpies at 9:41 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this could be ADD or ADHD. In a lot of cases, a person with either one can still focus on a thing, as long as it's something they want to focus on and are interested in. Or it might not be that at all. This is kind of scattershot.

Some of these are absentmindedness - the fire didn't happen because you didn't know about flashpoints, it happened because you took a nap while something was cooking. If you'd been near the stove when it happened, you'd have caught it before it was a big deal.

Maybe your short-term memory is just garbage. Maybe supplements of some sort would help that. Hard to say.

Here are three things I would suggest:

One: Talk to a doctor about this. A shrink or a physician, I guess, because either one would maybe be able to tell you which of the two you should be talking to. There may be a medical reason for some of this, or it may be a diagnosable condition, but only someone in that field could tell you.

Two: Since you have a rough idea of where some of your problem areas lie, construct your habits to incorporate that awareness into them. For example: I have a hard time focusing on one task at any given time, no matter what that task is, so I tend to take on a few things at once and then do each one bit by bit, switching off between them. Or I know that it is next to impossible to get me out of bed in the morning so I'm always late for work. Or I used to be, until I figured out that the reason was, in part, the harsh blaring alarm, which represented such an awful yanking away from the pleasant dreams I usually have that I just wanted to hit snooze over and over again. I fixed this by using my phone as an alarm and setting it to start out quiet and grow gradually louder, and also to be the theme from Superfuzz, which is a fine way to start any day. Now I get out of bed on time and get to work on time.

So figure out where your weaknesses are and develop a system. Put your panties on before your dress, maybe put that day's panties on the hanger with the dress so you have to take them before you take the dress off the hanfer, et cetera.

Three: Don't come up with any shortcuts or timesavers until you can be certain - and not intuitively, but intellectually - that you understand why people do that thing the way they currently do, and you can say with certainty why your way would be better. You say it wasn't obvious to you that you'd burn yourself with the iron, but what specific reason did you have for thinking the heat would not pass through corduroy? Because I'm pretty sure that the honest answer here is something like, "I don't know, I just did," which is the kind of thing that gets an absentminded person into trouble. I know, because I'm one of them.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:46 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

You sound a lot like me. I've never done anything like try to mobile-deposit cash, but I have ended up with my mouth full of superglue more than three times, for example. I once had to have a friend tell me, while camping, "err. . . maybe we should NOT put the camping stove in the middle of a pile of dead, dry grass, near the tent and the car." My beloved (gamer) husband almost bought me a T-shirt that read INT 17 WIS 4. (He didn't, because at the time we'd only been dating for about 3 months and he wasn't sure I would take it the right way.) I once decided to wash my Jacuzzi tub by filling it with water and laundry soap and running it with the jets on for an hour.

I do get sarcasm -- I deploy it a lot, actually -- and I definitely, definitely do not have Asperger's syndrome. But I do have focus issues for sure. The things that have helped me are 1) learning to check my brilliant ideas with friends or partners first before leaping in with both feet and 2) having kids. Having to teach someone else common sense has GREATLY assisted me in developing my own. I would suggest that you start thinking about what you would tell the average 4-year-old if she was doing what you were about to do; that might help you develop some of the cautionary instincts you need.
posted by KathrynT at 9:48 AM on June 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

Sometimes one can get stuck in behavioral patterns like this because one likes the attention and occasional pity one gets. Or, one hears people telling them "Oh, that's so typically you!" so often when stuff like this happens that it becomes ingrained and you sort of try to live up to your reputation because you get a bit of a social reward and reassurance.

There have been a fair amount of instances in my own life where I've cavalierly disabled the brakes on my metaphorical train, knowing I would crash, but I also knew I'd get some empathy and a pat on the head from the people close to me, and laughs when the story was told.

I'm not trying to call you out or nothin'. But as you say, and as is evident from your writing, you are quite intelligent. You don't lack common sense, you just don't apply it often enough. You apply it when you cook, when you entertain, when you're giving excellent eye contact in social situations, when you're working or reading for hours at a time, etc, when composing the text of this question. The rest of the time things probably just don't seem important enough or fun enough to bother enlisting your intelligence to execute them.

Take a couple deep breaths before you do pretty much anything, it helps me work through tasks in a much less spastic and unsatisfactory manner (when I can remember to do it).
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:48 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

So when hubby and I moved to place C and had to go to place B one day I drove us to place A first b/c I knew how to get to place A from place C and how to get to place B from place A so that made the most sense to me. Hubby felt that it was common sense to research how to get directly to place B from C instead. While that was a great idea I felt ashamed it never occurred to me to do it that way.

This is the basis for all classic mathematician jokes you know. (Reduce a problem to one that's already been proved. Job done.)

I also don't think I have ADD because I can concentrate literally for hours on work or reading to the exclusion of everything else going on around me without issue (as in I forget to stop and eat lunch and don't leave my desk for 9 hours until someone asks me what I'm still doing at work or I can read while a traffic accident happens in front of me and I don't notice).

This sounds like classic ADHD-style hyper focus to me (I'm exactly the same, fwiw).

As a previous poster says, it sounds like you focus on one line of thought & allow that to dominate your thinking. Stepping back and asking "what else am I missing?" from time to time is no bad thing. Obviously you can take that too far the other way to the point of never actually doing anything, but there is a balance there somewhere to be found!

A lot of these things are down to life experience. I know that you can't step on attic floors because my Dad took me up in the attic when I was small to "help" and told me about it. I know that you can't leave oil to heat by itself because of reading about the risk of chip-pan fires. etc.etc. If you've spent your life focusing only on what mattered to you (computer science, programming, reading books that interested you) then you might have missed out on the more holistic "here's how stuff works" learning that most people pick up from the people around them.
posted by pharm at 9:49 AM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

1. Don't assume everyone else has it wrong. If people use an ironing board, there's probably a good reason for that. When you walk in the attic, if there's a barrier a lot of people wouldn't cross (walking on fibreglass) ask yourself why rather than figuring out a work around. Gardening ditto.

2. Focus on the task at hand. When you cook, cook. While this doesn't solve the 'flashpoint' knowledge issue the fact is probably most people are not burning their kitchens down because they don't go check email and then take a nap, not because they understand oil better. You can train yourself to come down out of your head - breathing exercises, feeling the floor, enjoying the present. The panties thing, while you found a great solution, is connected to inattention, not lack of understanding of common sense.

3. Accept that you do solve problems differently sometimes (the A to B to C) and that's okay, but it may result in either commentary from others or inefficient solutions. And THAT'S OKAY.

4. Look out for category errors. When my son was 9 months old he ate leaves from our basil plant. I called poison control. I don't think they stopped laughing for a good 3 minutes. The category "child eating plant" was separate in my mind from "an herb humans consume every day." My son loves pesto to this day. The money thing reminds me of that.

5. Some of this stuff is just life. It's okay to make dumb mistakes sometimes.
posted by Zen_warrior at 9:50 AM on June 1, 2012 [25 favorites]

The money/scanner thing sounds a bit like a hyperfocus/absentminded situation - it seems weirdly familiar to me, actually. I've had those moments. Once, I was at work at an old job on Halloween, passed a woman wearing really realistic cat ears and whiskers but dressed otherwise normally, and thought to myself "oh good, they've started hiring some of those animal people finally". I'd been reading Cordwainer Smith, who writes a lot of stories with animal people, and I'd been really focusing on something at work, and it took me a few minutes to realize that animal people do not really exist. It's a good thing I was by myself or I'd have a reputation as a loon.

