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Product details

  • Paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books,U.S.; Reprint edition (Nov. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594485437
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594485435
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.5 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 255,570 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dan Firth on 1 May 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
A good read with a lot of thought provoking ideas ... recommended. I found it useful both for my academic studies (philosophy) where the subject of practical wisdom is underdeveloped and personally in reflecting on particular situations I've encountered. Good use of case studies brings to life what practical wisdom is in everyday life.

The approach taken here has its roots in philosophy and links this to current psychology. I've posted for readers who are interested in the stifling affect of bureaucratisation and too many rules as I've also recently read Ritzer's book on the McDonaldization of society (link below) which gives a sociological perspective on rules / institutions which has many parallels to the one put forward here. Ritzer's approach is based on Weber's work on the 'iron cage' of rationality, in which attempting to be more and more rational leads us to to things that are irrational. Weber identifies 4 aspects to how the `rational society' or formal rationality seeks to approach things. These are the pursuit of increased:

The McDonaldization of Society 6

I think there is something interesting to go at here in terms of linking thoughts on how what the current authors describe as 'canny outlaws' can (as individuals) do to change things, and to whether this is sufficient to let us escape the 'iron cage' of rationality, which as a society we seem determined to pursue.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By VeraDoesPositive on 31 Mar. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a book that pulls together and consolidates a wide range of research and study to shine a light into a philosophical approach to everyday life and work that can provide coherence in the search for meaningful existence within the context of contemporary living. It particularly confronts the challenges where there is conflict in our lives between how we work and our own values and how to reconsider where we are happiest and most comfortable. It demonstrates some less useful processes and structures that have grown around organisational education, justice, care and the potential for work (dis)satisfaction. It explores learning, and how to find a way to make meaningful decisions within the kind of damaged or damaging organisational structures that exist where most of us work. Through concrete and practical examples it offers alternatives to where sight has been lost of the true nature of the objectives of a business or a service, where they have become diverted from their more principled aims by poor practice, through badly thought out or short sighted incentivisations.

It identifies problems, and offers solutions, to some of the most central issues that pertain to human happiness.

I'd thoroughly recommend it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Goddard on 15 Feb. 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book is excellent - It's a wake up call to society to stop hiding behind big bureaucracy and to start operating with authenticity in a grown up, trusting society.

Schwartz documents why teachers can't teach, GPs can't care and how and why we've got this position. Using Aristotle's definition of practical wisdom, he provides a compelling, through provoking narrative.
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By D. Cosby on 30 April 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A thin philosophy which could have been written in half the pages. The premise and the TED talk were excellent but I thought the book pedestrian.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 23 reviews
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Just an incredible book! 8 Jan. 2011
By Eddie Colbeth - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This may be the best book I've had the pleasure to read all year! Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe have outdone themselves. In Practical Wisdom they point to multiple sources of research that says that because we are so laden down with rules and over incentivized with rewards at work that it's killed our discretion, engagement and purpose. They talk about how rules and incentives have deteriorated teaching and the practices of law and medicine, though the ideas in the book apply to any type of work.

At times this book had me in tears or storming mad, it showed me how bad things have gotten in the legal, medical and educational systems. But it doesn't stop there, it goes on to talk about how some people, who they call "system changers" are already working on fixing these systems by creating environments that are conducive to practical wisdom. The book also spends a good bit of time talking about "canny outlaws," people who actively resist, at great risk to themselves, things like scripted teaching and unethical behavior that has become the norm.

It all comes back to autonomy, mastery and purpose. They call autonomy, discretion and say that it's a critical component of being engaged at work. Mastery is important because we learn through trial and error making adjustments and improving. Purpose is about serving others and making people's lives better. The book says that when work is meaningful, engaging and is discretion-encouraging it rises to the level of a calling.

Using practical wisdom starts a virtuous circle, "We are happiest when our work is meaningful and gives us the discretion to use our judgment. The discretion allows us to develop the wisdom to exercise the judgment we need to do that work well. We're motivated to develop the judgment to do that work well because it enables us to server others. And it makes us happy to do so."
46 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Good Book - But not much new information 17 Jan. 2011
By Bernard Kwan - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It makes sense that Barry Schwartz would follow up his previous book on the paradox of choice with this one, which is also about choice, about what is required for good decision making.

The premise of this book is that in many fields such as Medicine, Law, Banking and Education there has been a movement to institute more and more rules and incentives in order to improve performance and improve the bottom line. This has had the unintended consequences of constraining decision making and corrupting the people who work in these fields. He uses examples from psychology experiments (how people start to only focus on financial incentives and less on the moral dimension once money is introduced) and from real life to show how this can be counterproductive, such as the teacher who is constrained by the syllabus as to how each minute of the day is structured (including what words to say) and the judge who is not able to show leniency due to strict rules on sentencing.

