What is Practical Wisdom and Why Do We Need It?

Wisdom, said Maria Popova, is knowledge that matters. It has both a practical and moral component to it that knowledge does not. Not only does wisdom enrich our lives by ushering us to act wisely, it simply makes the world a better place.

The Greek philosopher Plato believed that wisdom was theoretical or abstract. Aristotle, his pupil, disagreed and said that wisdom was available to all, a kind of moral compass that guides our thinking and behavior. He then distilled his ideas in his book Nichomachean Ethics. To champion human happiness, to flourish, Aristotle believed that wisdom was not for theoretical debate but for practical application.

Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, authors of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, distilled Aristotle’s ideas on virtues and practical wisdom and how it applies to our lives [emphasis mine]:

“Practical wisdom is akin to the kind of skill that a craftsman needs to build a boat or a house, or that a jazz musician needs to improvise. Except that practical wisdom is not a technical or artistic skill. It is a moral skill—a skill that enables us to discern how to treat people in our everyday social activities.
How, then, are we to learn to be practically wise? There is no recipe, formula, or set of techniques. Skills are learned through experience, and so is the commitment to the aims of a practice. That’s why we associate wisdom with experience. But not just any experience will do. Some experiences nurture and teach practical wisdom; others corrode it. And it is here that Aristotle focuses our attention on something critically important: character and practical wisdom must be cultivated by major institutions in which we practice.

And yet… the institutions that nurture us strives to instill wisdom but fall very short. Aristotle believed that we could develop traits like loyalty, perseverance, mindfulness, and kindness; he called these aretes (virtues or excellences). The master virtue, the soil for cultivating these traits, he argued, requires practical wisdom. Schwartz and Sharpe outline the 6 signs of someone exercising practical wisdom [emphasis mine]:

1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what situation calls for, and to inform judgement without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or ‘just know’ what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.”

Practical wisdom is not only for our day-to-day life but also for the workplace. Schwartz and Sharpe discuss that practical wisdom helps us deal with situations in work and life that aren’t black and white. Rules and frames influence the context of a situation, making it rigid and inflexible, undermining our ability to exercise practical wisdom at a fault:

“Doctors—and teachers attempting to teach and inspire, or lawyers attempting to provide proper counsel and serve justice—are not puzzling over a choice between the ‘right’ thing and the ‘wrong’ thing. The common quandaries they face are choices among right things that clash, or between better and best, or sometimes between bad and worse.
These sort of quandaries don’t have pat, one-size-fits-all answers. Good rules might be useful as guides as we try to manage these multiple aims, but they will never be subtle enough and nuanced enough to apply in every situation. Aristotle recognized that balancing acts like these beg for wisdom, and that abstract or ethereal wisdom would not do. Wisdom has to be practical, because the issues we face are embedded in our everyday work.
Acting wisely demands that we be guided by proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of a practice was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of lawyering is to pursue justice. Every profession—from banking to social work—has a telos, and those who excel are those who are able to locate and pursue it.”
Think about dealing with a bad manager or an awful coworker. It’s easy to act emotionally, stirring up anger with anger and trying to win with force. But is this the sign of a practically wise person? Venting and causing drama may feel good in the moment, but it should make us question whether the outcome we created was worth the trouble.

Take for example anger. Aristotle didn’t argue whether it’s right or wrong to feel anger, but rather how we manage it. Aristotle said:

“We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly. But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner—that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.”
Schwartz and Sharpe continue:
“Sizing up the situation, figuring what’s relevant in this particular case and these particular circumstances, imagining what someone else is thinking and feeling, recognizing the options and imagining the consequences—all these skills are part of being perceptive. It is this perception that enables us to recognize the uniqueness of a particular situation. Such perception is ‘a process of loving conversation between rules and concrete responses, general conceptions and unique case, in which the general articulates the particular and is in turn further articled by it.’
Practical wisdom demands more than the skill to be perceptive about others. It also demands the capacity to perceive oneself—to assess what our own motives are, to admit our failures, to figure out what has worked and not and why.”

