Knowledge is the accumulation of information. Wisdom is knowing how to apply it.
The Greek philosopher Plato viewed wisdom as abstract, something that only gifted individuals had access to. Aristotle, his pupil, disagreed and viewed wisdom as a moral compass that provided guidance on how to properly act in a particular situation. This wisdom, he argued, must be cultivated and exercised in daily life as well as in the institutions that nurture us.
Aristotle distilled his ideas in his book, Nicomachean Ethics. Ethics, as we know them, are moral principles on how to behave. Not only are ethics meaningful in our daily lives, but also for our work.
He believed that we could learn traits like self-control, loyalty, kindness, perseverance, gentleness, and more. He called them arete, which translates to excellences or virtues. These are the building blocks to our character.
At the heart of Ethics was the master virtue: practical wisdom.
Practical wisdom, he argued, is what aids us in our telos, which translates to purpose or the aim of a practice. A lawyer’s telos is to counsel and serve justice. A customer support rep’s telos is to be of service, to solve an issue, and to make customers feel like they belong and are being understood.
When our telos is bolstered by practical wisdom, we embody the spirit of our utmost ideals like resourcefulness, duty, and service.
Authors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe synthesized Aristotle’s ideas in their insightful book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, and summarized the six elements of a practically 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 judg-ment 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.
Keep these in mind.
However, institutions can inadvertently hinder the growth of practical wisdom with rigid rules and incentives. Rules, scripts, procedures—these ensure accountability, productivity, and efficiency. But they also, for good or ill, impact autonomy and flexibility.
This is a tough balancing act. On one side there are the rules that restrict us from taking certain actions or warn us if we’re crossing a line. On the other side is where we exercise empathy and bend the rules a bit because this particular situation, in this particular time and with this particular person, demands it.
Doing the right thing, not in the sense of upholding rules at all costs but rather fulfilling our telos—serving the person rightfully and wholeheartedly—requires practical wisdom. When it comes to interacting with customers, speaking with a rulebook in your hand undermines empathy and blinds you from the context of the situation.
For those on the front lines, a mindful balance of adhering to policies while also exercising practical wisdom is at the heart of truly serving your customers.
Good Solutions Are Rarely One-Size-Fits-All
In the words of Schwartz and Sharpe:
Doctors—and teachers attempting to teach and inspire, or lawyers attempting to provide proper counsel and serve justice—are not puzzling over a choice between the “right" thing and the “wrong" thing. The common quandaries they face are choices among right things that clash, or between better and best, or sometimes between bad and worse.
These sort of quandaries don’t have pat, one-size-fits-all answers. Good rules might be useful as guides as we try to manage these multiple aims, but they will never be subtle enough and nuanced enough to apply in every situation. Aristotle recognized that balancing acts like these beg for wisdom, and that abstract or ethereal wisdom would not do. Wisdom has to be practical, because the issues we face are embedded in our everyday work.
Should you give that refund? Should you extend the trial? Should you resend the product? Should you point the customer to a better alternative, to a competitor? Should you say no?
These are challenging questions that require proper thinking and action.
In Practical Wisdom, Schwartz and Sharpe tell a story about Luke, the custodian of a hospital, who finished cleaning a room. The father of a patient, whose son is in a coma and has been in the hospital for 6 months, was out smoking a cigarette and didn’t see Luke clean his son’s room. He throws a fit and complains that the room isn’t clean.
What does Luke do? He doesn’t whine or lecture the father (“Sir, I just cleaned the room. Look!”); instead he empathizes with him, hears his story and tone of voice, understands the context of the situation, deliberates what’s appropriate for this special circumstance, and acts.
The demand for practical wisdom isn’t hardwired into Luke’s job description. But when social psychologists studied Luke and others in how they structure their day at work, they realized that he was going beyond his typical duties. This sense of duty was a wellspring for why he found his work fulfilling and not mundane.
If you were in Luke’s position, you might feel entitled to frame the situation around integrity or the courage to defend yourself because you truly know you aren’t at fault. Luke instead framed it around the customer experience—the father and the son and the situation they were in. Justice and fairness lost its luster.
The Story of Luke Is Really…
Just a story about you.
Whether you’re the CEO, a manager, or on the front lines of customer support, every day you are faced with difficult choices. Rules are helpful for framing situations, like a shortcut, but they mustn’t block our faces when speaking to people.
Practical wisdom provides guidance on how to properly fulfill our telos; it gives us a framework of flexibility that is championed by empathy, mindful perception, deliberating our options, using our emotions as allies, and being wise enough to act with excellence.
What makes practical wisdom difficult to attain is that it requires experience, meaning that from time to time we will fail to be wise. What’s important is that we learn from those mistakes, and if given the chance, seek guidance from others who are more experienced on how they would act.
The fact that wisdom can enrich our lives and provide guidance is refreshing. Imagine a world without wisdom?
Again, in the words of Schwartz and Sharpe:
“Yes, wisdom improves the lives of the patients, clients, and the students we serve as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. But it also improves our own lives. The wiser we are in what we do, the happier we are.
Aristotle understood this when he argued for the importance of practical wisdom. The purpose of life, he insisted, was human flourishing—what we translate as happiness. But you couldn’t flourish unless you had the will and skill to make everyday ethical choices. Practical wisdom was what provided that skill and will. With practical wisdom, we flourish; without it, we languish.”
When our telos walks alongside practical wisdom, we become fulfilled because of the way we make others feel. Exercising and attaining practical wisdom is a worthy endeavor indeed.