Professor Barry Schwartz Practical Wisdom

Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe showcase practical wisdom

When sociologist professor Barry Schwartz gave his TED talk on Practical Wisdom in February 2009 he didn’t think there would be much interest in what he had to say. He was wrong—there have been more than 3 million views of his talk in the years since.

In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.
–Warren Buffett

The immediate positive response spurned him on to go ahead and publish a book that he and a colleague had been working on for several years, just as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was occurring.

Schwartz and his colleague from Swarthmore College, political science professor Kenneth Sharpe, had been teaching a class in practical wisdom since 2003. The two complement each other well in this sphere, with the more flamboyant Barry Schwartz being the expert on relationships and the more demure Ken Sharpe an expert on Aristotelian ethics.

In their book, Practical Wisdom, Schwartz and Sharpe gave a warning that the best regulations and corporate governance practices were insufficient to prevent a financial sector meltdown occurring again.

Their message was simple; we’re too reliant on rules and we use the wrong incentives to ensure people always behave responsibly, ethically and legally.[1]

As Schwartz explains:

Even if the rules and incentives for bankers could be designed exactly right—which is highly dubious—how could we trust that bankers wouldn’t find a way game the system, discovering shadows that the regulators’ flashlights don’t illuminate? The banking system, as we’ve painfully seen, only works when there is trust, and when the system depends entirely on regulation and incentives, “trust” becomes an empty word.[2]

The Need for Goals

The authors stress the importance of having proper goals for the organisation clearly understood by all:

Acting wisely demands that we be guided by the 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 doctoring is to promote health and relieve suffering; 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. So a good practitioner is motivated to aim at the telos of her practice. But it takes wisdom — practical wisdom — to translate the very general aims of a practice into concrete action.[3]

Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund says the goal or telos of the financial services sector should be “to enrich society by supporting economic activity and creating value and jobs – to ultimately improve the well-being of people.” When this is done well the profits of the enterprise are used to maximise the wealth of shareholders.[4]

But with deregulation of the financial industry, over time the goal has changed to become profits over people and shareholders over society. When a bank’s only goal is to make money, they have lost their way as a bank. What is needed is revival of the true telos of the financial sector—its purpose and broader responsibility to society.

What is Practical Wisdom?

Schwartz and Sharpe describe a wise person as one who “knows how to do the right thing, in the right way, with this person, in this situation.”

One of the many examples of practical wisdom in the book is the story of a hospital janitor. They cite the research study undertaken by Amy Wrzesniewski concerning Luke, an African-American, who had been a cleaner at the hospital for 15 years. Luke told how he handled an accusation that he had not cleaned the room of a comatose patient one day. He had actually cleaned the room while the patient’s concerned father had been outside smoking a cigarette. Instead of arguing with the patient’s hostile father, he cleaned the room again. Luke said later:

Yeah, I cleaned it so that he could see me clean it . . . I can understand how he could be [angry]. It was like six months that his son was here. He’d be a little frustrated, and so I cleaned it again. But I wasn’t angry with him. I guess I could understand.[5]

Now Luke’s job description did not say anything about how he should interact with patients—his instructions were purely about the mechanics of his cleaning job and nothing to do with the goals of the hospital or his interactions with others. Yet here he was using empathy to put himself in the shoes of the patient’s father and doing something to ease the tension. Luke had used practical wisdom.

The authors go on to offer a summary of the six key characteristics of a wise person:

  • 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.
  • A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment 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.
  • 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.[6]

According to Schwartz and Sharpe, rules are no substitute for wisdom:

Anybody who has raised a child, sustained a friendship or marriage, supervised others in the workplace, or worked to serve others knows the limits of rules and principles. We can’t live without them, but not a day goes by when we don’t have to bend one, or make an exception, or balance them when they conflict. We’re always solving the ethical puzzles or quandaries that are embedded in our practices because most of our choices involve interpreting rules, or balancing clashing principles or aims, or choosing between better and worse. We’re always trying to find the right balance.[7]

How do we obtain this balance?

There is no formula for practical wisdom. It is a moral skill, not a technical skill. It can only be learned through experience. Schwartz contends that each of us has the capacity to develop the sort of moral skills that wise judgment requires.

As the title of the book suggests, the core of practical wisdom is the ability to discern and choose the best course of action given the particular context and circumstances. Enlisting empathy is a key part of this skill:

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.[8]

How can practical wisdom be taught?

What is not covered in the Schwartz and Sharpe’s book is how practical wisdom can be taught, or rather, how practical wisdom can be learned.

Kenneth Sharpe and Barry Schwartz lead Practical wisdom SeminarKen Sharpe and Barry Schwartz leading Practical Wisdom seminar in 2015

According to Schwartz, this is a major opportunity for education at all levels, but especially in higher education where students have some experience of the world they are entering:

We can start to embrace our moral responsibility to help form the character of our students by focusing on training a set of what I have come to call “intellectual virtues” in our classrooms. These virtues include love of truth, humility, honesty, intellectual courage, good listening, perspective taking and empathy, perseverance, and open-mindedness. These are “virtues” because they have moral content. And they are “intellectual” because they are essential to the full intellectual development and achievement of our students. If we took the cultivation of intellectual virtues seriously, we would remoralize college education, and contribute to the cultivation of wisdom in our students. Moving in this direction requires that we shift the focus away from “college education as job training” and on to “college education as character formation.” I think this would be a noble enterprise for our colleges and universities to undertake.[9]

They suggest we first learn from the behavior of moral exemplars. People are inspired by moral heroes such as Atticus Finch, the lawyer in the Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. And then there’s the judge of the Veteran’s Court in Buffalo, New York. Judge Robert Russell succeeded in changing the workings of the judicial system on behalf of veterans who had problems with the law since being discharged from military service.[10]

Then there’s our own experience. But Sharpe warns that not all experiences teach wisdom. “We learn best when someone has structured the experience so we can learn from it,” he says.[11]

Sharpe says being proficient at practical wisdom is like like being a jazz musician:

Being a good jazz musician doesn’t just require the technical skill to play the sax or horn well; it doesn’t just require reading notes and following the rules. It requires the skill to listen well, to adapt, to imagine quickly. It’s about being relational, perceptive and discerning: a good jazz musician needs to adapt to a changing situation. They learn to be resilient, and when to take risks by trying and failing.[12]

Since writing the book, Sharpe has taken steps to see how practical wisdom can be cultivated in lawyers[13], police officers[14], and medical students.[15] His conclusion is that with careful preparation and using a practical wisdom approach to facilitation, it does work. For everyone’s sake, it needs to work.


  1. TED, Barry Schwartz: Our loss of wisdom (YouTube video,20:46, Feb 16, 2009)
  2. Barry Swartz, “What Work Is and What It Can Be,” HuffPost, May 25, 2011,
  3. Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York: Riverside Books, 2010).
  4. Christine Lagarde, “The Role of Personal Accountability in Reforming Culture and Behavior in the Financial Services Industry,” International Monetary Fund, Nov 5, 2015,
  5. Amy Wrzesniewski, Jane E. Dutton and Gelaye Debebe, “Interpersonal Sensemaking and the Meaning of Work,” Research in Organizational Behavior Vol 25, (2003): 93-135.
  6. Schwartz and Sharpe, Practical Wisdom.
  7. Schwartz and Sharpe, Practical Wisdom.
  8. Schwartz and Sharpe, Practical Wisdom.
  9. Barry Schwartz, “How Can We Cultivate a Practical Wisdom?” Big Questions Online, Nov 10, 2015,
  10. Libby Lewis, “Court Aims to Help Vets with Legal Troubles,” NPR (transcript of radio broadcast), Apr 29, 2008,
  11. Dartmouth, Perspectives on Wisdom: Can Practical Wisdom Be Learned? (YouTube video, 1:28:56, Sep 20, 2014)
  12. Kenneth Sharpe, “Moral jazz and patient-centered care,” Gold Foundation, July 15, 2014,
  13. Deborah Cantrell and Kenneth Sharpe, “Practicing Practical Wisdom,” Mercer L. Rev. 67 (2016): 331-381,
  14. Michael J. Nila, Barry Schwartz, and Kenneth Sharpe, “Educating the 21st Century Cop: Developing Blue Courage and Practical Wisdom,” The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 52–56,
  15. Dartmouth, Perspectives on Wisdom.
Posted in Wisdom Concepts and tagged , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.