A reasoned yet urgent call to embrace and protect the essential, practical human quality that has been drummed out of our lives: wisdom.
It's in our nature to want to succeed. It's also human nature to want to do right. But we've lost how to balance the two. How do we get it back?
Practical Wisdom can help. "Practical wisdom" is the essential human quality that combines the fruits of our individual experiences with our empathy and intellect-an aim that Aristotle identified millennia ago. It's learning "the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time." But we have forgotten how to do this. In Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe illuminate how to get back in touch with our wisdom: how to identify it, cultivate it, and enact it, and how to make ourselves healthier, wealthier, and wiser.
an American psychologist. Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. He frequently publishes editorials in the New York Times applying his research in psychology to current events.
It argues that we need to have more empathy, freedom to rely on personal judgment, and wisdom of experience in our daily interactions and in our larger institutional structures, when instead we are bound by unbending rules and demoralizing incentives that erode any sense of humanness—concern for others or the greater good—in our interactions. Indeed, they argue that we are weaving an ever tightening net of rules and incentives around ourselves that is draining what wisdom we have left in a downward, self-feeding spiral.
I remember, while working on my teaching degree, a professor in one of my education classes saying we would all “sell out” in some way within five years, that our youthful idealism would run up against and lose out to pragmatic concerns. I’ve heard similar anecdotes from those in other professions, the idea that wisdom and ideals aren’t practical, that the “real world” corrupts them because it’s too dirty and competitively self-interested. This book makes the case that we don’t have to accept that reality—that wisdom and pragmatism are not contrary—and that it is possible to change things if we learn to institute practical wisdom as a larger ingredient in our interactions with each other than our rules and incentives.
Working from Aristotle’s idea of phronesis, the authors define practical wisdom as the ability to make nuanced, moral decisions that react and adapt to the particular contexts of each situation. They draw from Daniel Pink’s work on motivation, Dan Ariely’s research that bad incentives can compete with and replace good ones, and the evidence of many others, and provide numerous examples—both positive and negative—of teachers, doctors, lawyers, and bankers to demonstrate their points. There are individual canny outlaws still practicing moral wisdom in these realms, but what we need are more system changers to redeem our institutions that demoralize (lessen the morals of) most of the people who practice within them.
It’s hard to feel like I’m doing to book justice with just a summary, without getting into its specifics and examples. If you’d like to see what I mean, I blogged about one of its points here (though I extrapolated their point at the end of the post to add further implications that I see). Otherwise, I’ll leave you with this list of comparisons from the book (though it only gets into rules; if you want incentives, follow the link):
Rules Talk asks: What are the universal principles that should guide our moral choices? Wisdom Talk asks: What are the proper aims of this activity? Do they conflict in this circumstance? How should they be interpreted or balanced?
Rules Talk tends to be about absolutes. Wisdom Talk is context talk—talk about nuance.
Rules Talk sidelines, or even labels as dangerous, moral imagination and emotion. Wisdom Talk puts them at the center because they allow us to see and understand what needs to be seen and understood.
Rules Talk ends with determining the right principle or rule to follow. Wisdom Talk ends with determining whether to follow it and how to follow it.
Rules Talk marginalizes the importance of character traits like courage, patience, determination self-control, and kindness. Wisdom Talk puts them at the center.
Rules Talk urges us to consult a text or a code. Wisdom Talk urges us to learn from others who are practically wise.
Rules Talk is taught by teachers in the classroom. Wisdom Talk is taught by mentors and coaches who are practicing alongside us.