I make lists. If I'm doing something new, I take a few minutes to sit down and list all the steps I need to complete and brainstorm possible challenges. This prevents things like the oil fire, since I remind myself "I need to [be present the whole time cooking is happening]". It doesn't require that I know about oil fires - which frankly I wouldn't immediately have thought about in your situation - but it keeps me from doing things that are likely to have bad results.

Also, I try to pay attention to general information instead of thinking that I will never need to know it - perhaps you are so focused on your work/interests that the kind of general background info about attic floors (which I learned from a CS Lewis novel) escaped you?
posted by Frowner at 9:50 AM on June 1, 2012 [13 favorites]

I think a lot of what is "common sense" is just experience, or having learned from someone else's experience. (I know of at least two people who did the same ironing trick as students. And I had never thought about attic floors until my Dad warned me as a teenager: and I did read CS Lewis - my mind just didn't connect the dots!).

Sometimes you'll work it out because you'll realise there must be a reason why other people are doing it a specific way - perhaps before you "shortcut" things, you'll be able to do a quick check on that.

And I've also known someone to do exactly what you did with your driving: a friend drove to her stepdaughter's old house, then to her new house, because that's how it made sense to her. At the time I thought that I wouldn't have gone that way. But it works, and it took less thinking about!

So really just to say, I don't think you're too unusual. Other than I'm a little concerned you left something on the hob unattended. But hopefully you know not to do that too.
posted by SuckPoppet at 10:03 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me it's mostly a matter of collecting stories people tell, both in person and on the web, and putting those together. I really like the idea some folks have given that you may be so focused on the things you care about that you haven't been paying attention to the more routine things. Putting a bit more energy into studying the world - people, ordinary household activities, etc - with an eye towards understanding rather than towards optimizing will help a lot.

There's definitely a theme in the premature optmization "I am going to figure out my own way to do this thing!" business, with the underwear and the plants and the iron. You wouldn't put on your pants before your underwear, why is a skirt any different? well, obviously because you COULD put on your skirt first... but what's the benefit of deviating from the routine? Just stick with the routine if it doesn't matter. Routines are this great thing we have for reducing the number of things we have to remember at any given time.

With the plants and the iron there is a benefit to trying the other way, but the expert gardeners all do things one way, that's probably a sign you're missing something. Similarly the expert iron-ers.

If you do have some cool new shortcut to try, think of possible issues and do tests, rather than just counting on your brain to have automatically considered everything. You wouldn't push a code release to the public website / sale version of your product without testing it first. Seems like you could do an experiment with the iron where you try to touch the back side of your corduroy pants while they're being ironed, in a situation where you can pull away if it hurts.
posted by Lady Li at 10:05 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Looking at your list of 7 items, I see 3 mistakes (in-situ ironing, falling through ceiling, leaving stove unattended), one overgeneralization (scanning money), one instance of bad luck (plants dying), one instance of disorganization (underclothing), and one inefficiency (navigation).

The mistakes buy experience and common sense for you. The overgeneralization comes with your thinking-heavy problem solving processes, and it's going to happen again, so get used to it. Bad luck is a random occurrence. Disorganization can be remedied by better planning. Inefficiency can be remedied in many ways.

Don't be ashamed. On the plus side, if a divergent or original approach is needed, you're the go-to gal for that. That's an asset, and it's not that common.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:11 AM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

Here's one list of basic safety tips for kitchen use:

This kind of information is the background that can be missing if you don't have experience doing something, or weren't taught by an expert (who then had time to observe you, give feedback, etc - I'm thinking, you helped your parents cook growing up, they could teach you this stuff, but if you just figured it out from recipes and the website you might easily not pick up on sanitizing after raw meat, etc).

Another observation: computer science is actually really straightforward. There aren't a lot of holes and pitfalls and seemingly-irrational-things that turn out to be the best way to operate. You may have been somewhat spoiled by it - like in the mathematician joke mentioned above. There are a lot more hidden variables in the real world.

A possibly useful analogy would be to treat it more like reading someone else's code than like figuring out how to write your own. (Why does he subtract out 17 from this measurement? That doesn't make any sense! and then you change it and the code breaks horribly.)
posted by Lady Li at 10:12 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

You sound a bit like my oldest son. 2xe -- "twice exceptional" (ie gifted and with some disability) -- seem to find their limits by slamming into the metaphorical wall at 100 miles an hour. I have some similar issues in that regard. Judging what is and is not realistic for me as an individual is tough. On the one hand, I have a long track record of being able to do things others said could not be done. On the other hand, I am medically handicapped. So there are lots of things that seriously (or even catastrophically) trip me up which aren't some big issue for "normal" people.

I have worked hard at helping my oldest son learn to function and find his limits without so much risk of crashing and burning. Some of this can be helped by the right supplements and dietary changes. When he eats too much of certain things, he becomes more difficult to deal with. Some of this can be helped by learning certain strategies for approaching new situations. It might help to try asking more questions. Smart people often make "dumb" mistakes because they are used to having better answers than everyone around them. But if you are doing something new, this may not be true. I have worked at finding people who know more than I do about some things, people whose feedback I trust. It has been wonderful to meet people who genuinely know more than I do about some things.

Asperger's and ADD are actually related diagnoses. You sound like you could potentially qualify for such a label. Don't get too hung up about it. I hate labels but we need some means to discuss such issues, which is where labels come in handy. Do some googling. Look for websites written by mom's raising kids like you and/or written by people with similar issues. See what practical approaches they found helpful. Try out some of them.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 10:17 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you perhaps self-taught in your career? Something where you never went through any kind of training or mentorship because you were always the most qualified person in the room at whatever your job was?

I ask this because a recurring pattern is that you never seem to go through that phase where you learn the "canonical" way to do something first, following all of the rules, before you start to experiment with optimizing processes. Instead you jump straight into trying to come up with your own solutions. Like with the ironing-- if you had start out ironing pants on an ironing board, this would have given you experience with understanding how hot something gets and would have allowed to experiment in a controlled manner with how much heat transmits through your pants, and so on.
posted by deanc at 10:21 AM on June 1, 2012 [12 favorites]

You just sound like someone with a lot of ideas.

Not every idea can be good.
posted by raccoon409 at 10:23 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd put these things in three categories:

1) Failing to pay good attention to the world around you (oil fire, cash, underwear);

2) Leaping before you look (literally, in the attic);

3) Learning common sense through trial and error, which is how MOST people learn common sense! (Gardening, I would argue ironing.)

Sounds a little bit like maybe your family didn't let you do (or require you to do) chore-type things so you didn't learn "common-sense" things like "the iron will fucking burn you" or "if you leave things unattended on the stove they light on fire." There are plenty of things that are common sense about cooking, cleaning, gardening, anything, that you simply aren't ever going to know until you've done it and either made the mistake or seen someone else made the mistake or had someone explain to you the dire consequences of said mistake and how to avoid it. Failure to properly transplant plants is just one of those things that happens to a beginning gardener; you learn from it; you do it better next time. The most important thing here is to start small; don't spend $500 on plants you promptly kill because you're a n00b at gardening. Start with $20. Learn from your mistakes. Work your way up. Be like the Mythbusters and start small-scale; I think the most important "common sense" thing you can ask yourself, when learning a new skill, is "How can I either practice this under supervision (taking a class, asking a friend to help), or practice it on a small scale first?"

