in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #138: Reviving Practical Wisdom

We’ve all probably encountered instances when some dumb rule or regulation gets enforced, which results in worsening the situation that the dumb rule or regulation was originally designed to prevent in the first place. If you’ve dealt with government bureaucracies or worked in a highly regimented corporation you probably see these types of scenarios on a regular basis. When you face these events, your typical response is to shake your head and wonder “What happened to common sense?”

My guest today on the podcast co-authored a book highlighting the ill-effects that come with over-relying on strict rules and regulations to govern ourselves and how it atrophies a quality Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the co-author of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right ThingToday on the podcast, Professor Schwartz and I discuss some of the funny/sad results of relying too much on regulations and what we can do to revive practical wisdom in our own lives and in the wider culture.

Show Highlights

  • Why rules and regulations sometimes don’t work in managing society
  • How a dad lost his kid for two weeks because he accidentally gave him Mike’s Hard Lemonade (and how the judge who issued the ruling even thought the ruling was stupid)
  • How rules and regulations in schools have hampered teachers’ ability to actually teach
  • How “practical wisdom” is the remedy to the downsides of too many rules and regulations
  • Why Aristotle thought practical wisdom was the master virtue
  • The traits you need to develop practical wisdom
  • What you can do to revive practical wisdom in your own life and in the world around you
  • And much more!

Practical wisdom, book cover by Barry schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe.

Practical Wisdom not only provides great insights into modern culture’s over-reliance on regulations to govern people, it also provides, well, practical tips and solutions to help revive practical wisdom in our daily lives. I first read this book four years ago and I still go back to the principles I picked up in it even today. For my run-down of the principles in Practical Wisdom, check out this post I wrote on the topic.

You can also watch a TED talk Professor Schwartz gave on practical wisdom here.

Tell Barry Schwartz “Thanks for being on the AoM Podcast” on Twitter.


Brett: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. We’ve probably all seen instances on the news, or even in our own lives, where we’ve seen rules and regulations enforced that didn’t make any sense for a particular situation. What’s funny and tragic, at the same time, is the people enforcing these rules and regulations in particular situations, will tell themselves, and even other people, “This doesn’t make any sense, but I have to do it, because that’s what the rules say. My hands our tied.”

You probably see this in your own life. You see this in bureaucracies, school systems, probably in large corporations. You probably work at a job where your company has a weird rule that doesn’t make any sense, but you have to abide by it, because that’s what the rule is, or you’ll get fired.

My guest today on the podcast coauthored a book, where they make the case that we’ve let rules and regulations swallow our lives, and this has resulted in us losing the ability to use wisdom. His name is Barry Schwartz. He’s the coauthor of the book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. He discusses what’s happened in the past 75 years, where rules and regulations have enveloped our lives, the ill effects of that, and then he makes the case that we need to go back to what Aristotle championed as the way to make decisions in our lives, and that is using what he called phronesis, or roughly translated to practical wisdom.

Today on the podcast, we’re going to discuss what practical wisdom is, how we can nurture it in our own lives and the lives of our children, and why this would be beneficial to us personally and to us as a society as a whole.

Really fascinating discussion. We get into some great psychology and philosophy. Without further ado, Barry Schwartz, Practical Wisdom.

Barry Schwartz, welcome to the show.

Barry: Thanks.

Brett: Your book, you wrote along with Kenneth Sharpe a few years ago, is called Practical Wisdom, and it’s about how to confront problems, or how to solve problems, and make decisions. We’ll get into exactly what practical wisdom is in a bit, but before we do that, let’s talk about how people, societies, particularly modern, bureaucratic societies, how do we go about solving problems and making improvements, and how come these tools that we use don’t work?

Barry: I think we have increasingly come to rely on a model, where decision making is basically done by rules. Experts of some kind, self appointed or otherwise, come up with a set of procedures, a set of rules that everyone is supposed to follow to make decisions, to make judgments. Then, you basically bring people on, and their task is to follow the rules.

This is a reflection of a lack of confidence in the judgment of the people, who you’re giving the rules to. I’m an expert, I make rules, I hand them to you, you don’t need to be an expert, you just follow the rules I created. I think we’ve come to rely more and more on that, partly because if you let people use their judgment and they have bad judgment, they’ll screw up, partly, I think, to protect against favoritism and bias.