They want to restore faith in American institutions--healthcare, law, banking--without instaling more regulations or offering incentives, both of which are too blunt, they say. There answer is to turn to Aristotle's sense of practical wisdom, phronesis. Phronesis is a product of experience and used to reach pragmatic ends. Examples include judges making clever sentences, doctors diagnosing and curing ills, etc. They argue that rulebound institutions prevent this kind of entrepreneurial experimentation, and if we made space for it again, without so many rules, the institutions would do better. I am sympathetic to this argument, but they short-circuit their argument by downplaying a lot of the problems that rules were installed for, especially in terms of banking. They argue that true professionals are interested in their professional goals above remuneration and so can be trusted, but I don't think this is often the case and am unwilling to extend trust as much as they are. They do make the nice aegument--although obvious--that wisdom is the balancing of different demands, and so is often too subtle for rules. Wisdom is also choosing the right way to look at things--we have lots of different ways, need the right one. Emotion is also central to wisdm--wisdom is not all rational. Need to be empathetic, for example. But also need to be detached. Again, balancng. Some needless cognitive science stuff about pattern recognition. War on wisdom: mandatory sentences, teaching to tests, doctors taught not to be empathetic. Heroes are canny outlaws--people who outwit rules to act wisely. Note that incentives erode willfulness, and give wrong reasons for doing stuff. Plea for professional autonomy. And I guess part of my problem is that while I think doctors and lawyers and teachers might have a right to professional autonomy, I'm not sure that bankers do. I just don't like the extension of that argument to finance, especially in light of the way finance boys destroyed the world. Institutions also demoralize the worker--HMOs, for example.
This pop science book differs from most of its kind in that it relies heavily on the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, specifically Aristotle. Basically, it's a treatise on (like the subtitle says) how to do the right thing in the right way--how to be wise.
Wisdom is one of those things where you don't even realize how much you lack until you're old enough to be a little wise. Who wouldn't want to read a book that helped them make the right decisions? I did. This is exactly the kind of book I like to read: scientific, mostly psychology and sociology, with another discipline or two (ethics and philosophy).
I can't say this book struck me as poorly written. Each chapter leads neatly into the next, and there are plenty of anecdotes to keep it from being too dry. That said I found myself unable to finish it. I got about halfway through and decided I'd given it enough of a shot. One of the problems is that the authors seem to have read the exact same books I've already read, so nothing felt new. The other problem is that I couldn't really get a good handle on what it was -about-, so it felt like a bunch of ordinary stories emphasizing and proving uncontroversial points. Everything seemed pretty obvious, and I didn't get what they were trying to prove.
If you haven't read a lot of books in the philosophy/ethics/sociology genre, this might be an okay book for you. It wasn't good for me.
“Wisdom is not the mysterious gift of a handful of sages, but a capacity that we all have.”
I remember slipping out my bedroom window and running over to my friend’s house to watch Spike Lee’s classic film, Do The Right Thing. I don’t know why, but I guess I felt like I just had to watch it. Something in the title captivated me. A simple four words that inspire a headache of questions and complexities.
Do the right thing. What does that even mean? And if we have trouble defining it, how in the good lord's name are we supposed to do it?
Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, along with Kenneth Sharpe, have attempted to untangle the mess of ‘right thing’ by providing us with an old tool, ‘wisdom’, as the thing we need to develop and use if we desire to ‘do right’.
“We try to fix (problems) with increased oversight and incentives - rules and incentives, sticks and carrots.”
Practical Wisdom - The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, is both an investigation into a world run a muck with rules, regulations, codes and laws and an unveiling of the theory of ‘practical wisdom’. Wisdom, the authors claim, is a combination of an ability to perceive a situation, have appropriate feelings about it, to deliberate what would be an appropriate response and then to act. To do so by being courageous and fair, open-minded and truthful, calm and kind. Virtues and traits that have been co-opted out by rules and regulations.
“Rules without wisdom are blind and at best guarantee mediocrity.”
When awash in rules and incentives, the ability to do right is subjugated by the demand to do as you are told. But the authors argue that rules can't tell you how to do the constant balancing of everyday work. Of deciding between better and best or bad and worst. Of choosing how to balance being honest with being kind. Only wisdom can help you do this.
Schwartz and Sharpe believe that the traits of wisdom are built into our DNA, just waiting to be unlocked by the right experiences and through cultivation. With practice we can all be able to make wise judgments, be able to perceive the complexity in a situation and evaluate the nuance of situations accurately. These skills will allow us to better handle the ethical puzzles and quandaries we face every day without having to rely on rules that only let us down and provide barely adequate solutions.
