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Practical Wisdom Hardcover – December 30, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In this thoughtful consideration of an Aristotelian ideal, Schwartz and Sharpe delve deeply into what it means to practice wisdom. What makes this an engrossing (and socially significant) read is not the nod to the ancient Greeks but, rather, the numerous examples of people in all facets of American life who seek wisdom in their professional and personal choices. The authors consider how mandatory sentencing has removed the element of judgment from a judge’s position, citing a heartbreaking example. As they further make the case for empathy and patience, they delve into health care, education, and the groundbreaking work being conducted in the extraordinarily successful Veterans Court in Buffalo. Repeatedly, by example, they stress the necessity of a human approach, without politics, to the issues of how we live and interact with each other. And through all of this, Schwartz and Sharpe demonstrate how relevant Aristotle is today. As surprising as it is convincing, this thoughtful work will long stay with readers, as will the many people who are profiled on its pages. --Colleen Mondor

About the Author

Barry Schwartz is the author of the acclaimed bestseller The Paradox of Choice. A frequent lecturer at conferences (TED, Gel, etc) around the world, he is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, specializing in Psychology and Economics.
Kenneth Sharpe is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College where he teaches political philosophy, ethics, and political economy. His most recent book is Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books (December 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594487839
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594487835
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #785,496 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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."
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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).
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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.
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