If you treat every situation exactly the same way, you can’t be accused of being biased. Imagine a school teacher, who has to follow a script in teaching her second grade class. The virtue of following a script is that she can’t be accused by some parent of liking this student more than that student, of giving this student extra attention compared to that student. She retreats behind the fact that she follow exactly the same procedure with everyone, so she can’t be accused of bias or favoritism.

I think that’s increasingly the way we do things, and the problem with it, is that life is complicated, especially life that involves interaction with other human beings, and there is no one size fits all set of rules or procedures that works. What happens when you follow rules is that you get the mediocre solution to every problem, never the best solution. It’s an insurance policy against a disaster, in case you use your judgment and your judgment is bad, but it also guarantees that you’ll never get it exactly right. I think that’s a pity. We need to appreciate that, basically, every situation is importantly different from the ones we’ve had experience with before, and we need to use our judgment to see whether to bend the rules, how to bend the rules, whether to ignore the rules, and stuff like that.

Brett: Can you point to specific examples where, perhaps, administrative rules or stringent laws have gotten in the way, have created mediocre results?

Barry: I think we’re now seeing this play out a lot in the press. The draconian policies we have for incarcerating non-violent criminals, typically for drug offenses, was a disaster. You have a certain amount of weight, and you have to go to jail for a certain amount of time, and if it’s your third offense, they basically lock you up, and they throw away the key.

Sometimes this is an appropriate penalty. Sometimes it’s ridiculous. I think the reason this was imposed is that there was a sense that judges were soft on criminals, and they were going to make it so that judges couldn’t be soft on criminals, because they had these guidelines that they had to follow.

The only reason we’re starting, now, to abandon this is that we’ve … Half the citizens of the United States are in jail. We’ve got the worst prison population in the entire world.

Brett: Yeah, and it’s decimated the African American community.

Barry: Especially the African American community. It’s decimated state budgets. It costs three times as much to incarcerate somebody, as it does to educate somebody. It’s ridiculous.

There are these cases, examples, we write about it in the book, of drug courts, where you come before a judge, specifically with drug offenses, and the judge’s set of possible decisions have as much to do with rehabilitation, as with anything else. Do you have a job? Have you been seeing your counselor on a regular basis? Stuff like that. The rule book gets thrown away, and the judge can use his discretion about just how hard to be with each perpetrator, and they’ve had spectacular success where they’ve been tried.

It started in Buffalo. This guy couldn’t stand it, especially there were so many veterans coming before him, veterans who’ve become psychological casualties of the war in Iraq. He couldn’t bear locking them up, so he decided we’ve got to do things differently, and it transformed the way in which these kind of cases are handled. This is the sort of thing it takes courage to introduce in your jurisdiction, and by the way, if the judge didn’t have good judgment, this would not be a good program, but he does have good judgment. A lot of judges have complained that these strict rules are taking the judgment out of judging. That’s one example.

Brett: Yeah, I think another example would be … People often complain about zero tolerance policy at schools. I guess they’ve been shown, if I kid draws a gruesome war picture, sometimes gets suspended.

Barry: Yeah, but here’s the thing. Some of these kids, a small number of them, when they do something like this, maybe it’s a sign that there is some serious aggression lurking within them. You need to clamp it down. If you decide to use your judgment, and you missed some kid, and the next thing you know, he’s pulling out an automatic weapon and mowing people down, that’s a catastrophe. What do you decide to do? We’re never going to let that happen again, and you impose more rules to make sure you catch every potential serial killer, and you may catch every potential serial killer, but 9 or 99 out of 1,000 kids who are doing these horrific drawings are never going to be serial killers.

Brett: There’s one case that you brought up, I thought was sort of funny, but also really sad, is about the dad who gave his kid Mike’s Hard Lemonade at a ballpark. Can you tell that story?

Barry: Yeah, I read this in the New York Times. This guy was a professor at the University of Michigan, and he took his 7 or 8 year old boy to a Detroit Tiger baseball game, and the kid wanted lemonade, so dad went out and got it, and the only lemonade they had was Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and his father had no idea what hard lemonade was. The kid is drinking it out of the container, and a security guard sees it, and immediately calls the police and an ambulance.