The driving C-to-A-to-B thing is really normal, btw. Lots of people aren't great with directions or holding a map in their heads, and drive where they're going by rote. My best friend is like this, and if she knows where she's going (C to B) and knows how to get there (C to A to B) and it's not that far out of her way, I'm not really sure why she'd spend the time and mental energy researching and memorizing a new route. It works fine and it's not hurting anyone. I'm a pretty good navigator, but once I'm already in the car and driving and realize I didn't research a direct route and I'm not super-familiar with the area, I'm going to drive C to A to B so I get where I'm going. It's not really a big deal.

Which leads me to my other point: Your family and friends spend too much time and energy telling you that you have no common sense. It's not a very helpful comment and clearly it's gone past just joking about it, because you're feeling ashamed when people point it out. I'm sure you have lots of common sense in areas you work with frequently. Tell your family and friends you'd rather they help you learn to navigate these less-frequented areas of your life with fewer mishaps than just complain about your lack of common sense.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:31 AM on June 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

I have autism and am super extroverted. memail me if needed
posted by PinkMoose at 10:31 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

My first thought was also ADHD. FWIW, I have ADHD and none of this (except maybe the iron story and the ATM story) sounded that outlandish.

It sounds like this is partly an impulsivity issue. Also, I laughed when I read your gardening story because I have definitely done things like that. In general, ADHDers often have a bit of a "wacky" way of approaching projects and problems.
posted by lunasol at 10:34 AM on June 1, 2012

To me this reads like you are more careless than lacking common sense. It seems like you need more of a sense of awareness. Sometimes you might seem clever to be "efficient," like the potting plants anecdote. There is a process though, so if you took a little bit more time to be aware of things, it might not have happened.
posted by xtine at 10:37 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and yes, your description of how you can focus sounds exactly like hyperfocus. Like, textbook definition. You might want to check out the book You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?
posted by lunasol at 10:38 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

My wife has a similar problem in that I'll ask her to do something a certain way or just ask her to do something and she'll decide she has her own way of doing it, a better way, with blackjack and hookers...and then something will explode and come crashing down and she'll wonder why it happened and I'll wonder why she didn't just listen to me in the first place.

For a historical example, she'll be wanting to stir fry something and I'll say "Okay, take it out to defrost first, tho." She will decide 1. that's stupid, the pan is already going to be hot and 2. that will make it take longer when this will be faster. So she'll let the oil heat up and then dump the things from the bag directly into the hot oil and then I'll hear a LOUD ANGRY SIZZLING and wander into the kitchen to find her flailing around and the countertop and the stove and the floor covered in boiling hot oil. (She got a few minor burns but was not harmed during this experiment).

Her downfalls are "shortcuts" and "optimizations," basically. She wants to save time and do things in the most efficient manner possible at the last possible moment, preferably with some clever twist. So, as another example, rather than preparing her lunch the night before, she wants to do it while she's getting ready in the morning because it'll save time and she'll be bustling around the house anyway. Only she'll take a bit longer than usual in the shower or wind up looking at a cat picture too long or whatever and then she's 2 minutes behind her rigorously time-managed routine and scurrying and flailing around the house and she forgets her lunch, which means I wake up to find I have lunch already made for me a couple times a week.

And once she's settled onto Her Way of Doing Things, that is the correct way, she resolutely insists, and she's boggled by any other way of doing things. For example, if I need a lunch (or can't count on her forgetting hers), I make it the night before even if it's not time-optimized because I know mornings can be hectic, so I'm serenely eating a slow breakfast and waking up and she's running around flailing and forgetting her lunch and shooting daggers at me because I am at peace with the world. "Just make your lunch the night before like I do," I say. HEAVY SIGH. "But I make my lunch in THE MORNING. It SAVES TIME if I do it when I'm already running around in the kitchen." Then I shrug, because, well, so it goes and I notice later she forgot her lunch.

So, the parallels I see would be: A lot of these, you're trying to make a "better" solution or time-saving tip or "lifehack" or come up with something clever when none is needed. Some of these, you're just assuming you know the answer and charging ahead without asking what you don't know about the situation. And I know this contradicts with what I just said, but in some of these, you're getting locked into your solution and not seeing that other people may have ideas you if you'd just ask them (and then take their advice) or that there might be a better way of doing things, but you think your way is the only way of doing it.

Before you do something, pause, deep breath, do I actually know this from previous and painful experience or am I just assuming this will turn out this way? Then check your assumptions to see if they're actually true. If you don't know, or as they say, don't know that you don't know, ask someone and see if they have a better solution.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:49 AM on June 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

Anecdata: I have a friend with many, many stories like this, and she was recently diagnosed with ADD.
posted by gentian at 10:53 AM on June 1, 2012

You sound hilarious and like a prime example of the "absent minded professor" type. If I were you, I'd just focus on implementing safety systems for the things that really matter - like wearing panties and preventing ktchen fires. You seem to have come up with a good solution to the panties problem; now you just need to create more if-then rules-based habits for not setting the house on fire. Otherwise, I would not worry about pathologizing youselg as add or whatever.
posted by yarly at 11:13 AM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Can you help me cultivate common sense? I am very book smart

Maybe you can use your book smarts to compensate. Look at how you succeed at work, and try to use those same processes for tasks like kitchen safety.
posted by stebulus at 11:13 AM on June 1, 2012

I'm thinking the thing about being smart is THINKING.
And you're a terrifically good thinker in your field, which maybe means you're good at thinking stuff you've already thought--things you know.
What most of your anecdotes have in common--I think--is that you're not thinking into the future. Maybe you're so smart you think you don't have to think, even when it's a situation you've never thought about before. But that's when you REALLY have to think! What will be the consequence of this act, and the consequence of that consequence. . . ?
If you get what I mean.
Admiral Haddock put it better.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:18 AM on June 1, 2012

The problem is -- and I don't mean to be nasty by saying this -- you're not as smart as you think you are. You think you are smarter than the millions and millions of people who use ironing boards, or smarter than the people who are master gardeners even though you have never gardened before. And smart is, to some extent, domain-specific. Stop thinking about how smart you are when you are doing something new and assume that there are other smart people, and some of them have experience in those domains that you don't have experience in.

The pot thing is -- well, fine, anyone can not know oil will do that, but the problem seems to be that you hyperfocus on the one thing you are doing, so when you stop doing one thing in the middle, you forget about it because you are now thinking about something else.

In general, you sound like you focus on The Way to do something -- I put money in the bank by scanning, I drive to C from A, I put on my dress first -- and don't consider options. Sometimes it's not a big deal, like driving slightly out of your way, sometimes it's weird because you will have the same problem many times (no underwear) and be unable to think of a way to solve it.
posted by jeather at 11:29 AM on June 1, 2012 [14 favorites]

I have the same problem you have with sarcasm. I love sarcasm! ...but sometimes it has to be pointed out to me first. I remember a time in my early teens when I understood and recognised it easily, but at some point it just slipped through my fingers. I don't know what the deal is at all. I just tell people that my sarcasm meter is broken and move on with life. It's a bit embarrassing, but what can you do?