He calls for a renewed focus on the "telos" or purpose of these professions and greater scope for decision-making and mentoring for the young professionals in each of these fields so they can have the empathy, compassion and discretion to act in the best way for each individual case. Then these professions can become more of a "calling" than just a "job".

The best business / pop psychology books, usually have one key idea which is slightly counter-intuitive, which then enters the popular consciousness - such as the 10,000 hours required to become world class from "Outliers" or that too much choice is actually detrimental from "The Paradox of Choice". These then change our view of the world and perhaps our own decision making. (I too can be a great guitarist if I am willing to put in the hours).

Unfortunately, at least for HMOs, the legal system and investment banking the issues are already well known and in the public consciousness (uncaring doctors, lawyers who advocate for criminals, greedy bankers). Professor Schwartz does a good job of highlighting the recent issues in education with all the standards testing and tying it with the rest of the industries. He also does a fine job with the psychological examples and industry analysis but sometimes the dispassionate tone makes it hard to identify with how corrupting these industries can be for the people involved. (Where he does try to describe case studies himself, it feels like high school creative writing, it comes across best when he quotes from the people themselves.) In terms of a solution he doesn't really lay one out, but cites individual cases or companies where people are trying to work against or outside the system, instead of how we can change the global mindset, making this a weak call to arms.

For the philosophers, be warned, in terms of the treatment of Aristotle, the treatment is cursory (maybe less than 20 pages in the whole book) where he states that we need to cultivate the virtues of courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance, transcendence and wisdom and knowledge, to frame and assess each situation on its own merits in order to have practical wisdom. It seems a little strange to restrict his analysis just to Aristotle, of the ancients he is not alone in advocating this, Confucius advocated seeking "ren" or humanity in each situation, as did many strains of Judaism. We also have alternative medicine practitioners trying to combat many of the ills that they see in the current healthcare system. Traditional martial arts systems also teach according to each student's strengths with mentoring of junior students by senior students in order to attain mastery. None of this is dealt with here.

The final chapter of the book about finding happiness and a calling seems rushed and has been done better elsewhere and I would recommend Richard Sennet's "The Corrosion of Character" and "The Craftsman" or "Shopclass as Soul Craft" by Matthew B. Crawford.

Again this is not to say that this is a bad book. If you are unfamiliar with the issues, then this is a good summary of the situation, the psychology experiment examples are very good and thought-provoking. But I just don't see this being one of those books which catch fire. It will be good as a paperback for a long flight.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Not That Practical 17 Aug. 2012
By wineprincess - Published on
Format: Paperback
I loved Barry Schwartz's earlier book "The Paradox of Choice" and eagerly purchased "Practical Wisdom" when I stumbled across it in my local bookstore display. Sadly, this book is much sloppier than Schwartz's earlier work. I was expecting an abundance of research citations with helpful interpretations. Instead, I found skimpy and often vague examples stretched over many chapters, intermixed with platitudinal guidance.

The book promises practical wisdom for you, the reader, but what the chapters really delve into is institutional structure and how it supports or stifles wisdom. In short, wisdom requires judgment, which requires opportunity to develop in a safe environment. Rewards & punishments alone cannot bring wisdom. In fact, these carrots & sticks HAMPER the development of wisdom by obscuring our true objectives. (Now if you don't want to read the book you've gotten the main points. You can read the first chapter about the Wise Custodian while you're standing in the bookstore- or viewing the free first pages on Amazon- and you'll have enjoyed the one immediately effective example of the book.)

Schwartz had enough material for a solid magazine article (and indeed a successful TED talk), but he stretched it over a book. The trajectory from "Paradox of Choice" to "Practical Wisdom" is nothing short of Gladwellian. Malcolm Gladwell has published some amazing and insightful pieces, but also some incredibly dull navel-gazers. I wish someone had edited Schwartz to be as concise, concrete, and deep as he can be. Fatal flaws aside, I appreciated Schwartz's inclusion of Socrates as a reference, and thought the medical chapter was somewhat engaging. The rest was mind-numbing (particularly the part about how the incentives and inherent structure of most law firms corrupt even the most noble young lawyers), and I only stuck with the book because I had such high regard for "Paradox of Choice."

At the very least, "Practical Wisdom" should have been aimed at a corporate or entrepreneurial audience, given its institutional focus. I'm always looking for practical wisdom to apply to my own life, and found Sonja Lyubomirsky's imperfect book "The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life you Want " to have more personal relevance. Po Brosnan, in his "NurtureShock" book (about children & child-rearing), offered the kind of insightful connection between research and real life that one has a chance of actually applying, and the depth of research that I had been hoping for in "Practical Wisdom."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Helpful book I would give to my son or daughter 29 Dec. 2013
By Bert D. Dulong - Published on
Format: Paperback
In looking over the other 46 reviews, I see the following themes: (1) good stuff, but also done elsewhere; and (2) not as effectively written as readers of the author's previous book "Paradox of Choice" had hoped. Since I don't share their perspective of "elsewhere", I'm going to share my reactions to it as a stand-alone book.