As the world becomes increasingly complex, we cannot rely on rules and incentives to progress society in any meaningful way. We must learn to be wise, to be practical, to be moral, ethical and perceptive. Then we will be able to ‘do the right thing.’
Overall Score: 3.7 / 5 In a Sentence: To do the right thing we have to know what the right thing is and that takes practical wisdom.
I've always felt that much of the world lacks humanity because we put strict rules in front of using our heads. It appears Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe feel the same way and dive deep into the way our institutions have become structured and dehumanized. They're thorough in their examples and cover the justice system, the healthcare system, the banking industry, and the educational system. Their explanations include a walk through neuroscience and philosophy alike. I experienced the audiobook version of this book, which is narrators by the authors.
I know I shouldn’t purloin dust-cover blurbs for a book review. Of course they exist to puff the book: “irresistible book, one that every politician, CEO, parent, and citizen in America should read,” “pioneering work,” “a rare and rewarding book,” “must-read new treasure trove.”
But there, I did it. Those phrases come from the blurbs on the back of “Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing.”
Which, I know: the title sounds a little self-helpisch, doesn’t it? It’s a shame, that. As much money as book publishers spend to get cover art right, you’d think they’d care about titles too. The cover art on this book has a photo of a marble bust of a jut-jawed, purposeful Aristotle with a sharpened yellow pencil behind one ear. Too bad the title doesn’t look like that.
It’s fun to imagine a meeting of ad types blue-skying a title for this book: “Fools for Rules”! “Phronesis: Hotter’n Sophia”! “Born To Be Wise”! “When Dumb Things Happen to Smart People”! “Aaargh! Self-Helpisch? This Is a Book Every Politician, CEO, Parent, and Citizen in America Should Read! WTF’s Wrong Wichu?”!
On second thought, let’s leave the ad guys out and hope that enough brick-and-mortar bookstores survive (28% of all book buyers find out about the last book they bought by browsing at a bookstore) so that every politician, CEO, etc., will maybe see the catchy bust of Aristotle with the pencil behind his ear, pick up the book, see the blurb that talks about them, and do the right thing.
Which would be to read the book and find out about the demoralization and dehumanization of our doctors, bankers, lawyers (hold the jokes), and teachers through the proliferation of rules and monetary incentives. By considering the cost of procedures as an aspect of health care, doctors distort treatment. By selling products, bankers don’t address the needs of individual borrowers. By focusing on billable hours instead of client needs, lawyers monetize justice. By having to shape instruction to maximize test performance, teachers leave some children behind and ignore the ones who happen to be where the test says they need to be.
In essence, where there is a heavy and unbending reliance on rules and artificial incentives, there is a corresponding lessening—and weakening—of wisdom and judgment. Human beings are removed from the transaction. The problem, this book says, is not that there are rules—rules are necessary—but that an over-reliance on rules is destroying our capacity to exercise judgment. And down that road are robots, terrorists, and sociopaths, which most of us have no desire to be.
I heard it said sometime a while back, without really understanding it, that if you cared about the hereafter, you should read the Bible, but if you cared about the here and now, you should read the Greeks. Authors Schwartz and Sharpe help me understand this remark (with regards to the Greeks anyway) by showing how, among them, Aristotle brought some systematic understanding to the here and now of the human enterprise.
In this understanding, excellence in any activity among humans—including day-to-day living— depends on our ability to use experience, a sense of purpose, empathy, and judgment in order to negotiate challenges and remain true to ourselves. Done well, the result is the fulfillment of purpose that we know as happiness. And this happens to be true in jobs and careers as much as it is in daily life—after all, they’re a big part of daily life. The authors report a congruence between the ideas of Aristotle and the conclusions of social science as to the sources of personal contentment and job satisfaction. Living well really would be the best revenge, if that’s you’re out for.
But this kind of thing doesn’t just happen. It needs to be nourished and guided. Experience is an important element. Not to mention an understanding of purpose. Without a sense of purpose, there’s little to guide human beings—except rules.
