“Our Loss of Wisdom” and Finding Value in All Work

When I first watched Barry Schwartz’s TED talk, “Our loss of wisdom“, during my senior year at Haverford, I was searching for some sort of validation for my life choices. Growing up in a majority Indian (and Chinese) community in Princeton, New Jersey, I’d been conditioned to think that there were only a few acceptable ways to add value to the world: as a doctor, as an engineer, as a businessman, and maybe as a lawyer; and by my senior year at Haverford, I was on track to pursue none of these.

My community places such a high value on these occupations over others, perhaps because they tend to bring in a lot of money, or because they’re generally held in high-esteem in our society, or because they require years and years of education, or all of the above.

I think it is safe to say that the Indian mentality towards choosing careers is pretty formulaic. On the extreme ends, it sounds like “Do what I tell you to do, do it really well, and don’t ask questions.” There’s little to no room for experimentation, exploration, improvisation, risk-taking, or failure, because the path has been pre-destined for you by your parents. Barry Schwartz, talking about rules and bureaucracy in American education, law, and financial dealings, immediately reminded me of the Indian mentality (towards life in general, but especially careers), when he said:

What happens is that as we turn increasingly to rules, rules and incentives may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes them 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…Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster, and they prevent disaster, but what they ensure in its place is mediocrity.

Of course, I’m not implying that it’s mediocre to become a doctor or a lawyer or a banker, either because you want to, or because your parents absolutely won’t have it any other way. I recognize that every one of us is fighting our own battles and coming to terms with our life situations, and balancing parental expectations might be in more of the forefront for some people than for others. What I am saying is that no job can be performed skillfully without empathy and practical wisdom, and that these virtues can be just as easily emulated by a hospital janitor as by a doctor.

Barry Schwartz goes on to give examples of hospital janitors who, when asked to describe what makes their job difficult, described how they sometimes bent the rules in the service of empathy and compassion. He defines practical wisdom as the following:

Practical wisdom…is a combination of ‘moral will’ and ‘moral skill.’ A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, as the janitors knew when to ignore their job duties in the service of other objectives…a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise; to try new things, occasionally to fail, and to learn from your failures.

The janitors that were interviewed had immense wisdom about what it means to take care and serve other people, despite the fact that theirs and other trade and service workers’ roles are so often diminished in our society for being “less than.” When I watched this talk, and when I think about the meaning of being of service to others, it becomes nonsensical in my mind that one act of service could ever be judged as greater than another; that treating patients as a doctor is thought of as better than cleaning up after patients and their families as a janitor.

A few weeks ago, I was indulging in my first ever nail appointment for a cousin’s wedding. The women there took such good care of me (and of my feet, which no one wants to touch); taking great pains to do my nails thoroughly and perfectly, massage my hands and calves, and help me move around without smudging anything. I just remember feeling a wave of gratitude wash over myself for being attended to so carefully and intentionally by another human being, and I wondered if others saw the great value in their simple gestures to care for the women that walked into their salon. Beauticians, after all, aren’t usually lauded in our society in the same way as white collar professionals, and yet they make a living out of treating people well. And ultimately, in life, it is how much we can empathize and care for and be of service to others that adds value to the world. And celebrating these moral exemplars–as Schwartz calls them–and emulating their ways, can restore a world in which we see the value in all kinds of work, and where everyone has an equally significant spot.

So you don’t need to be the next Bill Gates or Mahatma Gandhi to add value to the world, articulated here at the end of his TED talk:

So there’s a lot here at TED and at other places to celebrate, and you don’t have to be a mega hero. There are ordinary heroes–ordinary heroes like the janitors, who are worth celebrating, too. As practitioners, each and every one of us should strive to be ordinary, if not extraordinary, heroes…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 how to we get practical wisdom? Stop judging others, firstly–and secondly, gain experience, improvise–break the rules and fail, learn from your mistakes. You can be sure that the hard lessons you learn along the way will serve you, and the people you work with, in whatever you do next.


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