TED Talks Worth Talking About | Barry Schwartz On Our Loss of Wisdom

Posted on February 25, 2009


Absolutely fantastic! One of my favorites. I’ve transcripted much of it below.



The real crisis? We stopped being wise.

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama appealed to each of us to give our best as we try to extricate ourselves from this current financial crisis. But what did he appeal to? He did not, happily, follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and tell us to just go shopping. Nor did he tell us “trust us, trust your country… invest, invest, invest.” Instead, what he told us was to put aside childish things and he appealed to virtue.

VIRTUE is an old fashioned word. It seems a little out of place in a cutting edge environment like this one, and besides, some of you might be wondering, “what the hell does it mean?” Let me give you an example.

This is the JOB DESCRIPTION OF A HOSPITAL JANITOR that is scrolling up on the screen, and all of the items on it are unremarkable. They are the things you would expect: mop the floors, sweep them, empty the trash, restock the cabinets. It may be surprising how many things there are, but it’s not surprising what they are. But the one thing I want you to notice about them is this. Even though this is a very long list, there isn’t a single thing on it that involves other human beings… not one. The janitor’s job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital. And yet, when some psychologists interviewed some hospital janitors to get a sense of what they thought their jobs were like, they encountered Mike, who told them about how he stopped mopping the floor because “Mr. Jones” was out of his bed, getting a little exercise, trying to build up his strength, walking slowly down the hall. And Charlene told them how she ignored her supervisor’s admonition, and didn’t vacuum the visitor’s lounge because there were some family members who were there all day, every day

Behavior like this doesn’t just make people feel a little better, it actually improves the quality of patient care and enables hospitals to run well. Now, not every janitor acts like this, but those who do, think that these sorts of human actions, involving kindness, care, and empathy are an essential part of the job, and yet their job description contains not one word about other human beings.

These janitors have the moral will to do right by other people, and beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what “doing right” means.

Practical wisdom is the combination of moral will and moral skill (Aristotle)

A wise person:

  • Knows when and how to make “the exception to every rule.”
  • Knows when and how to improvise. Real world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined, and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician, using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand.
  • Knows how to use these moral skills in the service/in pursuit of the right aims. To serve, not to manipulate.
  • Is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people you are serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, to try new things, to occasionally fail, and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers. It takes lots of experience, to learn how to care for people.

At TED, brilliance is rampant; it’s scary. 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. It’s as likely to get you and others into trouble, as anything else. I hope that we all know this. There is a sense in which this is obvious. And yet, let me tell you a little story.

LEMONADE: A dad and his 11-year old son were watching a Detroit Tiger’s game at the ballpark. His son asked him for some lemonade and dad went to the concession stand to buy it. All they had was Mike’s Hard Lemonade which is 5% alcohol. Dad, being an academic had no idea that Mike’s Hard Lemonade contained alcohol, and so he brought it back. A security guard spotted it, and called the police, who called an ambulance, who rushed to the ball park, and whisked the kid to the hospital. The emergency room ascertained that the kid had no alcohol in his blood, and they were ready to let the kid go. But not so fast. The Wayne County Child Welfare Protective Agency said “no,” and the child was sent to a foster home for three days. At that point, can the child go home? Well, the judge said, “Yes, but… Only if the dad leaves the house and checks into a motel.” After two-weeks, I’m happy to report that the family was reunited, but the welfare workers and the ambulance people, and the judge all said the same thing. “We hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure.”

How do things like this happen? Scott Simon, who told this story on NPR said, “Rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking. And to be fair, rules are often imposed because previous officials have been lax and they let a child go back to an abusive household. Fair enough.

When things go wrong, as of course they do, we reach for TWO TOOLS to try to fix them:

  1. Rules (better ones, more of them).
  2. Incentives (better ones, more of them).

What else, after all, is there?

We can certainly see this in response to the current financial crisis. Regulate, regulate, regulate; fix incentives, fix incentives, fix incentives. The truth is, neither rules nor incentives are enough to do the job. How could you even write a rule that got the janitors to do what they did? And would you pay them a bonus for being empathic? It’s preposterous on its face. What happens is that as we turn increasingly to rules and incentives, they may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes us worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by an over reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing. And without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives we are engaging in a war on wisdom.


In addition to the Lemonade story, a second example is the nature of Modern American education. Scripted, lock-step curricula. Here’s an example from Chicago kindergarten.

Script for Day 53

TITLE: Reading and enjoying literature/words with “b”
TEXT: “The Bath”
LECTURE: Assemble students on the rug or reading area… Give students a warning about the dangers of hot water…Say, “Listen very quietly as I read the story.” …Say, “Think of other pictures that make the same sound as the sound bath begins with.” …

75 items in this script to teach a 25 page picture book, all over Chicago in every kindergarten class in the city, every teacher is saying the same words in the same way on the same day. We know why the scripts are there. We don’t trust the judgment of teachers enough to let them loose on their own. Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster. And, they prevent disaster, but what they assure in its place is mediocrity.

Don’t get me wrong. We need rules. Jazz musicians need some notes on the page. We need more rules for the bankers. But, too many rules prevent accomplished jazz musicians from improvising, and as a result they lose their gifts. Or worse, they stop playing all together.