What the authors advocate here is that our institutions take the lead in proliferating fewer rules and more wisdom. Because that’s what makes us human.
So, everybody’s going to read this book, right? Riiiight.
Because I needed the practical wisdom to prevent the dog from biting my ear off.
How you enjoy the book is a measure of your practical wisdom as well - do you rather want to go through the pages like a Bolt of lightning and add one more to your finished shelf? Or do you want to immerse yourself in the book and be changed by it? The book doesn't really incite any major a-ha moments but it does have its beautiful takeaways. I know that I needn't waste my time defining what 'good' is (which is important, as well, to ensure that we don't use a flawed definition of good) but I can focus more on being good. Feeling good. And all that.
4/5. Engaging read. Maybe not for all, but definitely for a lot.
In Practical Wisdom Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe explore the Aristotelian notion of practical wisdom (phronesis). The book touches on some philosophy, but in a very rudimentary sense. Essentially, the book illuminates the problems that come with removing practical wisdom from several of our important institutions. Schwartz and Sharpe argue that we live in a rule and incentive obsessed culture that has crowded out practical wisdom.
In the end, they argue that Aristotle was right: to flourish, to achieve happiness (eudaimonia), demands practical wisdom. Overall, it’s a great read with an important message.
Great explanation on how incentives and rules are crowding out wisdom and how wisdom is developed. This book goes beyond the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer and explains how we decide to do the right thing.
I didn't love the book. It was full of anecdotes and no real research. He had some interesting ideas but didn't really go into depth. The main idea is to use "judgment;" don't just follow the rules and ignore the subtleties of individual situations.
I saw Barry Schwartz on one of the late night programs pushing Practical Wisdom [review originally written March 2011], and the ideas really resonated with me. Reading the book, though, left me somewhat deflated. I appreciate that excessive rule-making, however well-intentioned, can have unintended consequences that throw up road blocks to reaching goals the rules were intended achieve - we can be better served by doing "the right thing" vs blindly following rules and scripts. This was the major theme of the book, and well-illustrated with examples. One example, education, is an area where we can all agree we want to do better, but sometimes lose our way (too many rules creating unintended consequences). I believe some enlightened thinking can make a difference, and I'm optimistic Mr Schwartz' great examples of where some are doing better by doing right will get their day more broadly in our education system. I wonder, though, about some of the other examples of doing right (or not) - banking and legal, specifically.
The authors lament the devolution of banking and legal services from serving the community to serving the pursuit of profit. We all want profit, but we need long-term stewardship to accompany those profits. Particularly in banking, the authors call out deregulation as a facilitator of this devolution and as an example of short-term gain threatening long-term stability. Clearly an example of a need for a balanced approach to rule-making as an element of doing right. Unlike education, though, it's less clear to me that we share a common end goal - how does "doing right" happen when the corrupting power of cash plays so heavily in such important institutions as finance and the law? Not to mention in law-making... Where is the stewardship? The examples in this book of those who left their profession disheartened and did well for themselves and others by focusing their skills on doing right (a community bank here, a legal service there) seemed so small in comparison to the size of the problem, it left me a little less confident about our outlook.
I suspect an area of practical wisdom that needs more exploration is that of the common person in the voting booth. Perhaps naive, I'm always amazed at how many politicians there are who act so differently than the values they portray. In our representative democracy, we want representatives who create a better situation than they found. No one sets out to elect a corrupt politician, beholden to interests that don't have this kind of stewardship in mind, yet we do it all too often. We, the People, have a responsibility to exercise practical wisdom on Election Day, and we could use some guidance.
Good book that gives an alternative view to us in striving the gestalt of being "workers" in current technological era. "A moral network is tuned up by the relevant community (parents, teachers, friends). If the community is out of tune, the network will be badly tuned too (meaning less). Thus, you can’t make better teachers, doctors, and lawyers by simply telling them how to care for students, patients, and clients. They have to watch you doing it the right way, and you have to be correcting their mistakes, and tuning their networks, as they learn. We will see, in the chapters to come, that our communities of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals are badly out of tune. But we will also see that they, and their networks, can be retuned."