For what it's worth, I am also absent-minded and prone to shortcuts, although mine are generally on the academic end--I quit math in high school because I couldn't see the point of doing calculations the conventional way, if my answers were right however I was doing it--and I don't feel like any of this is really a huge problem. I guess you and I move through life in way more likely to produce funny stories than the next person, but we seem to be managing, so I don't see a problem with it. The person above who said your friends and family need to give you a break nailed it. This stuff happens to everyone, and it's normal for it to happen more to some people than to others... you just have some bad luck in that your examples are particularly spectacular. Be careful when fire and heights get involved and you'll be right.

Also, I totally didn't know about the oil flashpoint thing, so thanks for that one!
posted by snorkmaiden at 11:30 AM on June 1, 2012

Your dress example reminds me of this Far Side cartoon, and there's a reason it's been printed on coffee mugs - a lot of people can relate to it. I probably would have done the fiberglass and planter things, too. And I've driven A-B-C when A-C would have been faster. Some of these examples are odder than others, but a lot of them are pretty general oopses. Don't feel bad about them.

Most of what we think of as "common sense" is knowledge picked up from either experience or observing other people. We aren't always aware we're learning it. When you can, pay attention to what people around you are doing.

I've been a shortcutter and improviser for a lot of my life; I figured the little things didn't matter, and I could skip the boring steps. I met with mixed results, as you probably do. (For every shortcut of yours that fails, you probably have one or three that succeed.) Somewhere along the way I discovered that when I follow the directions, it usually works pretty consistently. There's a down side to this, too: sometimes I insist on sticking to rules when it ultimately doesn't matter if I break or ignore them. Figuring out when you need to stick to the recipe and when you can mess with it is an ongoing process.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:31 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

> Don't assume everyone else has it wrong.

I think this is something you should really focus on (as explicated further by jeather above). The idea that you, because you are so smart, can automatically figure out a better way to do some common thing is not a good one, and you should work on countering it every time it raises its head. Follow the directions on things like ironing and gardening and use your smarts and imagination for something else.
posted by languagehat at 12:03 PM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

you remind me of a family friend I've known my whole life. The man is extremely intelligent and competent in his own field, but he assumes he's just as proficient in ALL other areas. He's not. And sometimes he'll do or say some of the most idiotic crap you could possibly imagine. Why? Because he assumes that his intelligence applies to all other areas and that if his so clever self hasn't thought about any other alternative, then it doesn't exist.

I don't know if that's the case with you, but please do not assume that you've got all the answers, especially when the scenarios could involve injuries.
posted by Neekee at 12:05 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another ADD question-how can you tell the diff between ADD and just lacking self-discipline

I am not a mental health professional, but to be diagnosed with a disorder I believe it has to have major adverse effects on your life, i.e. bills go unpaid, you get in car accidents because you're distracted, etc. Leaving hot oil unattended might definitely qualify!

I believe to be diagnosed with adult ADD, the symptoms must have also been present when you were a child.
posted by desjardins at 12:09 PM on June 1, 2012

Another ADD question-how can you tell the diff between ADD and just lacking self-discipline

Desjardins is right.

Also, I think it actually is really hard to distinguish between ADHD and self-discipline because ADHD actually does inhibit a person's ability to be self-disciplined. The executive function people were talking about upthread is where self-discipline comes from, and that is impaired in people who have ADHD. So, actually, people with ADHD often do have less self-discipline than people without it. This is a tricky thing to say, because there are a LOT of value judgments associated with self-discipline, willpower and self-control in our culture. But if you view it as just another character trait, and not something that makes you "good" or "bad", that might be helpful.

Hmmm. Will look into add tips that do not involve medication.

So, I hope I don't sound like a jerk saying this, but this is a good example of some of the points that people were making upthread about skipping steps and making assumptions about the best way to do something.

If you want to know if you have ADHD, the way to do that is to get screened. THEN if you do, you talk with a professional about treatment options. One of those treatment options is indeed medication, which is actually pretty low-risk but extremely effective for many people. There are non-medical interventions as well, and I think it's good to explore those, but unless you have a financial (ie, no health insurance) or medical (ie, history of heart disease or drug addiction) reason for avoiding medication, there's no reason to rule it out from the start.

(Of course, it may just be that it doesn't impact your life enough to make diagnosis and treatment worth it, in which case, cheers and ignore the last two paragraphs!)
posted by lunasol at 12:58 PM on June 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

Most of these sound like either absentmindedness (and I think the "absentminded professor types who think they're so smart b/c they're professors sometimes actually aren't" point is a good one) and simply missing out on lessons most people learn as children. Out of:

1. Ironing
2. Gardening
3. Dressing
4. Attics
5. Cooking
6. Cash
7. Directions

I'd say 1, 3, 4, 5, and maybe 2 are things most people learn either by watching or being told when they're really little. And if they don't learn those specific lessons exactly, they pick up just enough to know that they don't know, and therefore they look to experts for advice if they have to know later. (Personally, I learned how to iron and dress myself from watching my mom; I was taught kitchen and general "don't destroy the house" rules at a young age; though I didn't have an attic, I'd been around enough old buildings to know their dark corners should be treated with caution; and though gardening bores me to tears, I'd seen enough of my mom doing it to figure out that it has all kinds of little do's and dont's with consequences.)

6 sounds like a moment of absentminded stupidity anyone could have, like putting your keys in the fridge or forgetting your address or SSN, with maybe a touch of not having had to do lots of practical things for yourself before? Which 1 and 5 could also have a bit of, too.

7 is not that weird. It's not the most obvious/efficient way of doing things, but it works, and I think plenty of people would stick with what they know to work in a situation like that.

Oh, and re: sarcasm, my theory is it works better the more homogenous your world (or the world you're used to) is. I get it when it's used by close friends, but it often goes right over my head from strangers, because someone else's notion of a statement that must obviously be a joke is my idea of an opinion that's really different than mine, but hey, it takes all kinds. For sarcasm to work, IMHO, there can only be one kind.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:00 PM on June 1, 2012

It sounds like your brain just look at things from one point of view. When you make a decision, do you go over the many possibilities? The plants in the pot, for example. Normally, if I read the instructions about having to put them into progressively larger pots, but I want to go directly to the larger pot, a range of questions/ideas automatically go through my mind: why is no one doing it that way, what could be some complications, what are some benefits of a smaller pot, seems like it's a root issue, what are some of the things that happen with roots in small pots vs. larger pots. Etc. It's a normal process of review my brain does. (not that I wouldn't still try to plant in the larger pot, mind you, but that's if I decide the shortcut is worth the risk.)

There are many things that I do overlook, of course, but it almost sounds like you need to retrain your way of thinking to increase the processing your thoughts do over each action.

Also, it could be some sort of lack of association. You don't need to have explicit information that ironing your pants while wearing them would hurt, but how do you associate your experiences with heat transfer (a hot stove makes a hot pan, closed car is summer makes for a hot seat, etc.) with the idea of ironing your pants while on?

Just two areas to possibly look at.

(love your stories, btw!)
posted by Vaike at 1:24 PM on June 1, 2012

Every time you're about to try something new, ask youself: What's the worst that could happen? And then, keep thinking. Come up with something else. No really, keep thinking.

