Practical wisdom

An idea worth spreading: Barry Schwartz’ passionate plea for practical wisdom, a standing ovation talk fresh from TED2009.


In his inaugrual address, Barack Obama appealed to each of us to give our best, as we try to extragate ourselves form the current financial crisis. But what did he appeal to? He did not, happily, follow in the footsteps of his predecssor and tell us to just go shopping. Nor did he tell us , “Trust us, trust your country. Invest. Invest. Invest.”

Instead, what he told us, was, to put aside the childish things. And he appealed to virtue. Virtue is an old-fashioned word. It seems a little out of place, in a cutting edge environment like this one. And besides, some of you might be wondering, what the hell does it mean?

Let me begin with an example. This is the job description of a hospital janitor that is scrolling up on the screen. [a list with the mundane chores of a janitor scrolls up the screen] And all of the items on it are unremarkable. They are the things you would expect: mob the floor, sweep them, empty the trash, restock the cabinets.

It may be a little surprising how many things there are, but it is not surprising what they are. But the one thing I want you to notice about them is this: even though this is a very long list, there isn’t a single thing on it that involves otrher human beings. Not one.

The janitor’s job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital. And yet, when som psycholigists interviewed hospital janitors, to get a sense of what they thought their jobs are like, they encountered Mike, who told them about how he stopped mobbing the floor, because mr. Jones was out of his bed, getting a little excercise, trying to build up his strength, walking slowly up and down the hall.

And Charlene, told them about how she ignored her supervisor’s admonition, and didn’t vacume the visitor’s lounge because there were some familiy members, who were there all day, every day, who at this moment happened to be taking a nap.

And then there was Luke, who washed the floor in a comatose young man’s room twice, because the man’s father who had been keeping him vigil, didn’t see Luke doing it the first time, and his father was angry.

And behaviour like this, form janitors, from technicians, from nurses, and, if we are lucky so now and then, from doctors, doesn’t just make people feel a little better, it actually improves the quality of patient care and enables hospitals to run well.

Now, not all janitors are like this, of course. But the ones who are think that these sorts of human interactions, invloving kindness, care and empathy, are an essential part of the job. And yet, their job description contains not a one word about other human beings. These janitors have the moral will to do right by other people, and beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what doing means.

Practical wisdom. Aristotle told us, is the combination of moral will and moral skill.

A wise person knows when and how to make “the exception to every rule”, as the janitors knew when to ignore their job duties in service of othe objectives.

A wise person knows how to improvise, as Luke did when he rewashed the floor. Real world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined, and the context is always changing.

A wise person is like a jazz musician, using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. [Fellow jazz players cover up for each other’s mistakes, always in harmony]

A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims, to serve other people, not to manipulate other people.

And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made and not born.

Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you are serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise. To try new things. Ocassionaly to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

When you ask your janitor to behave like the ones I described, how hard it is to learn to do their jobs, they tell you that it takes lots of experience. And they don’t mean it takes lots of experience to learn how to mob floors and empty trash cans. It takes lots of experience to learn how to care for people.

At TED, brillance is rampant. It’s scary. The good news is that you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough. It is as likely to get you and other people in trouble as anything else. [applause]

Now, I hope that we all know this. There is a sense in which it is obvious, and yet, let me tell you a little story. It is a story about lemonade.

A dad and his eleven year old son were watching a Detroit Tigers game at the ball park. His son asked him for some lemonade and dad went to the consession stand to buy it. All they had was Mike’s Hard lemonade which was five percent alcohol.

Dad, being an acedemic had no idea that Mike’s Hard lemonade contained alcohol. [laughter] So, he brought it back and the kid was drinking it and the security guard spotted it and called the police who called an ambulance that rushed to the ball park, wizzed the kid to the hospital.

The emergency room ascertained that the kid had no alcholol in his blood. Pfew. And they were ready to let the kid go. But not so fast. The Wayne County Child Wellfare Protection Agency said: No! And the child was sent to a foster home for three days.

At that point, can the child go home? And the judge said, Yes, but… Only if the dad leaves the house and checks into a motel. After two weeks, I am happy to report, the family was reunited, but the wellfare workers and the ambulance people and the judge all said the same thing: “We hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure.”

