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Is it sensible to be sensible?

Are you always the sensible one in your friendship group? The friend who always checks all the details for something and meticulously organises before hanging out, not forgetting to make back-up plans? Perhaps you always arrive super early to events or give yourself a massive buffer zone when catching trains or flights. You know, just in case.

Charlotte Smith has always been this sensible. She's now asking is it really sensible to be so sensible?

What does being sensible mean?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, being sensible is “possessing or displaying prudence” and choosing the option that is “likely to be of benefit.” It is being practical and reasonable. You can be sensible with money, wear sensible shoes, and be sensible enough to carry sunscreen and an umbrella.

It’s a quality we probably gain more of as we age. “As we get older,” Charlotte says, “something happens to our sense of risk: we’re much, much more aware of everything that could go wrong.”

Does being sensible mean coping better with life’s challenges?

Charlotte chats to her parents, Jan and Geoffrey, to get their take on being sensible. Of course it’s about not taking risks, Jan says, but it’s also “being able to cope, in many ways, with the things that life throws at you simply because you’re sensible enough to understand.” So being sensible also means being calm, resilient, unemotional and able to cope in a crisis.

It definitely means being punctual

Charlotte’s father Geoffrey says as well as being “practical” and getting on with things, she’s “very good at being on time, which is quite something.” Punctuality, Charlotte’s father argues, is part of being sensible because it’s “part of being in control” and “sensible people are usually in control of what’s happening.”

As we get older, something happens to our sense of risk: we’re much, much more aware of everything that could go wrong.

In Germany, being called sensible is a compliment

Gerd Gigerenzer is the Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He also advises Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

The German word for sensible is vernünftig, Gerd says, and when asked whether describing a person as vernünftig in Germany is being rude or complimentary, Gerd doesn’t hesitate: “you would be complimentary.” It’s not boring, he says, but something “we need more. In a world where politicians are no longer good managers, or even good people.”

Is being sensible an asset or a hindrance for a politician?

Charlotte speaks to Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thompson from the Times, who have interviewed pretty much every politician in recent history. “If you look at Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson,” they say, “not being sensible does quite well at the beginning. It’s signaling that you’re yourself and you’re behaving like yourself.” In contrast, “If you’re sensible everyone thinks you might have something to hide.” Teresa May worked hard to dispel a sensible image, wearing leopard-print heels to signal that she wasn’t just 'Mrs Sensible' and 'Mrs Boring'.

Maybe we need sensible people when things are difficult and flamboyant people when life’s going well.

But on the other hand, there is the sense that the sensible politician will often be the one to triumph and make it to the top. After all, “we want someone who’s a safe pair of hands.” And, returning to Germany, it’s the same there too. Angela Merkel’s 'boringness' worked well for her because she was seen as the right person to skipper the country through choppy waters.

Rachel and Alice’s conclusion? “Maybe we need boring people when it’s difficult and flamboyant people when life’s going well.”

Will being sensible lead to regrets?

It might be fear or cowardice that’s driving our sensibleness, rather than common sense, and if we’re too sensible we might look back on our life with some regret. Sometimes making a leap of faith reaps rewards: quitting your sensible job so you can train as a dancer or travel the world might be the best decision you ever make.

As author Danny Wallace says in his bestselling book Yes Man, “maybe sometimes it's riskier not to take a risk. Sometimes all you're guaranteeing is that things will stay the same.”

So, is it sensible to be sensible?

Charlotte asks a group of children at a London primary school what they think about being sensible. “Wise” nine-year-old Gaia makes a very salient point: “if you’re always just serious, like you never had a laugh with your friends, your life would be pretty miserable so you need a mix of silly and mature.” Perhaps Gaia’s right. It’s all about the middle ground, somewhere between “no pain no gain” and “slow and steady wins the race.”

“Honestly”, Charlotte says, “I want my kids to live life. Not always do the expected thing. To take a few risks.” But, she says, “not to be late and always to take a coat.”

Geoffrey is very sensible. He spends a lot of time weighing up and considering all options.