A lot of things that go wrong can be avoided through
- memory/experience - Things you've learned once the hard way and won't make that mistake again. Attic floors and oil flashpoints, for example.
- caution/testing - When you're starting your new procedure, take little bites. Don't smack the hot iron down on your thigh, start with holding the cuff out away from your ankle and ironing it in the air, then touch it and see how hot it is. If you've never been in an attic before, shove some of the insulation aside and see what's underneath.
- awareness/observation - pay attention! is the stove on? are you wearing underwear? are you locking the keys in the car? does the grocery bag you're putting in the fridge also contain your cell phone? are your plants dying - is the soil dry?
- humility/research - just because you have one idea about how to solve a problem doesn't mean it's the best idea. why don't other people wear the pants they're ironing? does everyone who goes from B to C pass through A? what's the difference between cash and checks? what's the difference between little pots and big pots?

On the other hand, sometimes the worst that could happen is that your friends make fun of you, and maybe you prefer that to stressing out about every little detail.
posted by aimedwander at 1:26 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

You sound great. Never change. You will probably learn your common sense by making mistakes all the way, though. It's just what has to happen unless you were unusually prepared for everyday life by your childhood or an intense preparatory experience of some other kind. Also, eponysterical.
posted by michaelh at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2012

A number of these sound like issues of specific domain knowledge (gardening, cooking, house construction, etc) that you didn't learn while growing up and that get you in trouble when you charge ahead without pausing to gather information and consider the possibility that you don't know what you're doing.

Did you perchance grow up immersed in books and academic pursuits rather than being out and involved in the physical world around you? I've made some comparable goofs* in my younger days due to basic real world background knowledge I missed out on while submerged in my books.

*(Which I am still too embarassed about to recount in a forum this public.)
posted by tdismukes at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2012

To me you just sound young, naïve, inexperienced. What you are calling "common sense" I think is more like practical knowledge, and maybe it's just a knowledge you never picked up. Did you not have shit jobs in high school? Did your parents not press you into service in many chores? It's not surprising to me that you are very outgoing, because you need someone to run interference for you. You sound like someone's kid sister.

I hope I am not sounding harsh. I feel like I recognize myself in a lot of things you say so I am really addressing that part of me that wants to be the lovable fool.

Unfortunately I think the way most people acquire practical knowledge involves a lot of mistakes and shame and sucking-up and tedium, which is probably why it's better done when you are young. The upshot is that not everyone has to be a master of practical knowledge, nor should everyone be. The way you are is basically okay.

As for recommendations, maybe you could pick up a new craft. Like, take a pottery class. Something where you work with solid, real things, and machines, in a controlled place with others around (so not cooking) and some rules and best practices but also with room for creativity and doing things your own way. Go in with the intention to get good at it.
posted by fleacircus at 1:28 PM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

My mom taught me the underpants trick when I was 6 or so. I ironed for my allowance and learned how hot things could get that way. I gardened with my neighbor when I was 10 or 11. Many people navigate by familiar landmarks; and I learned how to read maps when my mom handed me a map and told me to get her somewhere.

So yeah, this could be some kind of ADHD thing, but the thought I had upon reading this was "where were her parents growing up?" Did you grow up in a *very* different culture (like, one where irons and underpants don't exist)? Did you grow up in a very privileged or sheltered culture (like, one where you never saw an iron or a garden being worked on by someone of your social status)? I feel like there's some neglect, there, even if it was loving neglect.

>You sound great. Never change.
Except for the fact that she could have died in a house fire or taking a 2-story fall, and would have shredded several hundred dollars without her partner there.

(My first memory is of my father falling through the attic, btw. You're not the only one.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:39 PM on June 1, 2012 [8 favorites]

Common sense isn't innate, it covers a vast number of tips and details and factoids that are actually learned, by becoming experienced at doing certain things. I'm guessing some of the people who mocked you for the frying pan accident actually picked up the factoid about oil lighting itself thanks to you.

Experience isn't intelligence; it is the result of many people trying and failing and learning from each other's errors and successes. Working things from first principles can build a theory, but that has its limits (it comes down to the difference between theory and practice — in theory they are the same, in practice they are different).

You need to acquire this experience without hurting yourself too much, so here are a few guidelines.

Accept outside sources of common sense: recipes, instructions, labels, how-tos and manuals. If some process is inefficient, start by humbly assuming that the inefficiency exists for a reason. For example, with cooking, start by following a recipe exactly. The next time you do it, you can change a few details, adapt the ingredients to what you have, shorten one of the steps. Change just one or two things each time you iterate, so that you can pinpoint any improvement or degradation to a single change. Just don't change anything at first or change everything at once. That should cover your gardening example.

Also consider ritualising things so that you can follow steps without thinking about them; that helps with getting dressed or similar things like not forgetting keys or glasses.

Think of the failure modes. For example, cash is anonymous, so if you mail cash to your bank, the worst case scenario is that you lose your money and there will be nothing that proves it doesn't belong to the first person who picks it up. If you sense an unusual smell, the worst case might be something toxic; if you cook, the worst case is setting things on fire. If you use an iron, the worst case is also things on fire, but before that clothes could get damaged.

Going into new territory without anyone to guide you will also give you experience, but the error rate may be higher. So try to make sure the failure modes aren't too onerous. For example, an unusual way of ironing can be tested on a small part of the garment that will be hidden from view.

The A→B→C incident breaks the pattern, since you capitalised on your existing knowledge of the route rather than try to learn it as you go. Nothing very wrong with that. If you could afford a small risk of being late (if the failure mode is mild) you could feel free to experiment a bit more, trying to follow road-signs or asking locals.

The sarcasm thing might have to do with cultivating a critical spirit. Noticing sarcasm requires you to evaluate everything critically, trying to imagine if the person saying something would actually mean it, or if they would want to make fun of someone who would say the same thing. Maybe evaluating things critically rather than being happy go lucky has to do with common sense acquisition, but those are different contexts so I'm not entirely sure. Sarcasm may be harder for very confident extroverts, but I think lack of common sense and absent-mindedness are independent of introversion/extroversion.
posted by Tobu at 1:43 PM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

FWIW, this:

Another ADD question-how can you tell the diff between ADD and just lacking self-discipline (which i struggle with a lot..i am very organized and make tons of plans, goals, lists and schedules but struggle constantly with follow through especially if i do not feel passionate about the task.

is pretty classic ADD, too.
posted by cooker girl at 1:54 PM on June 1, 2012

I'd like to second the bit about some of these things only being picked up if you saw people routinely doing them in your class background, so you should absolutely not feel bad for not understanding how they work. Ironing? Most of us learned how hot irons get by accidentally burning ourselves, or from hearing from someone who did.

Also: hey, I never knew that about attics! You have potentially saved me from falling through a ceiling! Quite seriously! (so, you're not alone.)
posted by corb at 1:56 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

The attic thing is understandable. If you've never been in that sort of space, it'd be an easy mistake to make. We learn about the world around us in different ways, but how we cope with unknowns can be somewhat random and depends on what factors were (and were not) apparent at the time. People expect walls, floors, and ceilings to be "solid", possibly without knowing that the walls and ceilings are much less solid than floors typically are, and that the "floor" in an attic is often literally the ceiling of the room below.

