Our Loss of Wisdom

TED (conference)

TED (conference) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barry schwartz held an excellent talk at TED: “Our loss of wisdom” (YouTube, full lesson on TED Ed). A few quotes (not all of them are literal):

  • The job description of a hospital janitor includes many kinds of tasks but not a single one involves other human beings. Not one. Yet, when you look at what janitors tell you when you ask them about your job, it’s always about other people:
    • Mark stopped mopping the floor because a patient had got up and did exercises in the corridor.
    • One janitor refused to vacuum the visitors lounge because family members slept there despite orders of her superior.
    • Luke washed the floor in a comatose patients room twice because a relative hadn’t noticed him doing it the first time.
  • Not all janitors are like this but those who are think these are essential parts of the job.
  • “These janitors have the moral will to do right by other people and beyond this the moral skill to figure out what doing right means.”
  • “A Wise Person Knows: When and how to make ‘the exception to every rule.'”
  • “A Wise Person Knows: When and how to improvise.”
  • “A Wise Person Knows: How to use these moral skills in pursuit of the right aims.”
  • “A Wise Person: Is made and not born.”
  • It takes experience to become wise and not just any experience: You need the permission to be allowed to improvise, to try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures.
  • “You don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.”
  • @05:57, he tells a story how people with good intentions ruin the lives of a family for several weeks just by obediently following rules. All people involved said “we hate to do it but we have to follow procedure.”
  • “Rules and procedures may be dumb but they spare you from thinking.” (- and they allow you to blame others)
  • When things go wrong, we turn to two tools: Rules and incentives. When something happens, we want better ones and more of them. That happened after the financial crisis: Regulate, regulate, regulate, fix the incentives, fix the incentives, fix the incentives. @8:21 “The truth is: Neither rules nor incentives are enough to do the job.” How do you pay people a bonus for being emphatic?
  • Rules and incentives help in the short run but they create a downwards spiral in the long run.
  • By relying on rules, we engage in a war on wisdom. Rules help prevent disaster but they also ensure mediocrity (@10:30). We need enough rules but not too many.
  • Incentives seem better. But sometimes, they compete with the original goal instead of complementing it. We suddenly stop asking “What is my responsibility?” and turn to “What serves me best?”
  • Solution? Smarter incentives. Unfortunately, there will never be incentives which will be smart enough. We need incentives but excessive incentives demoralize: “It causes people who engage in that activity to lose morale and it causes the activity itself to lose morality.”
  • “We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right.” – Barack Obama, 18th Dec 2008.
  • What doesn’t work: Teach more ethics courses. “There is no better way to show people that you’re not serious than to tie everything you have to say about ethics in a ball and consign it to the margins as an ethics course.”
  • What to do instead? See for yourself @14:25

One Response to Our Loss of Wisdom

  1. […] are the consequences of incarceration of almost one percent of the whole population? Is adding more rules to a broken system the adult or the childish way […]

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