They rush the kid to the hospital, he’s fine. They’re all set to release the kid to his dad, and the police won’t let them. They put the kid in a foster home, and they made the dad come before a magistrate, because this was an example of child abuse, or child neglect.

The judge, when he made this decision, said, “I hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure.” The cops, when they brought him to the judge said, “We hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure.”

Finally, they let the kid go home, but only if the dad leaves the house and checks into a hotel for two weeks, protecting the child from his father. We hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure. It was ludicrous, and everyone knew it was ludicrous, even as they were doing it. Eventually, two weeks of disruption of a family, and everything ended up okay, but the process that got you to there was a preposterous example of the over-application of rules.

Brett: It sounded like something from a Camus novel. It was bizarre. Everyone knew it was bizarre.

Barry: The weird thing about it is that everyone involved knew it was bizarre, even as they kept on doing it.

Brett: Wow. Okay.

Barry: They all knew that the rules did not apply, were not meant to apply to a case like this, but they followed the rules, nonetheless.

Brett: They had to do it.

Barry: When I talk about this … When I give talks about this topic, I point out to people, it’s easy to snicker, but in Philadelphia, where I live, once every couple of years, there’s a story that appears in the newspaper about this kid who has been unbelievably neglected. 14 years old, weighs 75 pounds, and somehow the family was on the radar of the social welfare organizations and, nonetheless, these case officers had allowed this abuse to persist. There’s a lot of hand wringing, and a commitment that we can never let this happen again.

There are cases where people in positions of authority have extremely bad judgment, or indifference, and because there aren’t strict rules for them to follow, they don’t do their jobs, and bad things happen. The solution to that is not more rules. The solution to that is better people as case officers.

Brett: Okay, the solution to that is developing what Aristotle called, phronesis.

Barry: Right.

Brett: It’s translated as practical wisdom.

Barry: Correct.

Brett: In a nutshell, what is phronesis or practical wisdom?

Barry: It’s not so easy to say what it is in a nutshell. What he thought it was is the ability to do the right thing in the right way at the right time for the right reason. The important point is that he was contrasting his understanding of wisdom with is teacher, Plato’s.

Plato was interested in wisdom also, but for Plato, it was abstract. Wise people had these great thoughts about universal generalities of the world, and human beings, and Aristotle was much less interested in that, than he was in how we go about making our practical day-to-day decisions.

Whereas Plato was looking for abstract universals, Aristotle was interested in the particularities. What some people say is, he thought there was priority to the particular. Every situation is different. Every person is different. People who have had experience dealing with certain kinds of situations learn how to read the situation. They’re perceptive, they can empathize with the people they’re dealing with, and they find the right step to take, the right solution, to this particular problem without regard to what the universal generalization is, of which this is an instance.

It was rooted in the practical. Aristotle was a careful observer of the tradespeople in ancient Greece, and marveled at their ability to find practical solutions to particular problems, and he thought the same sort of thing was needed when the problems you faced involved human beings, rather than building materials, say.

Brett: I love that analogy that Aristotle made, that becoming a good person, living a flourishing life, you have to become craftsman in a lot of ways, but how does phronesis tie-in with his virtue ethics? How does Aristotle’s conception of ethics or virtue guide how you use practical wisdom as a tool?

Barry: That’s a great question, and Ken Sharpe and I make a point of suggesting that he thought that practical wisdom was, in some ways, the master virtue. You’re right, Aristotle was a virtue theorist, which meant that moral people are not people who follow moral rules. They are people who have virtues: Courage, humility, honesty, and stuff like that. To be a virtuous person is to have … To be a moral person is to have these virtues.

Also, famously, Aristotle thought that courage is a virtue, but you can have too much courage. Honesty is a virtue, but you can have too much honesty. The trick is to have the right amount of courage. When somebody has too much courage, we call it recklessness. When somebody has too little courage, we call it cowardice. You need to find what Aristotle called, the mean, which is just the right amount of courage. What helps you do that? Wisdom is what helps you find the mean.

