Wise Up

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Issue 16 - Wisdom

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama appealed to each of us to give of our best as we try to extricate ourselves from this current financial crisis. But what did he appeal to? He did not, happily, follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and tell us simply to go shopping. Nor did he tell us, ‘Trust us. Trust your country. Invest, invest, invest.’ Instead, he told us to put aside childish things. 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. Besides, some of you might be wondering What the hell does it mean?

Let me begin with an example. The job description of a hospital cleaner: mop the floors, sweep them, empty the trash, restock the cabinets and so on. It may be a little surprising how many things there are, but it’s not surprising what they are. What is noticeable is that there isn’t a single thing on the list that involves other human beings. Not one. The cleaner’s job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital.

And yet, when some psychologists interviewed hospital cleaners to get a sense of what they thought their jobs were like, they encountered Mike, who told them about how he stopped mopping the floor because Mr Jones was out of his bed getting a little exercise, trying to build up his strength, walking slowly up and down the hall. Charlene told them about how she ignored her supervisor’s admonition and didn’t vacuum the visitor’s lounge because there were some family members who were there all day, every day who, at this moment, happened to be taking a nap. 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 a vigil for six months, didn’t see Luke do it the first time and his father was angry. Behaviour like this from janitors, technicians, nurses and if we’re lucky 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.

Not all cleaners are like this, of course. Those who are, however, think these sorts of human interactions involving kindness, care and empathy are an essential part of the job – yet their job description contains not one word about other human beings. These cleaners have the moral will to do right by other people. Beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what ‘doing right’ actually 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 cleaners knew when to ignore the job duties in the service of other objectives. A wise person knows how to improvise, as Luke did when he re-washed 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 who uses the notes on the page, but dances around them and invents combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use moral skills in the service of the right aims. Importantly, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally fail and learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

When you ask the cleaners who behaved like the ones I described how hard it is to learn to do their job, they tell you that it takes lots of experience. They don’t mean it takes lots of experience to learn how to mop floors and empty waste bins. It takes lots of experience to learn how to care for people. At TED, brilliance is rampant. It’s scary. 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.

There’s a sense in which this is obvious, yet let me tell you a little story. It’s a story about lemonade. A father and his seven-year-old son were watching a Detroit Tigers game at the ball park. His son asked him for some lemonade and the father went to the concession stand to buy it. All they had was Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which contained 5% alcohol. The father, being an academic, had no idea Mike’s Hard Lemonade contained alcohol, so he brought it back. A security guard spotted the boy drinking the lemonade and called the police, who called an ambulance which rushed to the ball park and whisked him to hospital. The emergency room ascertained that the child had no alcohol in his blood. They were ready to let him go.

But not so fast. The Wayne County Child Welfare Protection Agency disagreed, and sent the child to a foster home for three days. At that point, could the child go home? Well, a judge said yes, on condition the father left the house and checked into a motel. After two weeks the family was reunited. The welfare workers and the paramedics 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 related this story on National Public Radio (NPR) said, ‘Rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking.’ To be fair, rules are often imposed because previous lax officials have returned children to abusive households. 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 neither rules nor incentives are enough to do the job. How could you even write a rule that gets the cleaners to do what they did? And would you pay them a bonus for being empathic? At face value, it’s preposterous. Rules and incentives may make things better in the short term but they can 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. Moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing. Without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives, we are engaging in a war on wisdom.

Let me give you a few examples, first of rules and the war on moral skill. The lemonade story is one. Second, no doubt more familiar to you, is the nature of modern American education: scripted, lock-step curricula. Here’s an example from Chicago kindergartens. Reading and enjoying literature and words that begin with ‘B’. The bath: Assemble students on a rug and give students a warning about the dangers of hot water. 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 is saying the same words in the same way on the same day. We know why these scripts are there. We don’t trust the judgment of teachers enough to let them loose on their own. Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster; they prevent disaster. What they assure in its place is mediocrity.

Don’t get me wrong. We need rules. Jazz musicians need some notes – most of them need some notes on the page. We need more 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 cleverer. 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’re 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.

Here is another example. About 15 years ago, the Swiss were trying to decide where to site nuclear waste dumps. There was going to be a national referendum. Psychologists polled well-informed citizens asking, ‘Would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community?’ Astonishingly, 50% of the citizens said yes. They knew 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 be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community?’ So two reasons: it’s my responsibility and I’m getting paid. Instead of 50% saying yes, 25% said yes. What happens is that the second introduction of incentive gets us, so that instead of asking, ‘What is my responsibility?’ all we ask is, ‘What serves my interests?’ 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 response is always the same: get smarter incentives.

The truth is that no incentive is 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 demoralises 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.

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

So, what can we do? A few sources of hope: We ought to try to re-moralize work. One way not to do it: teach more ethics courses. There is no better way to show people that you’re 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? 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. Unfortunately 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. Demand that the people who teach you acknowledge them and celebrate them too. That’s one thing we can do.

Being a moral hero requires the will to do the right thing. It can also take a huge amount of technical skill. Importantly it also requires knowing the communities you work with – unless they’re 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.

You don’t have to be a mega-hero. There are plenty of ordinary heroes like the janitors who are worth celebrating. As practitioners each 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.

If you run an organisation you should be sure that none of the jobs – none of the jobs – has a job description like those of the janitors. 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.

Obama appealed to virtue. I think he was right. The virtue I think we need above all others is practical wisdom because it’s what allows other virtues – honesty, kindness and courage, for example – 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’s what TED is all about. Wanting to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each 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 organisations in which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed.

This is an edited speech presented by Barry Schwartz at the 2009 TED Conference. To watch the full talk (and others), visit TED.com

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