How do things like this happen?
Scott Simon, who told the story on MPR, said: “Rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking. And to be fair, and to be fair, rules are imposed because previous officials have been lacks and they let a child go back to an abusive household. Fair enough. When things go wrong, as of course they do, we reach for two tools to try to fix them. One tool we reach for is rules, better ones, more of them. The second tool we reach for is incentives. Better ones, more of them. What else, after all, is there?

We can certainly see this in response to the current financial crisis. Regulate. Regulate. Regulate. Fix the incentives. Fix the incentives. Fix the incentives. The truth is that neiter rules, nor incentives are enough to do the job. How could you even write a rule that got the janitors to do what they did? And would you pay them a bonus for being empatic?

It is proposterous on its face. And what happens, as we turn increasing the rules. Rules and incentives may change it for the better in the short run, but they create a downwards spiral that makes them worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by an overreliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvizations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy and our desire to do the right thing. And, without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives, we are engaging in a wor on wisdom.

Let me give you just a few examples first of “Rules and the War on Moral Skill”. The “Lemonade” story is one. Second, no doubt familiar to you, is the nature of modern American education—scripted, lock-stepped curricula. Here is an example from Chicago kindergarten.
:Script for day 53.
:”’Title”’: Reading and enjouying literature/words with “b”.
:”’Text”’: “The Bath”
:”’Lecture”’: Assemble students on the rug or reading area… Give students a warning about the dangers of hot water… Say, “Listen very quietly as I read the story.”… Say, “Think of other pictures that make the same sound as the sound bath begins with.”…

Say 75 items in this script to teach a 25 page picture book all over Chicago in every kindergarten class in the city. Every teacher the same, the same words in the same way on the same day.

We know why these scripts are there—we don’t trust the judgement of teachers to let them loose on their own. Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster. And the prevent disaster. But what they assure in its place is mediocracy. [applause and cheering]

Don’t get me wrong! We need rules! Jazz musicians need some notes on the page. We need rules for the bankers, God knows. But too many rules prevent accomplished jazz musicians from improvising and as a result they lose their gifts, or worse, they stop playing altogether.

Now, how about incentives? They seem clear and clever. If you have one reason for doing something, and I give you a second reason for doing the same thing, it seems only logical that two reasons are better than one, and you are more likely to do it. Right? Well, not always.

Sometimes, two reasons to do the same thing seem to compete with one another instead of complementing, and they make people less likely to do it. I’ll just give you one example because time is racing.

In Switzerland, back about 15 years ago, they were trying to decide where to site nucluear waste dumps. There was a national referendum and some psycologists went around and polled citizens who were very well informed. And they said, “Would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community?” Astonishingly, 50% of the citizens said “Yes.” They knew, or thought, it was dangerous, they thought it would reduce their property values, but, it had to go somewhere, and they had responsibilities as citizens.

The psychologists asked other people a slightly different question. They said, “If we paid you six weeks salary, every year, would you have a nuclear waste dump in your community?” Two reasons: it is my responsibility and I am getting paid. Instead of 50% saying yes, 25% said yes.

What happens is that the introduction of the incentive gets us to instead of asking, “What is my responsibility?” all we ask is “What serves my interest?” When incentives don’t work, when CEOs ignore the long term health of their companies in pursuit of short term gains that will lead to massive bonuses, the respons is always the same: get smarter incentives.

The truth is, that there are no incentives you can devise that are ever are going to be smart enough. Any incentive system can be subverted by bad will. We need incentives, people have to make a living, but excessive reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity in two sense of that word.

It causes people who engage in activity to lose moral, and it causes the activity itself to lose morality.

Barack Obama said before he was inaugurated, “We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right.” [applause] And when professions are demoralized, everyone in there becomes dependent on and addicted to incentives, and they stop asking, “Is it right?”

We see this in medicine. “Although it’s nothing serious, let’s keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t turn into a major lawsuit.” And we certainly see it in the world of business, “In order to remain competitive in today’s marketplace Bentham, I’m afraid we’re going to have to replace you with a sleezball.” “I sold my soul for about a tenth of what the damn things are going for now.”

