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Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing

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We Americans are growing increasingly disenchanted with the institutions on which we depend. We can't trust them. They disappoint us. They fail to give us what we need. This is true of schools that are not serving our kids as well as we think they should. It is true of doctors who seem too busy to give us the attention and unhurried care we crave. It's true of banks that mismanage our assets, and of bond-rating agencies that fail to provide an accurate assessment of the risk of possible investments. It's true of a legal system that seems more interested in expedience than in justice. It's true of a workplace in which we fulfill quotas and hit targets and manage systems but wind up feeling disconnected from the animating forces that drew us to our careers in the first place. And the disenchantment we experience as recipients of services is often matched by the dissatisfaction of those who provide them.

Most doctors want to practice medicine well and keep up with the latest medical research, but they feel helpless faced with the challenge of balancing patients' needs with the practical demands of hassling with insurance companies, earning enough to pay malpractice premiums and squeezing patients into seven-minute visits. Most teachers want to teach kids the basics and at the same time instill a passion for learning, but they feel helpless faced with the challenge of reconciling these goals with mandates to meet targets on standardized tests, to adopt specific teaching techniques and to keep up with the ever-increasing paperwork. No one is satisfied--not the professionals and not their clients.

When we try to make things better, we generally reach for one of two tools. The first tool is a set of rules and procedures that tell people what to do and monitor their performance. The second tool is a set of incentives that encourage good performance by rewarding people for it. The assumption behind carefully constructed rules is that even if people do want to do the right thing, they need to be told what that is. And the assumption underlying incentives is that people will not be motivated to do the right thing unless they have an incentive to do so. Rules and incentives. Sticks and carrots. What else is there?

Our new book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing is an attempt to answer that question. Rules and incentives are not enough. They leave out something essential--what classical philosopher Aristotle called practical wisdom (his word was phronesis). Without this missing ingredient, neither detailed rules nor clever incentives will be enough to solve the problems we face.

Most experienced practitioners know that rules only take them so far. How should a doctor balance respect for patient choice with the knowledge that sometimes the patient is not the best judge of what is needed? How should a doctor balance the need to spend enough time with each patient to be thorough, compassionate and understanding with the need to see enough patients to keep the office solvent? How should a doctor balance the desire to tell patients the truth, no matter how difficult, with the desire to be kind?

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--right things that clash. A good doctor needs to be honest with her patients, and kind to her patients, and give them the hope they need to endure difficult treatments. But, these aims are often at odds, and the doctor must decide whether to be honest or compassionate, or more likely how to balance honesty and compassion in a way that is appropriate for the patient in front of her.

Aristotle recognized that balancing acts like these beg for wisdom, and that wisdom has to be practical because the conundrums we face are embedded in our everyday work. They are quandaries that any practitioner must resolve to do her work well. Practical wisdom combines the will to do the right thing with the skill to figure out what the right thing is.

Our book describes the essential characteristics of practical wisdom and shows why it's needed to inform the everyday activities of doctors, lawyers and teachers--and parents, lovers and friends. We discuss some impressive examples of wisdom--and its absence--in practice. We show that the rules and incentives we reach for to improve our schools or our clinics or even our banks are no substitute for wisdom. Worse, they can be the enemies of wise practice. We examine best practices that actually encourage the development of wisdom And finally, we suggest that when wisdom is cultivated it 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.