In addition, sometimes virtues conflict. Kindness is a virtue. Honesty is a virtue. What do you do when your friend … We use this particular example in a class that we teach. Your friend calls you to come over and take a look at her before she goes to this fancy wedding. She’s all dressed up, and you go, and she opens the door, and she does a little pirouette, and says, “How do I look?” And you think not so good. The question is, what do you tell her?

When we give this example to students, their immediate reaction is to tell the truth. Friendship is based on honesty. If you can’t count on your friends to be honest, they’re not your friends. The more we unpack it, the more they come to see that maybe that’s not the right thing to do, that telling the truth is right, if you think your friend has a reasonable alternative. If you think your friend won’t be shattered to discover that, even though she thinks she looks great, other people don’t. She knows she’ll never trust her own judgment again. Sometimes, what you need to do is tell the noble lie, and knowing when to tell the truth, and when to tell a lie, requires that you know your friend, and know your friend extremely well.

Wisdom is what enables us to resolve conflicts between virtues, and find the mean amount of any particular virtue. We regard it as the master virtue.

Brett: How do you go about developing that wisdom? There’s a lot going on, when you’re making that decision. You were calculating how your friend would respond, what is … In this situation, how do you figure out or develop that ability to know what the right thing to do is, the right time for the right reason, the right place.

Barry: That’s another great question, and as a sense in which this could take you a day to figure out how to answer your friend. You sit down, you create a spreadsheet with all the factors. How much confidence does she have, what’s her wardrobe look like, blah, blah, blah. And she says, “How do I look?” And you say, “Give me a day, and I’ll let you know.” Obviously, that’s not going to fly.

You’re going to have to come up with an answer, and you’re going to have to come with an answer quickly, and one of the interesting developments in modern, cognitive psychology is the computational models of mind, where we build up, with experience, these networks of associations, that enable us to come to conclusions extremely quickly and intuitively, although we don’t necessarily know how we reach them.

What we suggest in the book is that the way you get to make these judgments right, is by practice. You’re crappy at it at the beginning, and you keep on having these experiences, you make a try, you get it wrong, you learn from your mistake, your cognitive machinery gets smarter and smarter, and eventually, you’re making these rapid decisions that are, most of the time, the right decision. There’s no substitute, we think, for experience. You can’t give a course on how to be wise, and expect that at the end of the course people will be wise. You learn it by doing it. Often, you learn it by watching other experienced people do it, and learning from them. There’s no substitute for actually making the decisions, getting feedback, and refining your ability to read situations.

Brett: Is there some big picture, cognitive or emotional skills that are involved in wisdom, like being comfortable with ambiguity or nuance? Is there something you can do to put yourself in a position where you can develop that ability to acknowledge shades of grey?

Barry: It certainly helps to be tolerant of ambiguity, if not comfortable, because if you’re not tolerant of ambiguity, you will think that … You’ll either think that there’s a rule for every situation, or you’ll think I need a rule for every situation, because I can’t bear the uncertainty.

I don’t mind being wrong, as long as I’m wrong because I follow a rule that somebody else articulated. Then if I’m wrong, it’s his fault. It’s not my fault. There are people who can’t tolerate ambiguity. They want there to be a right answer. They want it to be clear and unambiguous. All I can say for those people is get a life. That’s not the way the world is.

I think people know this in their everyday interactions. I think there are very few parents, for example, who think that the right way to raise their kids is by following a set of rules. They may start out thinking that. They read all these books that tell them how to be a good parent, and they say, we’re going to let our kid cry themselves to sleep at night, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and so on. All these rules.

Their kids teach them, basically, that rules won’t do the job. Their kids teach them, because they apply the rules and the rules don’t work. Having figured out how to raise their first kid, along comes the second, and all of a sudden, a completely different person. All the things that work with the first kid, don’t work with the second kid. Your kids force you to appreciate that the way you manage child rearing is by really knowing your child, appreciating that person’s individuality, and crafting solutions to problems that are appropriate to the situation, and to the person. Good teachers know this about the kids in their classrooms. You treat every kid the same, you’re going to be a terrible teacher. Kids need different things, and your job is to figure out what each kid needs, and then find a way to provide it, insofar as that’s possible.

