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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.