"Aristotle thought that good people do the right thing because it is the right thing. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing unleashes the nuance, flexibility, and improvisation that moral challenges demand and moral skill enables. Doing the right thing for merely pay shuts down the nuance and flexibility."
Schwartz and Sharpe reach back to an ancient understanding of wisdom, that of Aristotle, to build a case that wisdom is experiential. It is acquired through practice and with the right balance of rules and learning through experience and doing. They first build a case of what they believe wisdom to be, describing cases where judgement and experience, not rules and conscious rationalization, drive decision making. They then describe some of the psychological functions that occur in our thinking and learning and how there is clearly "more going on" in our brains that we cannot perceive well. They touch on emotion and subsequent rationalization referencing Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind". The authors then demonstrate the practices and structures that attack our natural wisdom building capabilities. While this was all good for me and was an enlightening experience, the last section on hope for solutions and better practices just seems to rehash all of the cases mentioned earlier in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the first 3/4 but the closer just felt like it could have been tightened up or integrated earlier. In short I do strongly recommend it, but you may be skimming by the end. This should be an accessible book for most and enjoyable for those with a social sciences interest.
This is a wonderfully constructed journey for a modern person to take and incorporate into their lives. However, they may not be as modern as they seem. These ideas have existed in Islamic teachings for over 1300 years!
The keyword is 'Hilm' that is considered necessary with 'Ilm' (knowledge) to the point that effectiveness of knowledge(ILM) is determined by Practical Wisdom (HILM). The idea has strong ties to justice (ADL) and knowing what to do, when, and to what degree.
This book applies the ideas to practical fields like education, law, health, and finance to make its points. It is fascinating to see the same trends emerge in fields that seem to be completely unrelated. The book has scattered amazing points but the way it ends is just perfect!
I will surely be re-reading this book alongside other similar books in the future, InshaAllah!
Key idea: focus on the proper aims of a field rather than the rules.
Book is mainly concerned with white collar professions and mentorship.
It mainly teaches generalities about experience, emotion, and listening.
Tries to imagine a moral network from pattern recognition via neural networks in cognitive science and I think fails.
Feel like the overall socio-political-professional approach militates against an actual grasp of the tricksy nature of their subject. And that they haven't sufficiently distinguished between theoria and phronesis. I know it's not clear in Aristotle but at least they could have done a literature review.
Jobs, callings, professions - whatever you call them - more seem to be falling under the category of professional work where autonomy is expected and mistakes are typically addressed through policy and structure. This book asks some excellent questions and suggests some unexpected answers.
It’s another source pointing to the idea that what can be automated will be automated, and what can’t be automated must be less rigid to ensure that passion and talent can manifest. How to balance this with risk management? Don’t know - it’s one of the more unresolved topics touched on.
Applies to modern institutions Aristotle's insight that wisdom is tied to each particular decision/problem and is amassed through experience. Saying that bureaucratic and organisational structures based around rules and incentives undermine our ability to apply this practical wisdom, along with the meaning we derive from doing so.
Many of the examples are over used in pop-science. The Israeli childcare late fees case study was obvious.
A thematic dissection of what is wrong with the institutions of today.
Interesting, but somewhat vacuous. Nicomachean Ethics is a somewhat more comprehensive guide to living a good life. What this book does is set it in the modern context and elaborate on how modern institutions divorced people from meaning in life.
I find it a little strange to isolate out practical wisdom as a topic, without elaborating much on arete and eudaimonia.
Сама по собі книга дещо водяниста та затягнута. Якщо пересилити себе та витримати безліч прикладів що повторюються можна дібратися до простої, та важливої суті: Світ динамічний та багатогранний. Створювати детальні мотиваціні схеми, стандарти та регуляції не варто, так як неможливо передбачити всіх невідомих факторів наперед. Натомість необхідно прищеплювати зважений та творчий підхід до аналізу окремих ситуацій, виносити рішення відповідно до коньюкруки.