In a way, you sound like a bit of the opposite of me. I knew I was able to do a few things well, growing up, and wasn't afraid to do them, but kind of avoided certain things that I wasn't familiar with. That uncomfortableness is the difference I'm highlighting; it sounds like when you see something unfamiliar, you jump into the frying pan, so to speak, while I recognize (and vaguely fear) the unfamiliarity, until it irritates me enough that I set out to learn anything I might need to know about it, and come to be at least proficient at it, if not master it. I've always been able to recognize the areas where I'm ignorant. For me, the process has been learning that ignorance isn't permanent, and I happily learned that years ago. Now I just have to work through the process of educating myself about things.

I don't have any specific advice for you, other than to echo "You sound great." The "Never change" might not be the best advice. Life is a learning process. ALWAYS change. Always try to improve. Other people will always have great, fantastic ideas that you can learn from. Take advantage of it.
posted by jgreco at 2:08 PM on June 1, 2012

i skipped highschool and entered college at 14.
As far as practical work and parental oversight as a child i had little. My parents... mostly left me to my own devices.
They kept a filthy house akin to hoarders so there was not any ironing or a lot of cleaning going on.

Well there you go. This stuff seems like common sense but really, so much of it has to be learned. An iron is a tool (or something? an appliance?) and you have to learn how it functions, just like a saw or a washing machine. You just happened to miss out on some lessons most people get in childhood. Like the pan - you don't need to know technically what could happen with the oil catching fire if you grew up with your mom constantly reinforcing that you DO NOT LEAVE POTS ON THE STOVE WITH THE FIRE ON. Or the attic - if you grew up with lots of warnings about being careful whenever you wandered off, you don't need to know about the construction of each kind of room/building for that "Be careful!" to kick in in any new situation. I think you're thinking you should know all these specific things, but really, most of us just go along with the more basic guidelines we got when we were younger.

I bet you can improve this a lot by really paying attention, thinking before you act, and making an effort to do everything more slowly. I agree that your stories are great - you're like a wacky rom-com heroine:-) But you do need to be careful so you don't get really hurt!
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:28 PM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

(I misread your anecdotes about scanning the cash and ironing; sorry)
posted by Tobu at 2:29 PM on June 1, 2012

Your background info helps A LOT. Thank you. If your parents were not into keeping a clean house and prized being smart over learning how to do things, then it follows you would learn those behaviors from them. And if you skipped high school, you probably also skipped a lot of important socialization around learning things that are obvious to most people.

Could you enlist your husband in helping you learn stuff like this? Maybe you guys could have a code word he (gently!) uses when he notices you skipping a bunch of important steps or making a wildly inaccurate assumption, and you agree to stop and ask him what you're doing incorrectly.

Also, regarding the stuff about smart people not needing to work hard, you might want to read this NY Magazine arcticle about how it impacts kids to be praised for being smart instead of for, say, working hard. The author also wrote a great book about this.
posted by lunasol at 2:51 PM on June 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

"How do you decide though whether you should keep trying or that it's not an area you worth your time to pursue if you come from the perspective you can learn anything with enough trial and error?"

Is it something you want to learn, need to learn, or find fun even when you fail? Then keep trying. I both wanted and needed to learn to cook, so I kept at it. Gardening I wanted to learn and it's fun even when I fail, so I keep at it. (Also, I strongly suggest you find something that is fun even when you fail: I too am a perfectionist and frequently just refused to do things I wasn't good at, and learning that I can have fun even at things I suck at made me a lot more willing to work at things and keep trying.)

Regarding your upbringing, you should definitely read the above-linked article about parental praise. And just to give you a comparison, I have a 3-year-old who already "helps" me in the kitchen and I narrate things to him like that we always need to turn the pot handles where we can't accidentally knock them off the stove, and how to handle knives, and being safe around the hot stove and oven, and how to mix without spattering everywhere, and so on. These things will be common sense to him by the time he's 12 because he'll have been learning it for so many years he won't remember when he didn't know it, and it will seem like something "everybody" knows. That's where an awful lot of common sense comes from.

Some people are more observant of the world around them than others, and you can learn a lot of "common sense" that way, but an awful lot of it comes from being taught. There's a reason they teach traffic safety in kindergarten; it's not something that's innate, even though not walking into traffic is frequently held up as "common sense."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:23 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have friends and a past partner who sound a lot like you're describing. It can be quite maddening when they fail to take any responsibility for their actions.

The fact that you are aware of this problem and are asking for help about how to deal with it makes me feel like you actually have a chance of dealing with it appropriately. Empowerment is a good approach!
posted by MonsieurBon at 3:25 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

How do you decide though whether you should keep trying or that it's not an area you worth your time to pursue if you come from the perspective you can learn anything with enough trial and error?

You focus on the result; the result makes it worthwhile, even if you suck at the process and have to invest a lot of time on it, or even if you get a ton of early praise and it goes to your head, you still have to get the result.

If you're a computer science person you probably already know how hammering down the edges of an implementation and making something fit to build upon is difficult and takes discipline. It's also a skill you can get better at, knowing what you need to worry about and what you can't worry about, what is perfect enough. You might already have some check in your brain when you work, "Is what I'm doing now solid?" Maybe try to do that with everyday stuff too.
posted by fleacircus at 4:36 PM on June 1, 2012

. He looked down on practicing things to get better too-he thought you are either talented in an area and have it or you do not.

The reason you lack "common sense" is that your father taught you a value system that is the complete opposite of the way the world works. When you start out in life with such a warped perception of how to navigate reality, you're not going to learn "common sense" skills that everyone else has because they're working from completely different premises. Namely, no one starts out "good" at something. Rather, they practice something over and over again until they get it right.

How do you decide though whether you should keep trying or that it's not an area you worth your time to pursue if you come from the perspective you can learn anything with enough trial and error?

This is a hard one. I think a worthwhile perspective is understanding the concept of opportunity cost: while something may inevitably be solved with enough practice, it's entirely possible that another solution that is almost as good can be found going down a different path, so it's probably worth giving up on something after a certain amount of time and using a different approach/method/solution.
posted by deanc at 4:53 PM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

"How do you decide though whether you should keep trying or that it's not an area you worth your time to pursue if you come from the perspective you can learn anything with enough trial and error?"

Is it something you want to do? Is it something you need to do? Then try it. If you fail, then you fail. You can decide to invest more time and try to succeed. You might! You might not. I'm still total trash with a stick welder after a significant amount of effort. It's one of few skills I haven't been able to rank at least passably sucky at. I'm usually persistent enough to beat my way through to at least passably sucky. Once I understand something, I can then decide if it is worth the investment to get better, pay someone else to do what I need, or just find a completely different way to accomplish whatever I was doing.

What's your time worth?

How meaningful is it to you to have established competence in a random given skill?

Can you enjoy the process of learning? Of failing? Of succeeding?

For example, as a homeowner, one of the rules that ought to be learned early on is that hiring someone to do a job doesn't necessarily get you an expert who is going to take the time to do the ideal job. A handyman is primarily interested in being paid, and often will do just enough to get the job done with a passing grade. As a result, I usually do a lot of research and know as much - or more - than the workers who may end up doing a job. That means I'm often able to act as an advocate for having things done more correctly, or a better way. Or I do the job myself, and when I do so, it's usually done to a much more thorough extent than it would have been otherwise.
posted by jgreco at 5:56 PM on June 1, 2012

Regarding the "natural talent" vs. "practice", that's always up for debate, but here's a good article on some famous "talented" people and how they got where they wound up. Now, with something like sports, obviously it starts with innate physical ability, but at the same time, any sports fan can tell you about a young player with all the ability in the world that wound up washing out and disappearing because he didn't take things seriously.

