Saturday, June 18, 2011

Barry Schwartz & Kenneth Sharpe's "Practical Wisdom"

This is a book I'm ambivalent about. It is an entertaining enough read. It carries an important message. But I was left feeling like I had eaten "empty calories". Maybe it is me. I'm stubborn, headstrong, independent, and deeply committed to learning and ideas, so giving me a message that people's lives would be better if their work were not focused on money, status, or rewards makes me shrug my shoulders. Big deal. I've known that all my life.

The only charm for me in this book is the bit of ancient Greek philosophy. I studied philosophy and I remember that at a key moment in my life I felt kind of stupid falling back on Greek Stoicism as the "guide" to my life. I was surprised at that time, but as I look back 40+ years later, I realize I had instinctively fallen back on the one bit of philosophy that was indeed practical, the ethics of the ancients.

This book lays out Aristotle's idea of "happiness" and shows why this can only be truly achieved by "practical wisdom". Not by money, fame, glory, or power. It is written focused on modern America looking at how "rules" and "incentives", supposedly tools to allow managers and moral leaders of society to guide people to better lives is in fact undermining them. The book is very good at looking at explicit examples of teachers, lawyers, doctors, and even a janitor to show how modern America is being hollowed out. For this reason, the book deserves being read. It is in fact a message that most people need.

But for those who aren't swept up in the hoopla of greed, sex, power, and adulation, this book doesn't really carry any shocking revelation or even any really useful guidance. It is entertaining. And I hope the message is embraced by the 95% who need the message, but I sincerely doubt that this book will change more than a very modest number of minds.

Besides some "case studies", the following excerpt gives you an idea of the level of "advice" this book offers:
The work of Martin Seligman, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania ... launched a whole new discipline -- dubbed "positive" psychology -- in the 1990s, when he was president of the American Psychological Association. ... He kick-started positive psychology with his book Authentic Happiness.

The word authentic is there to distinguish what Seligman is talking about from what many of us sometimes casually take happiness to be -- feeling good. Feeling good -- experiencing positive emotion -- is certainly important. But just as important are engagement and meaning. Engagement is about throwing yourself into the activities of your life. And meaning is about connecting what you do to the livs of others -- knowing that what you do makes the lives of others better. Authentic happiness, says Seligman, is a combination of engagement, meaning, and positive emotion. ...

The twenty-four character strengths Seligman identified include things like curiosity, open-mindedness, perspective, kindness and generosity, loyalty, duty, fairness, leadership, self-control, caution, humility, bravery, perseverance, honesty, gratitude, optimism, and zest. He organized these strengths into virtues: courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance, transcendence, and wisdom and knowledge. Aristotle would have recognized many of these strengths as the kind of "excellences" or virtues he considered necessary for eudaimonia, a flourishing or happy life.

Like Aristotle, we consider wisdom to be the "master virtue." Without moral skill, many of the other character strengths and virtues that Seligman identifies as essential to happiness would not do the job. Without such know-how, these strengths would be more like unruly children, leading to well-meaning actions that leave disaster in their wake -- recklessness, not courage; indecisiveness, not patience; blind loyalty, not commitment; cruel confrontation, not helpful honesty. Practical wisdom is the maestro. It's what conducts the whole symphony.

Seligman suggests that "authentic happiness" may only be achievable indirectly, as a by-product of living an engaged and meaningful life. And the two spheres of life Seligman singles out as most likely to provide such positive emotion, engagement and meaning are the same two Ed Diener's research turned up: close social relations with others and participation in meaningful work.
And this bit is the fundamental critique which this book offers to modern managers and intellectuals who are pushing rules and incentives as the "fix" for what ails the modern world:
We need to see how the current reliance on strict rules and regulations and clever incentives to improve practices like medicine, education, and law risks undermining the very wisdom of practitioners that is needed to make these practices better. Well-meaning reformers are often engaged in a kind of unintended stealth war on wisdom.

We absolutely must understand that the corrosion of wisdom is not inevitable. It can be resisted. ...

And finally, again, relying on research in psychology, we need to appreciate that cultivating wisdom is not only good for society but is, as Aristotle thought, a key to our own happiness. Wisdom isn't just something we "ought" to have. It's something we want to have to flourish.
I fear that the 2% who read this book are the 2% who don't need the message of this book. It is the 98% who are seduced by money, power, status, and fame who won't read this book who would benefit from the message in this book. But sadly, that is the way of the world. The 2% who actively try to understand their world and build a better place will read this book looking for more helpful suggestions, but won't uncover any stunning new knowledge. But the 98% who need this book will never read it and even if they stumble on it, they will disdain it because it isn't a "how to" book with "5 quick steps" to achieve their goals of dominance, wealth, social position, and instant stardom. Sic transit gloria mundi.

No comments: