Barry Schwartz & Wisdom in LAX

I’m sitting at LAX and my flight is delayed. Luv ya, Southwest. There are a lot of things I could do right now, like stuff I actually have to do, people watch (Oh, come on!), or take out my computer, open up a Word doc after trying to connect to the Internet – uh, catch on the free wi-fi train, LA – and write something.

Most mornings, I’ll watch a few podcasts while I eat breakfast because the local news is all drivel most of the time, the meteorologists are usually scantily clad, and it’s hard to hold a newspaper and read when I just want to eat my “moons over Miami” (Check it out – my favorite breakfast). One particular morning, after realizing that while I’m not a complete failure, but rather just a quitter, I watched this TED podcast. The Wall Street Journal’s catchy little pop-rock interludes weren’t doing it for me.

Those of you not familiar with TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), it’s an annual conference where speakers give talks on a broad range of topics – their tagline is “Ideas worth spreading.” They’ve made all of their lectures available via their website and (video) podcast.

If you have 20 minutes to spare, I would highly recommend watching this TED talk by Barry Schwartz titled “The real crisis? We stopped being wise.” If not, since I am a master summarize, you can read my thoughts (and learn a little something about me outside of that ridiculous 25 things – my roommate told me she read it and learned nothing, fantastic!). This is assuming you’d rather read my blather than watch that cutie, Barry.

Anyway, Schwartz begins his lecture with a list of a hospital janitor’s duties, all of which are solitary tasks (e.g. Clean this, vacuum that, etc). Actually, he begins – and ends – his lecture with a reference to Obama, but I think this subverts from his overall message and is kind of polarizing. While his references were valid, I think Schwartz’ would have been more credible if he didn’t use Obama as his beacon of virtue throughout if he wants to appeal to a greater audience. That said, I’d proceed with the video under the assumption that he is non-partisan and secular because it’s very inspiring otherwise.

Back to the lecture – Using stories of several hospital janitors ignoring their duties simply because it was “the right thing to do.” Those solitary tasks that were a part of their original list of duties were disregarded to accommodate the people they were interacting with. Schwartz illustrates their wisdom in knowing when to ignore the rules and when to improvise.

“A wise person knows:
1. When and how to make an exception to every rule
2. When and how to improvise
3. How to use these moral skills in the pursuit of the right aims
4. Is made not born”

Schwartz contends that we are unintentionally at war with wisdom when we rely on rules and incentives. However, to preserve order and prevent crises, we reach for rules and incentives. Specifically, he notes, now, during the economic crisis – the overwhelming reaction is for more regulation and fixing incentives. But, neither are enough in the long run because “moral skill is chipped away by an overreliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations and moral will is undermined by incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing.”

Especially now, given my complete hopelessness in the education system, I completely agree with his second example of overbearing rules destroying the will to learn and be creative. Schwartz used an example from the Chicago School District: a script for a teacher with exactly what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. In this over-scripting, we strip the ability for the individual teachers to gauge and assess their individual classroom’s environments, its students, and to proceed appropriately and in the way that’s most engaging and efficient. That script exemplifies what Schwartz says about rules.

It is “insurance against disaster, it prevents disasters, but ensures, in its place, mediocrity.” I agree with him in that, of course, rules are essential, without them nothing would get done, or they would get done at a significantly slower pace. (Think free markets and/versus government regulation.) But, too many rules prevent improvising and as a result, using a jazz musician as an example, s/he – there is that annoying ambiguous singular pronoun again – will lose his/her gift or just stop altogether.

By the way, I’m on the airplane now.

Exhibit A: I officially quit trying to learn computer science. A little background: I tried a programming class and the same computer science class last winter and eventually dropped both. Stubbornly and using the whole “it’s not you, it’s me” notion, I tried again this quarter. I’m not trying to say that I could potentially be a C++ genius and this computer science class dwarfed this hidden ability. However, I would’ve gladly taken the class if there weren’t an impending F at the end of the quarter. Btw, you can’t take that class pass/no pass due to departmental regulations. Okay, this will be my last complaint and reference to CS: it was definitely a mix of my apathy for the class and the overly structured nature of the class that led to this complete dispassion of mine.

Anyway, back to Schwartz and incentives. His main points: “There are no incentives that you can devise that are smart enough”. He continues, “any incentive system can be subverted by bad will” – though I think this is true of everything, not just incentives. Excessive reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity. This is where I’d refer to the video; he shows a few cartoons that illustrate this idea. “When professions are demoralized, people become addicted to incentives.”

What he then suggests is to “re-moralize work” by celebrating moral exemplars. Schwartz retorts, “No 10-year-old goes to law school to do mergers and acquisitions.” Think about Atticus Finch, he says.

He mentions a few people that he considers moral exemplars; refer to the video. The anecdote about the reforestation efforts in Indonesia was particularly interesting because it illustrates such an obvious concept – “Unless the people you’re working with are behind, you will fail” (e.g. See the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, etc.) There is no formula, he says, “different people in different communities organize their life in different ways.”

That said, moral exemplars are not always extraordinary heroes – they’re usually ordinary heroes and that is what we should strive to be. “Any work that you do that involves interaction with people is moral work and any moral work depends upon practical wisdom.” As students, leaders, and teachers, we should all strive to be the ordinary heroes and the moral exemplars. We should always be teaching because someone is always watching.

“The good news is that you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.”

We’re landing now.

2 thoughts on “Barry Schwartz & Wisdom in LAX”

  1. Moons over miami? I feel childish, my dad and I call it “egg bread.”
    Yay for TED talks and blogging about them. And you are super cool for blogging on a plane like a jet-setting-important-person. <3

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