This book deals with "nurturing of moral will" (p.189) and covers a range of themes I would like my young adult children to absorb. For example, on empathy: " ' What does she need?' is a different question from 'What would I need if I were in her position?' " (p.71). His borrowed likening of wisdom to "moral jazz" picturesquely catches the essence of living well (p.41). Another nugget: "The task of moral persuasion will often involve getting another person to SEE the situation as you do, not to THINK ABOUT the situation as you do" (p.103). Ouch. So that's why I've missed the boat sometimes.

I was particularly drawn to the discussion of performance vs. mastery. I grew up as someone who focused on activities that I picked up quickly and quit things at which I was not quickly successful (like Little League Baseball... I dropped too many balls in try-outs and gave up on the spot.) This no doubt has limited me in life. I have watched with bemusement as two of my sons gravitated to chess, learning to dominate all comers, while my other son (and my childhood self) shied away from all the losing necessary to win. (I did finally learn slash-and-burn chess during the time I could still win against the boys.) "Performance-oriented children want to PROVE their ability, while mastery-oriented children want to IMPROVE their ability" (p.185)-- that quote captures the phenomenon. The contrast between offering performance goals and mastery goals was therefore of great interest to me.

But what touched me most was the story of the hospital custodian with which Schwartz opens the book. I work in a hospital, and in the course of a week I am challenged to remember I am a hospital technician, not just a technician. That calls for an enhanced layer of caring. As Schwartz says, "To make wise choices at work, [hospital employees of every stripe] need to aim at caring for the patients... Knowing what to aim at frames and guides their choices.... What guided [the custodian] was the aim of the job he had crafted." Wow... not "the job he was given," but "the job he had crafted", This possibility continues to challenge me almost three years after first reading it. My own production-centered role of "closing tickets" can run so contrary to the patience and gentleness required to tone down the dehumanization hospitals can convey.

I am grateful for this and other books that have given me the tools to be more self-aware.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A Masterpiece That Breaks New Ground 31 Mar. 2014
By Theodore M. Horesh - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Practical Wisdom accomplishes something very subtle that many of the reviewers on here seem to have missed. It presents a moral lens through which we might view American institutional breakdown. And because it is a lens we don't usually look through, it is paradigm shifting. What the mediocre reviews suggest is that the institutional breakdown has been covered by others and that the authors can't hang with academic moral philosophers. But these reviewers have clearly missed the point.

At the heart of the book is an application of Aristotelian ethics to an analysis of what has gone wrong with a set of core professions - law, medicine, teaching, and banking. Aristotle argued that ethics is not something we learn in a book somewhere and then go out and apply. Rather ethics is an everyday practice of learning to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, and in the right amounts. It involves balancing and optimizing multiple different and often conflicting goals. When our friend asks if we like her new hair cut, we want to be empathic and honest, we want her to look good and feel appreciated. And it takes practical wisdom to know the right thing to say, in the right way, at the right time. And it is like this with everything we do in life. The presentation of this material thus far is solid and lucid, though far from groundbreaking.

The problem is that we have neglected practical wisdom and instead focused on rules and incentives. Something has gone dreadfully wrong in our ability to read situations and to know how to act. It is as if we no longer trust ourselves and one another and can think of no better way of moderating our behavior than to regulate it with policies. This is a groundbreaking application of Aristotelian ethics to institutional breakdown. The problem, they are saying, is not too much government or a lack of the right programs but the way we behave. But what they have to say about our behavior is completely different from anything you will find in most personal development and spiritual books. Yet, it is easy to imagine at this stage that we are dealing with yet another libertarian railing against rules. But while the authors do not take positions on the political spectrum, this is far from another libertarian rant about regulations.

What is unique here is the answer they provide to institutional collapse: we need to provide the space for people to more fully engage their work, and the people working need to engage it in the right way. They need to recognize the ethos of their profession, the purpose, or perhaps we could say the mission. They need to recognize the various values and goals they seek to accomplish. And they need to develop the capacity to see which values and goals are appropriate for the circumstances. This can be accomplished through experience. It cannot be learned in a book and it cannot be fostered through incentives, though some policies will do a better job of creating space for this wisdom to be practiced and for it to arise. Rather, through experience we learn to recognize patterns, and in seeing a pattern that we recognize, given sufficient conscious experience, we will know what to do. For life is vastly more complex than textbook moral dilemmas.