Вначале шла тяжело. Но потом затянула. Действительно все очень стандартизируется и регламентируется. От этого люди перестают думать на рабочих местах и проявлять мудрость. Но это можно изменить. С этим надо работать.
This is an amazing read. All managers or supervisors should take a look at this one. My only regret on this is that it was published in 2011 and there is not an update on some of the examples given. I highly recommend this one.
A consideration of the Aristotelian concept of the Golden Mean, the balancing point between excess and deficiency, as applied to practical issues in the workplace and family life. Not an in-your-face self-help business book but more a series of worthwhile, thoughtful, intelligent essays.
This book covers, in a less academic, but very appealing way, the same territory that Stephen Toulmin does in Return to Reason. In its extensive examples of practical wisdom in law, medicine, teaching and financial services, it makes the concepts very accessible.
Phronesis =Prudence=practical wisdom. This virtue is rooted in how we know what the right choice or decision is in a particular situation. Wisdom is not a universal, as Plato believed, but lies in the context of particular circumstances. This is not about establishing universal moral rules and following them, but about performing a ‘particular social practice well’.
The emphasis is then, not on learning a set of rules and following them perfectly, but on developing character traits such as loyalty, self-control, courage, fairness, generosity, gentleness, friendliness, truthfulness, perseverance, integrity, open-mindedness, thoroughness and kindness. In Aristotle’s view these ‘excellences’ or virtues could not be practiced without practical wisdom which is, therefore, the chief virtue.
To be a prudent practitioner of wisdom requires having a clear goal in mind, what Aristotle called telos. One requires both skill and will. “A (good) doctor aims at recommending the right kind of treatment and has the know-how to tailor the treatment to the particular patient with the particular history and in these particular circumstances.” Rules and incentives are not sufficient. At their worst “…rules can kill skill and incentives can kill will.”
This requires the ability to deliberate about the choices of action that are available in a given situation and to perceive what is morally relevant. To deliberate is not only to weigh the pros and cons (which may be possible if there is sufficient time), it is also about story telling or narrative. “Our ability to frame situations well and tell good stories is critical to practical moral skills. So, too, is the ability to use analogies and metaphors to draw on our past experiences that were something like the current situation.” Empathy is a critical component of this; the ability to imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling, involves both cognitive and emotional skills. Emotion is also important to practical wisdom as a signal that something important, morally important, is happening. Emotion cannot be removed from decision making (see Damasio or Nussbaum for more on this). It becomes “a process of loving conversation between rules and concrete responses, general conceptions and unique cases, in which the general articulates the particular and is in turn further articulated by it.” “Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn to how to be brave , said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.”
Barriers to the development and nurturance of practical wisdom include ‘rules talk’ or ‘guidelines’, especially when tied to assessment and remuneration. The book contains examples from law, medicine and education. Who knew that some school boards issue to teachers lists of approved ‘praise words’ and that teachers are evaluated on how well and how often they incorporate them in their lessons! Canny outlaws or creative saboteurs are those who work within the system to cover the ‘proficiencies’ demanded by planners and assessors while doing ‘real education’ at the margins. Scripted curricula are ways of preparing students for tests, not educating them for the real world. They are an example of applying the ‘business model’ inappropriately. Similar examples abound in medicine and health care. (it is no coincidence that these changes parallel the rise of the ‘business elite’; the forward seats on aircraft are no longer ‘first class’ but are ‘business class’…just to remind those in economy class of those who are the new, elite).
The establishment of rules or requirements or guidelines for the professions is the introduction of corporate thinking or Taylorism. Shifting people’s ability to make decisions and deal with the consequences by invoking rules and requirements results in making them ‘reactive instead of proactive’ in thought, compliant instead of creative and adherent instead of audacious.” Modern thinking in industrial organizations and management assumes that the most efficiency is achieved by a “division of labor between those who conceive and plan and those who actually execute the plans.” Thus, there are specialists in theory and specialists who practice. It is further assumed that assessment is best left to the planners.” Needless to say, such organization requires layers of middle managers to ‘manage’ those who are to execute the plans of the managers.