I think experience teaches us the limits of rules, but at the same time, when we’re in official situations, we want to be able to fall back on rules, because it takes the pressure off us.

Brett: The comment about how every kid is different, and good teachers know this … There’s been a lot of commentary and comments from teachers lately about some of the top-down standards that states are putting on teachers, and it’s hamstringing teachers. They want to be a good teacher, but they can’t, because they get their students ready for this test.

Barry: No, it’s exactly … There are two things going on there. One of them is this focus on the test as the measure of all things, and there’s been enough ink spilled on that, I don’t need to belabor the point, but even aside from that, by giving teachers scripts to follow, they are de-skilling teaching.

That’s going to have two effects. It’s going to prevent teachers from developing wisdom, because the way you get wisdom is by varying what you do, and learning from your mistakes. If all you’re doing is following a script, you’re not going to be any better a teacher after 30 years, as you were the day you started. Or it’s going to drive wise teachers out of teaching. I came into teaching full of ambition to stimulate and excite young minds, and find a way into the heart and mind of every single second grader. They won’t let me do that. Hell, I’ll find another occupation.

That’s what school systems are doing. They’re driving the best teachers out of teaching, because the things that attracted them to teaching aren’t available.

Brett: Speaking of children, are there things … I know a lot of our listeners are parents, they’re dads, are there things that we can do to help our children develop phronesis?

Barry: The main thing, I think, is to let them … There’s a wonderful book written by a psychologist named Wendy Mogel, called The Blessings of a Skinned Knee. Her point … And this book was written 15 years ago, even before the word ‘helicopter parent’ had come into existence. Her point was that parents are too preoccupied with protecting their kids from every little mishap, every skinned knee. It could be a psychological skinned knee. The don’t want their kids to every be disappointed, to ever be unhappy, to ever hurt themselves, so they hover, and make sure that mistakes never happen. I think that the kids will have fewer moments of unhappiness, but they will be completely unprepared for living in the world as independent adults, and they’ll never have the opportunity to develop wisdom, because they never get to try things and discover that some things don’t work. You have to be willing to let your kid fail.

When you’re training a medical resident, you have to be willing to let the resident make decisions, and sometimes have those decisions be wrong. It’s that, in life and death situations, the doctor is hovering, so that after the resident has made the mistake, the doctor corrects it before we have a dead patient.

Skinned knees are a blessing. Drowned kids are not a blessing. You want parents to be around to make sure that nothing terrible happens, but not so around, so that nothing even mildly bad happens. It’s very hard to convince parents that it’s okay for their kids to experience a little bit of failure and unhappiness. It also builds resilience in kids. Failure is inevitable, and if you have no experience failing at things, being disappointed, and then picking yourself up and trying again, when it finally comes, say in college, you disintegrate, and we see that more and more in our college population. College students are much more fragile nowadays, than they were when I started teaching, and I think part of the reason why is they’ve been so well protected before they get to college, that they don’t know what it’s like to fail.

Brett: Let your kids experience failure, because experience is the master teacher.

Barry: Experience is the master … But experience with control.

Brett: Sure.

Barry: You want the failures to be manageable failures, not catastrophic. The other thing is by modeling. We learn a lot by watching other people. If you’re a wise person, or a wise parent, that helps you to cultivate a wise child. Let your kids in on the process. Let them see you. Don’t do it behind a screen. Don’t do your decision making behind the screen. Talk to them about the process you went through in deciding how to handle the situation. That may help also.

It’s a long, bumpy road, and you have to be willing to, occasionally, experience failure yourself, as a parent, I would say.

Brett: Yeah, for sure. Don’t beat yourself up.

Are there any … You mentioned the … We’re giving judges more discretion now with the drug cases. Are there any other examples where you’re seeing practical wisdom making a comeback into institutions?