It is obvious this is not the way that people want to do their work. So what can we do? A few sources of hope. We ought to try to remoralize work. One way not to do it: teach more ethics courses. [laughter and applause] There is no better way to show people that you are not serious than to tie up everything you have to say about ethics into a little package with a bow and consign it to the margins as an ethics course. What to do instead?

One, celebrate moral exemplars. Acknowledge when you go to law school that little voice that is whispering in your ear about Atticus Finch. No ten year old goes to law school to do mergers and acquisitions. People are inspired by moral heroes. But we learn that with sophistication comes the understanding that you can’t acknowledge that you have moral heroes. Well, acknowledge them, be proud that you have them, celebrate them and demand that the people that teach you acknowledge and celebrate them too. That is one thing we can do.

I don’t know how many of you remember this, another moral hero, 15 years ago, Aaron Feuerstein who was the head of Malden Mils at Massachusets. They make Polartech, burned down, 3,000 employees, he kept everyone of them on the payroll. Why? Because it would been a disaster for them and for the community of he had let them go.

Maybe on paper our company is worth less to Wall Street, but I can tell you it is worth more. We are doing fine. Just at this TED, we heard talks from several moral heroes too, two particularly inspiring to me. One was Ray Anderson [cheering and applause] who turned a part of the evil empire into a zero footprint, or almost a zero footprint business. Why?! Because it was the right thing to do. And the bonus he is discovering is that he is discovering even more money. His employees are inspired by the effort. Why? Because they’d be happy to doing things that are the right thing to do.

Yesterday we heard Willy Smits about reforesting in Indonesia, [applause] and in many ways this is the perfect example, because it took the will to do the right thing. And God knows it took a huge amount of technical skill. I boggled at how much he needed to know, and his associates, in order to ply this out.

Most important to make it work, and he emphasized this, is that it took knowing the people in the communities. Unless the people you are working with are behind you, this will fail. And there isn’t a formula to tell you how to get the people behind you because different people in different communities organize their lives in different ways.

So there is a lot here at TED and other places that celebrate, and you don’t have to be a mega hero. There are ordinary heroes. Ordinary heroes like the janitors who are worth celebrating to. As practitioners, each and everyone of us thrive to be ordinary, if not extraordinary, heroes. As heads of organizations, we should strive to create environments that create and nurture, both moral skill and moral will. Even the wisest and most well-meaning people will give up, if they have to swim against the current in the organizations in which they work.

If you run an organization, you should be sure that non of the jobs, none of the jobs, have job descriptions like the job descriptions of the janitor. Because the truth is, that any work you do that involves interaction with other people, is moral work, and any moral work depends upon practical wisdom.

And perhaps, most important, as teachers we should strive to be the ordinary heroes, the moral exemplars to the people we mentor. And there are few things that we have to remember as teachers. One is that we are always teaching. Someone is always watching. The camera is always on. Bill Gates talked about the importance of education, in particular the model that Kipp was providing. Knowledge is power. And he talked about a lot of the wonderful things that Kipp is doing to take inner city kids and turn them into the direction of college.

I want to focus on one particular thing that Kipp is doing that Bill did not mention, and that is, they have come to the realization that the single most important thing kids need to learn is character. They need to learn to respect themselves. They need to learn to respect their schoolmates. They need to learn to respect their teachers. And, most important, they need to learn to respect learning.

That is the principle objective, if you do that, the rest is just pretty much a coast down hill. And the teachers, the way you teach these things to kids, is by having the teachers and all the other stuff and embody it, every minute of every day.

Obama appealed to virtue, and I think he was right. And the virtue that we need above all others, I think, is practical wisdom, because it is what allows others: honesty, kindness, courage, and so on, to be displayed at the right time, and in the right way.

He also appealed to hope. Right again. I think there is reason for hope. I think people want to be allowed to be virtuous. In many ways, it is what TED is all about—wanting to do the right thing in thright way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each and everyone of us, if only we start paying attention. Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it, and, perhaps most importantly, to the structure of the organizations within which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed.

Thank you very much.

[standing ovation]



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2 reacties op “Practical wisdom”

  1. Allen Taylor avatar

    Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

    Allen Taylor

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