We stopped being wise

Barry Schwartz gave a talk at the TED Conference 2009 on practical wisdom and how everyday wisdom will help rebuild the world. He mentioned that Aristotle believed we needed moral will and moral skill. I think it boils down to a little common sense which a lot of people lack these days. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stupidity there are out there.

Schwartz had a few anecdotes about janitors who work in the hospital. He said that the list of duties that a janitor has to perform can be very long but nowhere on that list does it require any interaction with people. And even though there isn’t any interaction with people, janitors are smart enough to use their common sense. For example, one janitor wouldn’t listen to his supervisor when he was told to vacuum the waiting room. He didn’t vacuum because there was a family that was there every day and every night and it just so happen that they were taking a nap. All it took was a little common sense.

    A wise person

  • knows when and how to make the exception to every rule
  • knows how to improvise
  • knows how to use these moral skills in pursuit of the right aims
  • is made not born

He mentioned the “Lemonade” story where a father and son were at a baseball game and the son wanted lemonade. The father went to the concession stand and saw that all they had was Mike’s hard lemonade. He didn’t know what it was so he ordered it and gave it to the kid. A security guard saw this and called for an ambulance and rushed the kid to the hospital. When they got there, they found no alcohol in the kid’s blood. They were going to send the kid home when Children’s Aid stepped in and said no. They took him to court and the judge said that they will only let the kid go home if the father leaves the house and checks in a hotel.

This is the kind of story that makes you say “WTF!” The security guard, ambulance people and judge all had the same thing to say, “We hate to do it but we have to follow procedure.” That’s the one line that I hate to hear from anyone doing any line of work. At my job, there are rules and procedure to follow but I don’t always follow them. I use my best judgment to do what is best. I use the knowledge that I’ve gained from experience to perform the job that I was hired to do. “Rules and procedure may be dumb but they spare you from thinking.” What good am I if I stop thinking and just follow procedure?

There are rules and procedure but there also needs to be room for improvisation. During one of my interview for a Tech Support job, I asked that question. “How much room is there for me to use my experience to help solve the problem?” The people who were interviewing me told me that they had a tree structure that every Tech Support has to follow and somewhere on that tree is a branch with the correct answer. So basically they were telling me that I couldn’t use my own experience even if it solved anything. Needless to say, I think it was a good thing that I didn’t get that job.

“You don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. Without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough. It’s as likely to get you into trouble as anything else.”

2 replies on “We stopped being wise”

  1. Amen to that.

    From the words of Oprah Winfrey:
    Follow your instincts. That’s where true wisdom manifests itself.

  2. Don! This is something that I have been upset about for years. When I see people who follow every rule, every instruction to the letter I think, “what has become of us”. Mindless zombies that do as we are told and think as one giant collective. You hit it right on the head man, I am so happy that I came across this today…

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