Barry: We saw examples that were outlier examples. There’s a program for training medical students that’s affiliated with Harvard, where instead of doing the usual third and fourth year rotations, from one specialty to another, the third year med students get a panel of patients, and they see those patients all year. Whatever problem the patients have, they come in, and the students deal with them, with experienced physicians looking over their shoulders. What that does is it encourages doctors in training to appreciate that they’re not treating organ systems, they’re treating people, because they’ve seen this person again and again, and they know this person doesn’t have just the problem that they’re bringing in today, but the problems that they brought in a week or a month ago. They know something about the person’s family situation, and what kind of a recommendation is a feasible recommendation for this patient to be able to follow.

The students love it. They turn into spectacular doctors, but this has not spread. This is a wonderful little anomaly, and it may be that it doesn’t spread, because it’s too expensive or it’s more expensive to do the educating this way.

In law schools, the part of law school that most law students like the best is something called the legal clinic, which is where you actually … People from their community come in with their problems, problems with a landlord, with an employer, mundane problems, or not so mundane problems, and you get training in the law, by helping real people solve real problems. Students love it. Faculty are contemptuous of it. It’s not academic enough. The legal clinic is usually taught by somebody who’s not a regular member of the law school faculty, some practicing lawyer who, once a week, comes in and runs the clinic. What the students learn, I think, is that legal issues always have context attached, and you can’t be a good lawyer, just by knowing the law. You need to know the context. You need to know the principles, and the way you do that is by dealing with real cases, and not with textbook cases.

Those are examples. If the legal clinic became a central part of law school, instead of a peripheral one, that would almost certainly create wiser lawyers.

Brett: Interesting. I went to law school, and we had a legal clinic, and you’re right. It wasn’t taught by a regular faculty member. It was a person who came in once or twice a week.

Barry: It almost never is, and the more prestigious the law school, the more likely it is that the legal clinic, if they have it at all, will be taught by an outsider.

Brett: There is a movement in law school, and I don’t know if it’s going to take … Has any legs, but your first year of law school, your first two years maybe, you learn all the basics, like tort law, contracts, all the basics, then after that, you basically take these semester-long classes that are more like seminars, but there’s a movement saying, instead of spending those two years doing these seminar classes, get the kids out there or the students out there actually practicing law, under the guidance of a teacher. I don’t know if it’s going to go anywhere.

Barry: It’s interesting, because legal education is in crisis right now, because the job opportunities for lawyers are so bad, and you have all these people getting out of law school with massive debt. There’s talk about can we do it in two years, rather than three, so students are not in as big a hole when they finish, and stuff like that. There are many fewer applicants, so the second tier law schools are not always able to fill up their classes. It’s a major problem, and one possible approach … This may be an opportunity. It may be an opportunity produced by economic exigencies, to get law schools to rethink how they do their educating, and it may turn out, as you say, that what ends up happening is one grueling year in the classroom, and then the next couple of years are basically spent as an intern at the feet of an experienced practitioner. It’d be less expensive to do, and more satisfying to the students, and my guess is it will produce much better lawyers.

Brett: That’s funny. That’s how they used to do legal education, like in the 19th century. You read the law, like Abraham Lincoln did, and then you went and you found an attorney to be your mentor. I think there’s a few states, like Vermont, still has that program. You don’t actually have to go to law school in Vermont. You can intern at a law firm for three or four years, and you have a law degree. You take the bar exam.

Barry: Yeah. I think this … I don’t know this for a fact, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the increasing formalization of legal education is an attempt to attain higher status. You go to medical school for four years. The idea that you can become a lawyer after one year, what does that say about the relative status of training in law versus training in medicine. You beef it up to make it feel like there’s this magic, secret stuff that people learn when they go to law school, and it takes them three grueling years to learn it.

Most of the people I know who have gone to law school basically say the only year that’s really essential, for their training, is the first, and after that, they take classes they’re interested in, and it’s fine, they’re happy, they enjoy it, and blah, blah, blah, but after the first year, all of it’s gravy.

Brett: Yeah, that was my experience too.

Barry Schwartz, this has been a fascinating discussion. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Barry: Thank you so much. You asked wonderful questions, Brett.

Brett: Thank you. Our guest today was Barry Schwartz. He’s the author of the book, Practical Wisdom, and you can find that on

That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at, and if you enjoyed the podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you gave us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Really help get the word out about the show, and give us some feedback on how we can improve it.

Really appreciate it, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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