Practical Wisdom

I just finished reading Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz. (Author of the great book The Paradox of Choice. – not to be confused with The Wisdom of Crowds, also a great book.) Practical Wisdom is a decent book, but more importantly, it points the way to design our ideal civilization.

The book points out how incentives are often ill-designed and elicit the wrong behavior.  Example: Teachers aim for test scores instead of engaged, interested curious students.  Also, that writing down rules for every situation is virtually impossible because of the nuance and complexity of the real world.  Example: Mandatory sentencing has filled our jails with people who are no threat to society.

I find that, as a design manager, you can’t just write down all the rules or make blunt incentives for designers and expect the right outcomes.  It takes judgement, talent and experience to make the right decisions.  There are design principles, but they must be applied with practical wisdom.

The book make me think of the “right size” of something.  Take the following example:


Stress is a good thing up to a point.  Too much or too little is less than ideal.  Some stress gives you energy and purpose.  The same can be said for all sorts of things like alcohol, games, studying, water, exercise, sex, food, honesty, war, aggression, etc etc.

War might strike you as “any is too much”, but when a nation is running rampant over other countries, war is better than appeasement.  Too much, of course is awful.

We live in a complex and wonderful world that is easy (and hard) to change.  Some change is good, too much is bad.

One should be aware of their enviorment and ask the question, “Is this the right amount?  Am I using practical wisdom here? or am I just trying to follow the rules?”


Whatya think?