Five Principles of Practical Wisdom

It’s a burden to feel that you must know it all and so liberating to discover the power of not knowing.

Life today is lived at a faster pace due to our technologically-enabled action bias. We think and navigate mostly from an instrumental point of view, using means-ends problem solving. Results are measured in quantities, the language of physics, more than in qualities, the language of meaning. Pragmatism posits that reflective thought arises when we encounter a barrier, and then it operates instrumentally.

But one of the fathers of pragmatism, John Dewey, conceived of pragmatic motives that transcend the purely instrumental motivations of realizing quantitative outcomes. He knew that we elevate ourselves and society by promoting our consciousness of freedom and dignity – norms of liberal democracy. He believed that we learn not from experience, but from our reflection upon experience.

It is through the deliberate expression of our freedom and fidelity to our duty to respect the dignity of all human beings that we achieve the highest level of practical wisdom. Dewey also believed that this ethic (ethos) is fundamental to being responsible, as a personal citizen and as a corporate citizen, in a free democratic society. Here are five principles of practical wisdom that promote a life of dignity.

Normativity – that we do have a clear sense of what is good, right, and proper. Prudential and moral principles guide us, shape our culture, and our approach to governance.

Responsibility – that we hold ourselves accountable to these principles by understanding, applying, and internalizing them. We also know our fallibility and adaptively learn from failures.

Freedom – that we are capable of conscious choice guided by reason, compassion, and courage. And knowing this, we cultivate practices that regularly awaken our consciousness of freedom.

Habit – that we knowingly rely on habit in much our daily action. Also knowing that neglect of freedom practices leads to lazy habits of avoidance, impulsiveness, and excessive self-interest.

Emotion – that we most often feel the significance, truth, and virtue of events, choices, and actions long before we know and understand them intellectually. So, we learn to listen to our feelings.

In an enterprise, these principles become themes of reflection, articulation, and growth. They shape our enterprising culture, mission, and strategy. We become known in our markets – product markets and talent markets – and we win the loyalty of our stakeholders in large part by how effectively we integrate these principles into our ways of doing business.

As such they may be interesting audit points for any leader, team, business unit, or firm. At any fork in the road, consider your action in light of these principles – do it as an exercise. There’s no pretense to false virtue in this. We reflect upon them, as Dewey observed, to learn from our experience. Let your instrumental actions be guided by wisdom, practical wisdom – wouldn’t that be satisfying!

A free mind is more open to ideas, innovation, and possibilities. It finds grounded confidence through its best efforts. Knowing we can go “there” – to a free space of thought, feeling, and possibilities – gives us assurance, resilience, and determination that we can prevail in our mission. It’s not hype, it’s work. It’s the work of living a more mindful, free, and confident life and career.