Deliberation, perception, mindfulness, empathy, using emotions as our allies, learning from past experiences, thinking about our thinking—these are all required to exercise practical wisdom, to act wisely, morally, and thoughtfully. If human flourishing is the pinnacle ideal, both on a personal and societal level, the question isn’t so much about how but when.

The French essayist Montaigne once said, “It is not enough to recount experiences; they must be weighed and sorted; they must be digested and distilled, so that they may yield the reasonings and conclusions they contain.” Schwartz and Sharpe share MIT professor Donald Schön’s idea on reflective practice and why it’s essential for developing practical wisdom:

“MIT professor Donald Schön dubbed it ‘reflective practice.’ Schön, an expert on how professionals and organizations learn, argued that good professionals are always adjusting their actions to the particular context in order to achieve a general aim (health, education, justice), and the way they learn how to do this is by assessing the particular actions they choose (their words, their advice, their framing), and reevaluating, often rapidly, what they have said or done so they can improve upon it. This process of reflective practice—of trial, error, reassessment, and trial again—allows them to get better and better at what they do. They learn the moral and technical expertise to do their work well.”

What is life but a practice? Practical wisdom may seem like one of those elusive attainments that only gifted individuals could achieve, but how shortsighted that is on every level—and how easy it is to use that as an excuse to not try to be better. Whether we’re doctors, writers, assistants, bankers, accountants, artists, geologists, or scientists, practical wisdom is unbounded by circumstance or craft.

What I find so beautiful about practical wisdom is that it enriches our lives and influences our behavior by reminding us of how it helps others, not just ourselves.

Practical Wisdom is a must-read. Easy to assume that studying a topic like this is difficult, especially if you have no clue or understanding of practical wisdom and why it’s even worth ruminating. That is why we read. Schwartz and Sharpe do a masterful job of providing relatable examples of moments where practical wisdom is required, and ultimately, how we can start fostering it in our own lives.

Why Rewards Can Be Toxic to Our Careers and Why Curiosity and Showing Up is Essential

Jane Smiley

Throughout our lives and careers, there are telltale signs that tell us if we’re headed in the right direction or not. An increase in revenue or Amazon reviews or a sudden barrage of likes, pings, traffic, and emails—we’re entitled to believe that we’re doing something right and productive. External validations make sense to the human condition because we’re wired to be social. We desperately seek connection and to be understood, thus making reviews or the smell of a new car all the more desirable and convincing that we’re okay.

In my short writing career thus far, external validation comes in all shapes and sizes, some meaningful and some ultimately meaningless: the number of shares on a post (meaningless); the email I recently received from a reader in Dubai trying to buy my book on Amazon but couldn’t (meaningful); rankings and ratings and reviews; the number of subscribers; Google analytics; someone famous shouting you out.

Some of these are psychic anchors for the artist and entrepreneur, like our morning cup of coffee but for our self-esteem; some are meaningful data where it can make us better, whereas others are the equivalent of flattery. Differentiating the two requires experience and wisdom on what truly matters and what doesn’t. It’s not that we shouldn’t accept or acknowledge external validations, but we mustn’t be so busy in the pursuit of them that we lose sight of our art and why we’re doing it in the first place.

Jane Smiley, an American author and also the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her best-selling novel, A Thousand Acres, beautifully admonishes in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do on how rewards can be potentially toxic to our careers and why curiosity is the panacea [emphasis mine]:

“I’ve had some rewards. Rewards are fantasies. You can’t wish for an award. You cannot say, ‘My career will finally be worth it if I win the Nobel Prize.’ That’s false consciousness. If your career wasn’t worth it while you were writing those books, then what a sad life you’ve led. For me, it goes back to curiosity. I suppose my career will be over when I look around and say, ‘This is all boring; there’s nothing more that interests me.’ You want your interests to outrun your actual days on earth.”

How do we sustain that kind of curiosity?

By not tying our self-worth to praise and metrics and by honoring our purpose for doing what we do—to truly harness the feeling of being alive when we do the work. At the start of my writing career, my focus was, mistakenly, to make money. My old blog had Google Adwords littering every crevice of white space. It wasn’t until after many failures and re-dos and realizations that I returned to my true purpose: writing to learn, to communicate, generate, and understand the ideas occupying my mind, and in the words of Terry McMillan, to shed dead skin.

