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A few days ago I finished reading Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s new book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. I love reading and the thought process that comes with the process of reading. As a result I tend to recommend a lot of books. However, usually my recommendations are not universal but specific. Once in a while I come across a book that I think everybody must read. Practical Wisdom is at the top of that list.
The authors have a few basic claims. We need more wisdom in our lives. Not the wisdom of sages or scholars but practical everyday wisdom that will help us live better lives and make better decisions. Wisdom is the act of performing a particular social practice well—being a good friend or parent or doctor or soldier or citizen or statesman—and that means figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time.
Wisdom, however, is not about intelligence or intellectual capacity. Because we are all born to be wise. The problem is this wisdom needs to be nurtured, cultivated and encouraged. It requires mentioned, coaching, modeling and time to develop. We, as a society, are doing just the opposite of that. We are waging a war against wisdom. Because of different societal process our society has turned more and more to rules, incentives and standardization. As the authors put it:
The assumption behind carefully constructed rules and procedures, with close oversight, is that even if people do want to do the right thing, they need to be told what that is. And the assumption underlying incentives is that people will not be motivated to do the right thing unless they have an incentive to do so. Rules and incentives. Sticks and carrots. What else is there?
While these tools are sometimes useful, they are usually effective only in the short-term and have unintended consequences. They are unable to provide for the changing complex needs of the environment in which people operate in, and thus, lead to unwanted results:
Rules and incentives may improve the behavior of those who don’t care, though they won’t make them wiser. But in focusing on the people who don’t care—the targets of our rules and incentives—we miss those who do care. We miss those who want to do the right things but lack the practical wisdom to do them well. Rules and incentives won’t teach these people the moral skill and will they need. Even worse, rules can kill skill and incentives can kill will.
Rules are aids, allies, guides, and checks. But too much reliance on rules can squeeze out the judgment that is necessary to do our work well. When general principles morph into detailed instructions, formulas, unbending commands—wisdom substitutes—the important nuances of context are squeezed out. Better to minimize the number of rules, give up trying to cover every particular circumstance, and instead do more training to encourage skill at practical reasoning and intuition.
More than that, this reliance on rules and incentives is eroding our ability to develop wisdom and makes people who go into professions like medicine, law and education with a desire to influence and do good, hate their jobs or act in ways that are contrary to what they wanted to do when they decided to join the profession.
The challenge is to find a way to enable people to earn their livelihoods and create a viable organization without having payoffs completely control what people do—without having payoffs demoralize both the people and the practices in which they engage.
The book is a wonderfully written call to stop treating people like cogs. A call to stop measuring things just because we can and then leading our lives according to these measurements. It is an attempt to point out that there is more about being alive and working, than just thinking about outcomes, money and bottom line measurable results. It try to challenge the assumption of “one right way” and “top-down” control that is like a cancer in our societies. It is an attempt to point out to the Obliquity of our business and work. It is a praise to human judgment and ability to do good. It describes the world I want to live in and the kind of work life I want to lead. It is the book I wish I could have written. Read it. Today.