Now, how about incentives?

INCENTIVES AND THE WAR ON MORAL WILL: Motivational Competition. If you have one reason for doing something, and I give you a second reason for doing the same thing, it seems only logical that two reasons are better than one, and you’re more likely to do it. Right? Well, not always. Sometimes, two reasons to do the same thing seem to compete with one another instead of complimenting, and they make people less likely to do it. One example.

In SWITZERLAND, about 15 years ago they were trying to find a place to site NUCLEAR WASTE DUMPS. It was going to be A national referendum, and some psychologists went around a polled some citizens who were very well informed, and they said, “Would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community?” Astonishingly 50% of the citizens said “yes.” They knew/thought it was dangerous, they knew it would reduce their property values, but, it had to go somewhere, and they had responsibilities as citizens. The psychologists asked other people a slightly different question, if we paid you 6 week’s salary, every year, would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community. Two reasons: it’s my responsibility, and I’m getting paid. Instead of 50% saying yes, 25% said yes. What happens is that the introduction of the second incentive gets us to instead of asking “what is my responsibility,” all we ask is, “what serves my interests.”

When incentives don’t work, when CEO’s ignore the long-term health of their companies in pursuit of short-term gains that will lead to massive bonuses, the response is always the same: Get smarter incentives. The truth is, that there are no incentives that you can ever devise that are ever going to be smart enough. Any incentive system can be subverted by bad will. We need incentives. People have to make a living, but incessant reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity; in two senses of that word. It causes people who engage in that activity to lose morale, and it causes the activity itself to lose morality.

Barack Obama said, before he was inaugurated, “We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right.” – Barack Obama (12.18.08) And when professions are demoralized, everyone in them becomes dependent on, and addicted to incentives, and they stop asking is it right?

We see this in medicine: [cartoon caption] “Although it’s nothing serious, let’s keep an eye on it to makes ure it doesn’t turn into a major lawsuit.” And we certainly see this in the world of business: [cartoon caption] “In order to remain competitive in today’s marketplace Bentham, I’m afraid we’re going to have to replace you with a sleezeball.” [cartoon caption] “I sold my soul for about a tenth of what the damn things are going for now.”

It is obvious that this is not the way people want to do their work.


We ought to try to remoralize work. One way not to do it: teach more ethics courses. There is no better way to show people you’re not serious than to tie up everything you have to say about ethics into a little package with a bow, and consign it to the margins as an ethics course.

What to do instead?

1. CELEBRATE MORAL EXEMPLARS. Acknowledge, when you go to law school, that a little voice is whispering in your ear about Atticus Finch. No ten-year old goes to law school to learn about mergers and acquisitions. People are inspired by moral heroes. But we learn, that with sophistication comes the understanding that you can’t acknowledge that you have moral heroes. Well, acknowledge them, be proud that you have them, celebrate them, and demand that the people who teach you acknowledge and celebrate them too.

2. AARON FEUERSTEIN AND MALDEN MILLS. A Polar-Tec company. 15 years ago, the factory burned down. 3000 employees. He kept every one of them on the payroll. Why? It would have been a disaster to them and to the community if he had let them go. “Maybe on paper our company is worth less on Wall Street, but I can tell you that it’s worth more. We’re doing fine.”

As practitioners, each and every one of us ought to strive to be ordinary, if not extraordinary heroes. As head’s of organizations, we should strive to create environments that encourage and nurture both moral skill and moral will. Even the wisest and most meaning people will give up if they have to swim against the current in the organizations in which they work. If you run an organization, you should be sure that none of the jobs have job descriptions like the job descriptions of the janitors. Because the truth is, that any work you do that involves interaction with other people is moral work. And any moral work depends upon practical wisdom.

And perhaps most important, as teachers, we should strive to be the ordinary heroes, the moral exemplars to the people we mentor. And there are few things we have to remember as teachers, is that you are always teaching. Someone is always watching. The camera is always on.

I want to focus on one particular thing that KIPP is doing, is that they have come to the realization that the single most important thing kids need to learn is CHARACTER. They need to learn to respect themselves, their schoolmates, their teachers, and most important, they need to respect learning. That’s the principle objective. If you do that, the rest is pretty much a coast downhill. And the way you teach these things to kids is to have all the teachers embody it, every minute of every day.

Obama appealed to virtue, and I think he was right. And the virtue that we need above all others is practical wisdom, because it’s what allows other virtues, (honesty, courage, kindness, and so on) to be displayed at the right time, and in the right way. He also appealed to hope. Right again. I think there is reason for hope. I think people want to be allowed to be virtuous. In many ways, it’s what TED is all about, wanting to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each and every one of us if only we start paying attention. Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it, and perhaps most importantly to the structure of the organizations within which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed.


As someone who also follows Biblical wisdom, the themes that Schwartz brings out match very well with the discussion of “law” and the purpose of religious regulation, discipleship and the exemplar model of teaching, as well as some basics on meaning and purpose within the human soul. I hope we can see the resonances in this talk and in the religious world, and find some continuity between them, celebrating their reality, and the truths that can inform and empower us all! Thanks, Barry, for bringing, not just intelligence, but wisdom to the platform of TED.

UPDATE, 2010-12: Schwartz gave a follow up talk which has a similar theme…