Practical Wisdom…

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At Oran Mor yesterday with Laurie O’Donnell and Steve Carter (from Go Dundee) attending Carol Craig’s Center for Confidence and Well Being Masterclass with Barry Schwartz.  (incidentally there is a banner above the stage that says: ‘let us flourish by telling the truth’ – worth another blog article in it’s own right!)

Brilliant day in great company!  Got to catch up with some friends over coffee too…

Barry ‘stitched together’ two talks one on problems of too much choice (see here for video), and the other on not enough choice (video here), or more correctly ‘practical wisdom‘.

Not enough time for a detailed summary, but here are some headlines. By the way, check out Laurie’s Blog and Twitter, he ‘tweeted’ (as I did, but much slower as I was on my iPhone!) some great quotes during the event.

Paradox of Choice

Official syllogism: freedom -> well being; more choice -> more freedom; therefore, more choice -> greater well being. WRONG!

Too much choice brings stress!  leads to paralysis, and even if we can finally make a choice, we are much less satisfied with the choices we make!

Maximisers & satisficers: maximisers more driven, more ‘successful’ but less happy and content! satiscficers more happy and content.

Practical Wisdom

Gleaned from Aristotle (with apologies to  philosophy scholars for oversimplification!): One over arching virtue, that underpins how all the other virtues are employed – ‘PRACTICAL WISDOM’

Why we can’t do without virtue.  Banking crisis a classic case – what we don’t need is just better rules and smarter incentives. What is of the utmost importance is developing character and virtue!

There is a war on wisdom – a battle, and there are some things we can do.

Showed a scrolling list of job tasks of a hospital janitor: a long list!  Nothing on the list to do with relating to people, to other human beings. May as well have been a cleaner in a mortuary!  Told stories about how janitors saw thier work as caring for others and how this human contact made a difference.  Showing kindness, care and empathy.

Two elements of Practical Wisdom: moral will and moral skill.

The wise person knows how to exceptions to every rule.  Like playing Jazz – improvising.  This is vital as real world problems are ill-defined and complex.  A wise person can use his/her wisdom for ‘right’ aims – not selfishly, or to manipulate an outcome for my benefit.

Wise people are made not born!  But to develop wisdom takes time and opportunity.  Much of our current world actually removes both by rules and incentives.

Question: why do people slavishly follow rules?

They stop us having to think! Also, they can help avoid some of the dismal failures of the past.  However increasing rules actually prevent thinking and therefore developing wisdom, and they create mediocrity.  The more rules there are, the less likely I am to use my judgement, no practice in using judgement means no practical wisdom.

Importance of improvisation: need to let people try, fail and learn.  And to do this WITHOUT close supervision! Ethics is not taught in the classroom, but in practice!  How difficult this is when leaders say ‘do what I say but not what I do!’

What’s the right answer? It depends!

He spoke about the ‘no child left behind’ initiative in the USA – how this rigid system of ‘lock step curriculum was cutting against development of wisdom.  In effect, scripting lessons in this amount of detail communicates that we don’t have confidence that our teachers will be able to employ judgement in teaching our kids!  Results of this? OK, it may protect against a few bad teachers, but it will continue to ensure mediocrity.

He spoke about an educational setting in the USA (KID?) that is having tremendous results – children direct the learning and teachers’ role is to support this. This includes teachers giving their cell phone numbers to students!  That education is founded on relationship – with the teachers job to mould character.  That young people can take themselves seriously, develop self respect, and respect for others.  How do teachers do this?  MODELLING – ‘the teacher is always on stage’!!

He shared a couple of stories that demonstrate the craziness of slavishly following rules – one being about a genuine mistake a colleague made at a baseball game, accidentally buying alcoholic lemonade for his 8 yr old son.  He ended up being held in cells and had to move out of the family home for a week  ‘child abuse’ allegations.  The rational from everyone – social worker, police, judge?  ‘We hate to do this but we have to follow procedure’

So, the war on wisdom via rules undermine the development of moral skill, and the war on wisdom via incentives attacks moral will.

He told a couple of stories that demonstrate incentivisation reframes the social contract. It’s no longer about serving, or stewardship. No longer about giving something of oneself for others – it’s now an economic transaction!  This was demonstrated by a nursery in Israel imposing fines, and citizens in Switzerland allowing (or not) to have a nuclear waste dump near their town.

It’s not about morality or obligation but now about self interest. So, the question is no longer ‘is it the right thing to do?’ It’s now ‘is it profitable?’

