TED Talk: Barry Schwartz on our Loss of Wisdom

In thinking about common sense [Required of all Managers: ‘Common Sense’ only it isn’t] I remembered an exceptional TED talk by Barry Schwartz.

Could it be that the real crisis goes farther, and that we have stopped being wise?

“Change talking”

In the time since I’d first listened to this, I’ve been using three phrases in my Language of Intention [MWA Key 5] thanks to Schwartz: Moral will, moral skill, and practical wisdom. They are being used for the value-mapping process within my own companies. All three are attractive concepts I’m wowed and Aloha-aligned by, and as you know, I believe that language of intention works to effect change: This is “Change talking” ~

  1. Use clearly defined vocabulary which inspires you.
  2. Weave those words and phrases into your daily Language of Intention, i.e. make them personal, relevant, practical and useful.
  3. Speak to what you want, and speak into it often. Speak into it as a driving force of your Ho‘ohana.
  4. Now walk your talk.
  5. Keep talking. However don’t just broadcast, converse. Learn from people.

You’ll feel you need value-aligned actions if you keep talking about them! Your integrity will cry foul if you don’t honor your good words by giving them life — ‘Imi ola life.

“There’s no story I can tell you, that is as powerful
as the story you can tell yourself.”

— storyteller Iain Thomas

Getting back our Practical Wisdom

Please take the next 21 minutes to watch this presentation: I was so grateful that Schwartz was true to his notes for his message was very well written. A complete transcript is available at TED. I would have titled it more positively, as Getting back our Practical Wisdom, for I think that is the true value of this talk and the inspiration Schwartz offers us.

Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom:
Barry Schwartz makes a passionate call for “practical wisdom” as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy. He argues powerfully that rules often fail us, incentives often backfire, and practical, everyday wisdom will help rebuild our world.

My transcript notes/ related links:

The rest of this post is me using my blog programming+data bank for me, and my own deep study, though you are welcome to use it too if you find it helpful… at first it will look like a ton of self-promoting links, and it is self-serving in a way: What I did was pull out parts of the TED transcript I found most compelling, and then I linked it up with what I have written in the past so I could see where I stood with these concepts, i.e. as I spoke of above, making them personal, relevant, practical and useful.

  • If I want the moral will, moral skill, and practical wisdom Schwartz speaks of, where am I with them now? (The links hold my clues.)
  • What more must I learn? What are the obstacles? Where is the value-alignment [MWA Key 3] which will help me best?
  • What begs revisiting (more “Change talking”), for I got started with it, but it’s not yet inculcated into my trusted system, or into my workplace culture?

If there is anything here you would like to talk story about more, let me know…

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This is the job description of a hospital janitor [scrolling up on the screen.] All of the items on it are unremarkable. They’re the things you would expect: mop the floors, sweep them, empty the trash, restock the cabinets. It may be a little surprising how many things there are, but it’s 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 other human beings. Not one.

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“Practical wisdom,” Aristotle told us, “is the combination of moral will (do right by other people) and moral skill (figuring out what moral will means, and requires of them).”

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It takes lots of experience to learn how to care for people. The good news is you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough. It’s as likely to get you and other people into trouble as anything else.

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Scott Simon said, “Rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking.”

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?

The truth is that neither rules nor incentives are enough to do the job. … Rules and incentives may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes them worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing. And without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives, we are engaging in a war on wisdom.

The truth is that there are no incentives that you can devise that are ever 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 senses of that word. It causes people who engage in that activity to lose morale and it causes the activity itself to lose morality.

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Barack Obama said, before he was inaugurated, “We must ask not just ‘Is it profitable?’ but ‘Is it right?'” And when professions are demoralized everyone in them becomes dependent on — addicted to — incentives and they stop asking “Is it right?”

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So what can we do? We ought to try to re-moralize work.

Celebrate moral exemplars. Acknowledge, when you go to law school, that a little voice 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. Acknowledge them. Be proud that you have them. Celebrate them. And demand that the people who teach you acknowledge them and celebrate them too. That’s one thing we can do.

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And you don’t have to be a mega-hero. There are ordinary heroes. Ordinary heroes like the janitors who are worth celebrating too. As practitioners each and everyone of us should strive to be ordinary, if not extraordinary heroes. As heads of organizations, we should strive to create environments that encourage 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.

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

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And, perhaps most important, as teachers, we should strive to be the ordinary heroes, the moral exemplars, to the people we mentor. There are a 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.

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[KIPP the Knowledge is Power Program has] 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’s the principle objective. If you do that, the rest is just pretty much a coast downhill. The way you teach these things to the kids is by having the teachers and all the other staff embody it every minute of every day.

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Obama appealed to virtue. And I think he was right. And the virtue I think we need above all others is practical wisdom, because it’s what allows other virtues — 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.

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Wanting to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each and every one 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 in which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed.