In Pursuit of Practical Wisdom

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

What do wise people do?

Financial guru Dave Ramsey often advises his radio listeners about the importance of reading and how the practice can transform lives.  Simply put – the more you read, the more you learn.  Ramsey found in his travels that the average millionaire reads one book a month.  He concluded that maybe folks should do what millionaires do, if they wanted to be successful themselves.  That sounded like good advice, so I decided to take on the challenge for Y2013.

I intend to tackle these books this year

I intend to tackle these books this year

The first book I read this year was Practical Wisdom:  The Right Way To Do The Right Thing by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe.  It was recommended by a close friend’s father.  This wise mentor felt the book should be required reading for all people in leadership positions.  After studying it, I totally agree.

Schwartz and Sharpe focus their thesis on the observation that mastering human interactions involving care, kindness, and empathy is an important virtue.  That people who are successful in the workplace and with their relationships often have what ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called “practical wisdom,” which is a combination of moral will and moral skill.

In short, moral will is the desire to do right by others and moral skill is the ability to figure out what doing right means.  Schwartz and Sharpe explain that a wise person knows when and how to “make the exception to every rule” and when and how to improvise.

The late Maynard Ferguson was truly great at feeling the music ... a master of improvisation

The late Maynard Ferguson was truly great at feeling the music … a master of improvisation

They point out that …

  • A wise person is made through experience, not born.  It takes a lot of time, mistakes, and energy to learn how to care for people.
  • That practical wisdom is kind of like “moral jazz.”  Our interactions with people often depend on rules and incentives – like the notes on a page and basic melodies in jazz.  But, rules and incentives by themselves can’t fully guide someone to do the right thing.
  • Thus, moral improvisation in how we interpret and play around the notes and melodies on the song sheet of our everyday lives is a critical skill.

This excellent book concludes with the thought that people want to be allowed to be virtuous in the workplace and society.  Schwartz and Sharpe called them “system changers.”  People are happiest when they have permission to transform the places they serve for the better, while helping others as they do it.  That’s what we were made to do!  Rules and incentives are no substitute for wisdom.  In fact, there’s no substitute for wisdom.

So, maybe reading one book a month would be a good endeavor for all of us.  This one could be an excellent start for you.  You can never gain too much wisdom.