The book highlights the hollowness of a variety of institutions, covering all of the major professions. And while I have seen analyses of each of them, few authors have taken on all of them at once. So this is more comprehensive than yet another analysis of the health care system or the finance industry. And because it is a comprehensive institutional critique, it could also be said to be a cultural critique. And while many authors, stretching deep into American history, have explored American shallowness and glibness, a lack of the capacity to see nuances and to do what is most fitting, I am aware of no one who has matched such a critique with an ethical answer. If these are the problems of the American character and American institutions, then there is an ethical practice that can transform our institutions, transform our culture, and transform ourselves. That practice is practical wisdom. This goes straight to the heart of what has long been ailing America and provides an answer that is difficult to reject. If many of the reviewers seem to have missed the point, this may because they themselves lack an eye for what is fitting. It is a subtle answer, and while the examples are abundant, it would be easy for the reader to collapse their answer into just a critique of institutional breakdown or a simple self help book. It is neither and so much more.

Now those who have read the book may notice that I added a little. The authors do not mention a deep critique of the America character, and perhaps if they did, the controversy would have sold more books. Nor do they discuss much about more recent developments that have driven our turn toward rules and regulations. Answers might range from information overload to increasing levels of diversity to increases in human freedom to the breakdown in social norms. There are answers for all of these challenges, but as far as I am aware, no one has provided practical wisdom as the answer. In a personal interview with Barry Schwartz, he appeared to concur with my suggestion that these were some of the causes behind the shift. And perhaps the book would have grabbed more of us by the shirt collar if the authors had mentioned these things. American society at the dawn of the twenty-first century is radically complex, and we are still struggling with how to manage that complexity.

My criticism of the book is unusual in that I don't think the authors went far enough in applying their own framework. In other words, I think they are able to answer more problems than they seem to recognize. Take cultural diversity. One school of thought says we need to be more sensitive to difference. Another school of thought says we need to integrate cultural difference into a wider set of shared norms. But while Practical Wisdom does not touch on the issue, it provides an answer. What we need to do with difference is engage it, and through continually engaging our human differences, we will begin to see what sort of engagement is the right kind at the right time. Through engaging differences in this way, we might develop new norms of human interaction. This is how we make a Boston or New York or San Francisco work. Or take environmental ethics. The last few decades have seen a massive increase in the number of beings and things we need to take into ethical consideration: how we travel, where we drive, what we eat. To those of us who take animal suffering or greenhouse gas emissions seriously, the burden of ethical commitments can become unbearable. Most just try to throw off the burden by making glib remarks about vegetarians or treating climate change as a hoax. But Practical Wisdom provides a framework through which we might optimize the application of this mountain of commitments. Vegetarians could do far more good if they learned the right way to engage their concern for animals, in the right amounts, at the right, all the while paying attention to the right times for personal and the right times for political change.

The book also pulls the rug out from libertarian conservatism. For they may be reacting to the exact same things that the authors identify as being problematic, but their answer lacks compassion, is divisive, and may not actually accomplish what they want. The authors could have been more explicit here and used that challenge to draw attention to their very important arguments. But the book also opens the gates to a third way in American politics. Call it the civil sphere. Perhaps we as a society could learn to identify institutional problems that are not conducive to policy solutions, either of the minimalist or maximalist kind. Perhaps we could identify areas where there is a need for more space free from regulations. Imagine uniting the teachers unions with contractors, entrepreneurs with liberal legal rights groups, doctors with creative rebels. The agenda would be neither left, nor right, nor center, but entirely new. Any politician who adopted these arguments would find a ready constituency of disengaged swing voters.

There is another way the work could be taken further. In the tradition of Aristotle, the authors suggest that practical wisdom cannot be studied but must be learned through experience. But one can imagine creating exercises that speed up the learning process immensely by helping us to identify what it is like to experience practical wisdom within the context of one's profession. Here is what I have in mind. Spend some time identifying and writing up the mission of your work. Then list the goals, values, principles, and objectives you seek to accomplish. Now imagine a challenging scenario of the sort you often confront on the job. Notice how it feels in your body. Now try to imagine what it would feel like if you could accomplish several of your objectives at once. Notice how this feels. Now imagine other similar scenarios, noticing how it feels to get the response right. Do this repeatedly and regularly until it is second sense. Having done such an exercise, a person could much more quickly learn practical wisdom.

If the authors failed to include such exercises, perhaps it is because of the groundbreaking nature of the work. This book simply opens a gateway into a whole new way of looking at being in the world and there isn't the space to go into all of the applications. The point of these criticisms is not to say that the book was lacking, but rather that it was so ripe as to require a follow up. Read it and read it well. Perhaps if you read it with practical wisdom, you too will see it to be a masterpiece.
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