However, in a culture where we’re woefully underdeveloped in exercising practical wisdom in our lives and careers, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid false consciousness. When we see people receiving rewards, it’s alluring. When we finally receive one, it becomes addicting. Like a cigarette after a meal, this quiet and destructive habit can form, making us chase reward after reward and slowly disconnecting us from why we sat down in the first place.

Milton Glaser

In How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, Debbie Millman—remarkable interviewer, brilliant author, renown designer—interviews designers of all kinds from a variety of industries, inquiring on what makes a great graphic designer and how these individuals crafted their careers. One of the interviewees is no other than Milton Glaser (think: I ♥ New York, Bob Dylan poster, and many more). Millman was curious as to how Glaser’s career had such longevity and vitality. Glaser responds with true wisdom [emphasis mine]:

“I don’t know. Just staying at the desk turning out the work and trying to do it as well as I can. I am also a very persistent man: a stubborn, persistent man. And the reward is still the same reward: doing things that have quality, that are still powerful, and that reach people. And, of course, the sheer joy of doing it. I love coming in to my office and working.”

And yet, as a culture, we have a hard time internalizing this kind of advice—show up and work (and enjoy it). Both Milton and Smiley had their fair share of rewards in their careers, but their admonishments in our interests outrunning our days on earth and the work being the reward happens to be the root of their success. Once you study interesting careers and see this pattern, it becomes hard to deny that what makes our lives meaningful aren’t the rewards or applause, but the more subtle, behind-the-scenes principles: showing up, loving what you do, and remaining curious.

Seneca on Busyness, Obtaining Wisdom From the Past, and The Shortness Of Life

How do we learn to live well? Who can we turn to for that kind of wisdom—knowledge that matters, that is governed by a moral compass, and considers the human condition?

The Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca wrote a timeless letter to his friend, Paulinas, on the shortness of life. Within this letter, he admonishes to look at the past for wisdom; our access to a multitude of thinkers allows us to cross-pollinate ideas and worldviews to develop our own understanding. This strategy of looking into the past was relevant 2,000 years ago as it is today:

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light. We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepared in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam. We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics. Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”

“A partnership with every age” is a beautiful sentiment, one truer than ever before because of the internet. But as we get more and more access, it is easy to think less and less about what we’re consuming. As Maria Popova said in her fantastic meditation on knowledge versus wisdom:

“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.

This barrage of readily available information has also created an environment where one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something, and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.”

Alongside a culture that is fearful of appearing uninformed is another issue rooted in our fetish for productivity and all its hacks: busyness and the belief that life is too short.

Seneca counters this beautifully in the inception of his letter to Paulinas:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest of achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

Nowadays, the student boasting about studying for 8 hours straight is a sign of a dedicated, hardworking mind. The employee flashing around their badge that showcases a lack of sleep and the amount of coffee consumed is somehow an aspiration to follow? Let’s not sugar coat it: busyness is a farce and a profound lack of respect for how our bodies function day to day. It’s like believing that drinking a gallon of milk a day will somehow turn your bones into adamantium.

Seneca admonished to Paulinas to see things as they are and not as they appear to be:

“So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.”

The reason why life seems short, according to Seneca, is that we’re consumed in our vices, passions, and delusional busyness. What’s worse, we’re unaware of it [emphasis mine]:

“Why do we complain about nature? She has acted kindly: life is long if you know how to use it. But one man is gripped by insatiable greed, another by a laborious dedication to useless tasks. One man is soaked in wine, another sluggish with idleness. One man is worn out by political ambition, which is always at the mercy of the judgement of others. Another through hope of profit is driven headlong over all lands and seas by the greed of trading. Some are tormented by a passion for army life, always intent on inflicting dangers on others or anxious about danger to themselves. Some are worn out by the self-imposed servitude of thankless attendance on the great. Many are occupied by either pursuing their other people’s money or complaining about their own. Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself. Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly—so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest of life is not life but merely time. Vices surround and assail men from every side, and do not allow them to rise again and lit their eyes to discern truth, but keep them overwhelmed and rooted in their desires. Never can they recover from their true selves.”