This has been illustrated in spades by the recent banking crisis – the incentives of 20 yrs ago seen as a brilliant innovation are now seen to be a significant part of the problem.

‘We must not just ask, is it profitable, but is it right?’ (Obama 18/12/08)

the result with the bankers has been a loss of any frame of reference.  Their telios is simply to make more money.  In the past, bank managers acted with judgement and character. Working with local clients they knew. offering advice and stewardship. This is now seen as a very expensive luxury as the customer is demoted to a spreadsheet and ‘served’ by a distant call centre.

Result? the banks have become DE-MORALISED in two important ways: in their practices and also in their personal morality.

Remoralising Work

He warned against ‘yet more ethics courses’ at universities! This reminded me of a quote from C S Lewis when he said that he’d prefer to play someone at cards who didn’t cheat over someone who was earnest about not cheating! How do we do this? By enabling people to engage in moral practice – give them opportunity.

In our organisations we can build moral skill and moral will.  He said … ‘Even the wisest, the most principled of people would give up if they have to constantly sustain against the tide…’ (I’ll come back to this later with Phil Hanlon’s summary at the end of the session).

He spoke of research done earlier about Jobs vs Careers vs Callings.

Job – work is a necessity, long for weekends, holidays and retiral. Work sucks. Would not recommend to friends

Career – enjoy work, have goals, look for advancement and improvement, next promotion.

Calling – most positive of all. my work is an important part of my life. my work/contribution makes the world a better place. i’d want my kids to do my kind of work.

He went back to the hospital janitors and highlighted that calling does not depend on a grand job title!  These people genuinely saw themselves in a calling to care for others, and it had a very important part of the healing process to hospital patients.

So how do we create callings?

  • needs purpose: a purpose that inspires others
  • developing a sense of partnership – part of something bigger than myself
  • enable a large degree of discretion and autonomy – I get to use my judgement!

This last bullet point is a problem as managers hate to give up control! But if you want other than mediocre, you have to give up (appropraite) control.

Quote from Obama’s chief of staff ‘you should never let a crisis go to waste’.  Sense that this current crisis is a real opportunity to reframe some of these issues.

Phil Hanlon – summary

Phil summarised the event by using the metaphor of the vine, getting us to imagine a vine climbing up one of the columns.  The vine does not need to be taught how to grow, it just needs the right conditions (soul, nutrients, water, sun) and framework (trellis/structure support) to enable growth.

can we imagine the soil as ‘the inner practice’, and the trellis is the community of support?

Phil shared personally on his own ‘inner practice’ and how important support networks like family and church were in the past – and how these may no longer provide support as they once did.

So, what’s to replace it?

Phils question was that to see change in developing the kind of practical wisdom Scotland how might we build our own ‘inner practice’ and what kind of support would we need?

Phil shared  two stories – one on how how he was struck recently watching an old movie – Kramer vs Kramer – when the Streep character chose her own self interest over her son.  That is the nature of things – and he was shocked.  When did this shift happen?

The second was when, as a doctor and manager, he was wheeled into Greater Glasgow Health Board and the new Thatcherite innovations were unveiled – setting Dr against Dr, Hospital against Hospital – in the firm belief that this would promote competition and hence improvement.  A radical change, not just in policy, but also culture and ethos, the very core values people lived by.  Of course, now this is generally recognised as a delusion.

Phil then mimicked a call home, ‘I’m stuck in traffic dear’ – WRONG – I am traffic!  I’m part of the problem, I’m not just observing the problem.

So, what can we do?  If the soil is founded in our early years in our family systems, now clearly articulated in attachment theory.  What about the trellis?  For many this has been dismantled.  How do we build another? One that gives and enables compassion, mindfulness, contemplative prayer (depending on one’s tradition or mindset).

Phil finished by telling the story of Henry Nouwen – who gave up a ‘successful’ career to give his life in support of a severely disabled person.  We learn by enacting, and we need to develop this kind of learning if we are to develop practical wisdom.

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4 comments… add one

  • stewart murdoch

    Thanks guys I enjoyed reading this stuff and it is close in content to the spirit of the amazing IACD event I have been taking part in this week in Brisbane – it is reasuring that accross the globe there are people working to create new relationships to work, social change and each other!
    Stewart

  • thanks for your comment Stewart.
    Look forward to hearing about the land down under when you have a moment!
    Joe

  • Gary Willetts

    Good summary of what sounds like an amazing event. Love the subject matter – more people need to hear it, I need to hear it more. Look forward to watching the videos…

  • Gary,
    thanks for your comment – glad you found it helpful.
    enjoy the videos!

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