Read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It's not perfect, but it'll give you some perspective on how most of the great/famous people got there (and a lot of it was practice).
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:01 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and, for what it's worth, it might make you feel a bit better to ponder the thought:

There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.

Others have outlined why that is, but you should think about the fact that it has been considered to be in short supply for about as long as the term's been in use.

On dit quelquefois: "Le sens commun est fort rare." - Voltaire, "Common Sense," Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1765)
posted by jgreco at 6:04 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think some of it is just absentmindedness - it sounds like when you were growing up you were discouraged from focusing on the mundane details of life.

My dad was a pretty smart guy and he also fell through the attic floor and was found once or twice standing in front of the microwave with a puzzled look, trying to figure out how to make it do what he wanted it to.

I am also extremely absentminded (could probably also get diagnosed with ADHD but haven't tested) and I just have to force myself to be mindful and completely present in whatever I am doing. I actually stop myself sometimes and think "ok, what am I doing right now and what am I supposed to do next?" When you are cooking, just continually remind yourself "I am cooking right now" and concentrate your attention on heating up the oil or whatever. Concentrate on the process of cooking.

I also always have a pad of post-it notes nearby so that I can write things down like "unplug flat iron" in the morning and I put that by my keys so that I will not be able to leave without seeing it.

To sum up, train yourself to be more mindful and keep post-its nearby!

Also, I just wanted to say that Frowner's animal people really hits home with me. Mindlessly blurting out comments like that and then getting weird looks is the story of my life.
posted by fromageball at 7:06 PM on June 1, 2012

Everyone here has offered such good advice, I'm not sure my practical advice will offer much else, but I may still have a lesson for you. (And my professional advice, were you one of my clients, would immediately have been to get an ADD screening, as the hyperfocus was a definite clue.)

When I was five, I kept insisting to my mother that I wanted to mix peanut butter and milk in a bowl and then make a sandwich out of that. She just kept telling me no, that it was a bad idea. At five, I had no concept of the notion that "oil and water don't mix" and certainly no idea that oily things (like peanut butter) and watery things (like milk) would not blend and would yield a disgusting mess. I merely assumed that my mother (to whom it would never have occurred to give even a semi-scientific explanation) didn't know as much as I did. Finally, my mother gave up and let me do it, and through that experience I learned a) yuk! b) just because I didn't know the reason why people didn't do something (or did it a particular way) didn't mean there wasn't a good reason and c) there were gaps in my knowledge.

This could have been a one-off, but from this one experience, I learned to question everything and ask WHY, and for someone like me, knowing why things were done (or not done) a certain way gave me the confidence (rather than arrogance) to develop wiser approaches to things. Before I try any shortcuts that have the potential for trouble (i.e., in cooking, car care, health care, etc.), I get a reality check by asking someone else and by ascertaining whether I fully understand the logic of the answer.

For what it's worth, I'm a professional organizer and spend my days working with clients who forget things and have things fall through the cracks (no attic-falling pun intended) and who make what others perceive as mistakes that should have been guided by "common" sense. I have lost *literally* one thing (a shirt -- which still contend the dry cleaners actually lost) in the last 15 years. I've never caused a fire or left the house without my underthings (but I was taught at age two that one puts on all one's undergarments -- bras/undershirts, underwear, socks/hosiery -- before putting on any actual garments), all because I had excellent training. From the description of your upbringing, you had practically no training, and, as noted, were given an unrealistic view of how things are supposed to work.

And finally, please let go of feeling "ashamed" -- feel shame for hurtful things you purposely do, not for mistakes due to misinformation (or even arrogance, unless it harms someone else). If you've never seen at attic, read about an attic or walked in an attic, you can't be expected to know much about them by osmosis, no matter what other people think. I absolutely can't fathom not getting a learner's permit the day you turn 16, getting a driver's license as soon as possible and driving a car every single day, but for for people who grew up in New York City and never learned to drive, the first day with a rental car may as well be a trip to the moon. Slow down, get help (medical and friendly) and actively focus on making fewer assumptions, and you'll be just fine. (But seriously, never leave the kitchen for even a second when there's oil on the burner, and always put on ALL your undergarments before putting on any other clothing.)
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 7:48 PM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Do you consider yourself a gullible person? I ask because the cash deposit thing makes me worried that your way of thinking may leave you vulnerable to a scam.

Contrary to a lot of people here, I think the ironing thing and cash deposit thing are cause for concern. Also the oil thing - - while perhaps there is no such thing as "normal", it just doesn't seem, well, normal to forget you are cooking something and decide to take a nap. This could kill you, and indeed did lead to a fire. And while your family had lax values about cleanliness, I do think a person in their thirties should know not to iron their pants while they're on their body. The very heat of the iron seems like it would set off a reflexive instinct not to do such a thing.

Please do bring these issues up at your next regular doctor visit, at the very least. And please don't feel ashamed! I do worry for your safety, though, which is why I think you should see a doctor.
posted by imalaowai at 8:12 PM on June 1, 2012

. He looked down on practicing things to get better too-he thought you are either talented in an area and have it or you do not. It was all or nothing in that either i did something perfect or i was a failure. I am not sure that any of that can be tied to my struggle for common sense or self discipline though.

But that is exactly how you think now. You disdain researching and practicing things to get better, and assume that you'll have talent for something, and that will allow you do it perfectly even if you don't bother with the boring middle steps others have to take. It's all or nothing - if you do something, it'll turn out well - if it doesn't, you're a failure who has "no common sense."

It really might be interesting to bring this up in therapy, because even if you don't see the connection, you've actually bought into exactly your father's line of thinking. He assumed that a person with talent should be able to figure out the best way of doing things automatically, without the work and trouble of following conventional wisdom and practicing first - and you approach new endeavors with exactly the same assumption.

But he was wrong, and you don't have to continue thinking like him. Try rejecting some of these assumptions, and any time you embark on something new, ask how you would do it if you had a bit less self-confidence and wanted very much to avoid wasting time or having a bad outcome. Because ironically, by assuming your approach is automatically perfect, you guarantee yourself to mess up a lot of the time, because you make mistakes that others don't make, and that's because those others aren't assuming their natural gifts of talent and perfection will see them through better than those other chumps who didn't get any talent at birth.
posted by Miko at 8:29 PM on June 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

"How do you decide though whether you should keep trying or that it's not an area you worth your time to pursue if you come from the perspective you can learn anything with enough trial and error?"

I have no clue. I do know that what you describe sounds madding, demoralizing, frustrating as all hell and absolutely, wonderfully, refreshingly charming. Though I am sure the charm is momentarily lost when your house is burning down and you can't remember lighting a match.

I used to love on the 4th floor of triplex with a converted attic. If I wasn't careful and left a certain window open, my dog could climb out the window and circle the widows walk. One time I forgot to close the window. He got out and managed to get to the very top of a very steep roof. Of course I went after him and the fire department had to come to get both of use down.

I also once almost burned down the house of my dear friend's mother (that had been in their family for three generations) through a chain not too unlike yours.

This isn't about being smart. It is very particular way of learning and navigating the world. It can be very powerful, creative and dynamic.