Later in his treatise, he uses Stoic principles to focus on nature and death and uses that to put life into perspective:

“That is the feeling of many people: their desire for their work outlasts their ability to do it. They fight against their own bodily weakness, and they regard old age as a hardship on no other grounds than that it puts them on the shelf. The law does not make a man a soldier after fifty or a senator after sixty: men find it more difficult to gain leisure from themselves than from the law. Meanwhile, as they rob and are robbed, as they disturb each other’s peace, as they make each other miserable, their lives pass without satisfaction, without pleasure, without mental improvement. No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from hopes that look far ahead; indeed, some people even arrange things that are beyond life—massive tombs, dedications of public buildings, shows for their funerals, and ostentatious burials. But in truth, such people’s funerals should be conducted with torches and wax tapers, as though they had lived the shortest of lives.”

To celebrate his work with a standing ovation, Seneca beautifully captures the one element that dyes our perception, for good or ill:

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life is 100 pages, a short and beautiful read on topics that should be more readily ruminated—on our attention, our bravado for boasting about busyness, and everything in between such as friendship, philosophy, death, overcoming grief, and more. These philosophical ideas have influenced thinkers from many generations, reverberating throughout time and revealing its practical application in modern times. Perhaps learning how to live requires us to deeply think about what we give our attention to, how we spend our time and for whom, and how much of that is used mindfully or wastefully.

Sir Ken Robinson on the Invention of the IQ Test and How it Permeated Throughout Our Culture

We know what an IQ score test is and what it measures, but we don’t know why it matters. Who really goes around boasting their IQ score?

When we think of a high IQ, we think of Albert Einstein, the genius, and how his unique brain fostered creative scientific laws of the universe. Even easier to condemn yourself and believe that such a level of intelligence is impossible. We focus more on the IQ and less on his environment, upbringing, predilection for science, and dedication to his craft.

Sir Ken Robinson, in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, explains the invention of the IQ:

“Like the motor car, television, the micro-processor and the Coca-Cola bottle, IQ is one of the most compelling inventions of the modern world. It is an idea in four parts. The first is that each of us is born with a fixed intellectual capacity or quotient: that just as we may have brown eyes or red hair, we have a set amount of intelligence. Second, how much intelligence we have can be calculated by a series of pencil-and-paper tests of the sort illustrated above. The results can be compared against a general scale and given as a number from 0 to 200. That number is your IQ. On this scale, average intelligence is between 80 and 100; above average is between 100 and 120 and anything above 130 gets you into Mensa’s Christmas party. The third idea is that IQ tests can be used to predict children’s performances at school and in later life. For this reason, IQ tests are widely used for school selection and educational planning. Finally, IQ is taken to be an index of general intelligence: that is, these tests are assumed to point to a person’s overall intellectual capacities. Many people now seem to think that it is enough to roll out their IQ score for everyone to grasp how bright they are, or not. As a result of all this, the popular idea of intelligence has become dangerously narrow and other intellectual abilities are either ignored or underestimated. For all these reasons, since the idea of IQ emerged about 100 years ago, it has had explosive consequences for social policy and especially for education.”

Just a 100 years ago…

It’s important to note that Robinson isn’t saying that we have a fixed intellectual capacity—that’s a fixed mindset—but rather the IQ test makes us believe that we do. Any kind of test measuring performance becomes a game, a way to prove to yourself and others that you are indeed born-smart—that’s where the shame lies and where the point is missed. Although the test does measure our overall intelligence (and the measures are relative to the time we’re taking it), it doesn’t mean that we can’t improve our intelligence.

Sadly, many people will live as if they can’t get smarter. The belief that you are the way you are is far more comforting than the belief that you can transform yourself through hard work. This fixed mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, is entirely unhelpful in all areas of our lives.

Being aware of an invention, especially one that has taken such root in our culture and is only 100 years old, helps us determine its purpose and meaning. There’s a 99.9% chance that no one will ever ask for your IQ score. But it’s disheartening to realize that it will be asked in the kind of institutions that should be readily ignoring these faux and entirely unhelpful measures of something that isn’t concrete, but rather changes and improves with effort.