But it does come with a high price. It can be lonely, it takes a long time to figure shit out, people don't always get or appreciate what's going on. It's hard to learn from others and can makes folks with this sensibility seem unmotivated to learn or too arrogant to take instruction even if they do have a high degree of motivation and humility.

I make figuring shit out a huge reward for myself. I've learned to love the process and approach it with a spirit of deep play. I have to. I couldn't survive otherwise.
posted by space_cookie at 8:46 PM on June 1, 2012

I had a friend like this. He once impulsively thought it would be fun to curl his hair with a power drill. Thankfully he was not injured by this experiment.

Like you, he could hyperfocus on things for long periods. He was eventually diagnosed as ADD. He got treatment, no longer does stuff like this, and his whole life has transformed in other ways as well.

Another possibility: disassociation. Disassociation is a normal human reaction to traumatic events - the feeling that things aren't real, you're in a movie, and so on. This is usually temporary. But a person who has suffered severe or numerous traumas can become disassociative all the time. I have observed that people who are disassociative are often alienated from the physical world and sometimes they make these kind of mistakes. I don't see any sign that you have this kind of trauma in your post, but I thought I'd mention this just in case. It is very treatable.
posted by Surprised By Bees at 12:51 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it makes you feel any better, I've never been in an attic you couldn't walk in and I've lived in a dozen houses, so it would have never occurred to me either.
posted by desjardins at 6:28 AM on June 2, 2012


Although You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy? didn't click for me, I found both Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder and Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder informative and helpful. There's also ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, which has a range of practical advice for how to structure and get things done.
posted by Lexica at 3:11 PM on June 2, 2012

Something immediately actionable then: Go through the archives of fail nation and there, i fixed it. Identify for each applicable entry what problem has occurred and what they may want to do differently next time.
posted by springload at 5:44 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is a trial and error process that can be applied to get better at things.

It's not always trial and error. You're assuming a process of failure, failure, failure, failure, perfection. Often it's more like starting point, refinement, refinement, refinement, desired and replicable solution.

When I try a new recipe/project/product/technique and I don't like the result, I usually don't see the attempt as a failure. It just means my investigation isn't done yet -- it needs more refinement.
posted by katieinshoes at 8:23 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you for posting this question, and thanks to everyone for the answers. I was constantly told, over and over, by my family, that I had "no common sense," and remembering that angers me to this day. I now believe there is no such thing as "common sense" and that anyone saying "oh that's just common sense" or "you/s/he has no common sense" is a thoughtless jerk. It takes active learning and training to get any skill other than sucking at a nipple. The original poster and I missed a bunch of those lessons and were implicitly or explicitly taught that mistakes are humiliating failures to be avoided, not opportunities to grow. I still struggle with this legacy. I wish you good luck in fighting it.

I am relatively street smart - no walking down dark alleys at night, etc.

I am curious: how do you think you learned this?
posted by brainwane at 5:38 AM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Trust me brainwane, having watched two children struggle to breastfeed until both they and their mother had the technique down, I'm pretty sure that even the nipple requires practice in order to, um, "use" it effectively. Nothing is actually intuitive: every skill depends either on previously acquired knowledge or a (usually laborious) learning process in order to acquire it.
posted by pharm at 3:39 AM on June 10, 2012

I sit reminded and corrected!
posted by brainwane at 4:50 AM on June 10, 2012

TtGrace, thanks for the background. In my very humble opinion you don't have ADHD, you have issues. Find a decent therapist. (This requires trial and error, I'm afraid.) Talking about your upbringing and your father's attitudes and how they affect your thought processes could do you a world of good.

I think you're doing great, BTW. Once your brainpower is tempered with experience and humility there'll be no stopping you.
posted by whuppy at 2:58 PM on June 12, 2012

This really resonates for me, I've got a lot of problems with follow through which I got to hear about my whole childhood, and until I was tested recently by a mental health diagnostician I didn't realize I also had huge problems with impulsiveness (because I have just enough mindfulness to check my impulsiveness before it gets too far, and the intelligence to figure out strategies quickly to recover lost time). I also hyperfocus, especially when reading (many ADD people actually struggle with reading), and tend to gravitate towards things that are easy for me with no real effort (I can get an A in classes that most people consider very hard, and an F in something easy that bores me). I call these traits cognitive defects even though I don't (mostly) attach any stigma or value judgement to that phrase.

I'm guessing that a part of your ignorance is not just from the disservice of your Father's teaching you his attitude towards experiential learning (vs. approaching life like a sequence of intellectual puzzles), but also from family and friends sheltering you from experiences that can be dangerous for the impulsive (cooking, camp fires, BBQs, ironing, power tools, driving). I'm guessing too that your Father has more than a passing similarity to you in terms of self-discipline issues, focus/hyperfocus, impulsivity, and raw intelligence, and that he arrived at his attitude defensively so that he could maintain his self respect while engaging in a dysfunctional (hoarding, etc...) lifestyle. While investigating your own path to dealing with these areas where you feel the need to improve yourself it might help to keep him and his behaviors in mind, especially if you resent him for anything that overlaps with your own traits.

I'm not going to state that you have ADD, it's not entirely relevant whether that label fits you. What is relevant is that some of the strategies for dealing with the executive function deficits that ADD people have will definitely help you. I was recently diagnosed with AD(H)D myself at 40, and I now go to a support group every other week to talk about strategies for dealing with areas of my life that have suffered for it. What I've noticed is that it's an umbrella syndrome and all of us have a different subset of symptoms, and a different set of treatments that work with different levels of effectiveness.

I think you need to enlist the help of your husband and friends in dealing with this, in addition to a psychiatrist and a life coach. It's very, very difficult for someone who's in their thirties to make the huge changes needed to affect their life, especially when that person is used to taking the shortcuts that their intelligence allows them rather than accumulating experience in a slow and disciplined fashion. The reason you need people to help you is that you need to have people that you are accountable to for the changes you want to make so that you can be more disciplined (not shamed, just reminded). One of the things too that my support group has mentioned is the need to strive to confine your promises to yourself and others to the ones that you know you can keep. This will help you practice several essential things, self-respect, mindfulness, and the ability to say no when someone asks you a favor (something you like to do) that will distract you from a task you don't enjoy as much. This will also keep you from endlessly reading about strategies, psychology, medical research, and magic bullets instead of doing the hard work you feel you need to be doing in your life to either develop the self-discipline you feel you lack or compensate for its absence.

I'm imploring you to do four things: Acknowledge that your impulsiveness could kill you or others you love and needs to be treated as seriously as a medical condition (like diabetes or epilepsy) with medication if that's required; Show your husband this thread and/or have him read Married to Distraction or ADD & Romance; Be willing to work through at least one process of learning or improvement the way it is taught to you even if you don't already understand the reason for the steps or how to evaluate the expertise of the instructor or therapist (Sorry that sounds vague, I think you'll understand, but feel free to me-mail me for why this is important); Realize and tell yourself that you've accomplished a lot in life with what you've been handed (a level of impulsiveness that leads most people into issues with drugs or crime, a childhood background that's not geared to conventional success in life).

Good luck, you sound like a good person and I hope you feel successful now or will within a few years.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:34 PM on June 12, 2012

"Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias—that’s why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes—it can actually be a subtle curse."

posted by BusyBusyBusy at 11:06 PM on June 12, 2012

^ Link.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 11:07 PM on June 12, 2012

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