My misadventure with straight lines

So, yesterday was my day to go grocery shopping at the local health food store, a nice little jaunt from the neighborhood in Athens where I live. My misadventures began on the way home when cautiously navigating the sidewalk, and generously loaded down with my weekly supplies, I spied a jogger on his way to crossing paths with me. Encumbered as I was I took up far more of the sidewalk than he, so I moved as far out of the center as I could. He, on the other hand, was oblivious. He had the headphones on, feet pounding towards me, and was head down fiddling with the player. It took a desperate swerve into the street for me to actually get out of his way. Phew! Close call!

And all the way home I thought to myself that it had to mean something. Not as in mystical sign, but as in metaphorical lesson. My brush with the joggernaut had to be some kind of shorthand for a larger issue…..

So home safely, I realized I had forgotten to remind the cashier that my 6 bottles of raspberry lemonade was a full case and that I was entitled to a 10% discount. Just to be sure I checked the receipt, and not only was my discount missing, but I found this:

How not to do math, with a computer, no less….

Thinking back on the transaction I remembered a tiny slumbering disquiet over the amount of change I was given, but being in a hurry to load up my bags I didn’t have the time or focus to spare on anything not the normal routine.

Shocking, I know! But where am I going with this?

Being the inveterate dot connector that I am, I suddenly saw the meaning of my earlier brush with the jogger. And too, I saw the point that Sam McNerney was aiming at in the Big Think blog post I talked about in my own last post. Namely, there is a big difference in breaking rules and in going about things on autopilot, following the rules simply because they are rules, living out the societal norms and expectations, and manufacturing habits and addictions that make us immune to the world’s greater diversity, needs, and even its wonders.

Sometimes we do need the creative game changers. Like Mahatma Gandhi. Like Albert Einstein. Like Pablo Picasso. Like Martha Graham…. Too often everyone’s got their headset on and we blunder down the path with our eyes closed (crossed?), sorting out our own earth shatteringly minuscule issues while strangers are forced to leap into oncoming traffic to avoid our implacable progress. Too often we transact with our fellows by perfunctorily reading from the script, the rules, and fail to see the human on the other side or how poorly the rules sometimes fit. It dehumanizes not just other people, but especially also ourselves.

So Sam was correct to point out that sometimes it is right to stand against the status quo. The rules aren’t guaranteed to be perfect. They may work better for some people, but at the expense of others. That there are rules is no indication that the rules are good. So sometimes we do need to question things. We do need to stand against inequities. Sometimes it is about shaking those bees up and not the honey. Some situations are just wrong, and do need addressing.

Blind obedience is really only its own reward. It is a form of blindness. Its the chute that cattle are lead down before the slaughter. Its the tread of thousands of tiny feet lemming their way over the cliff edge. There is a connection in language between adherence and getting stuck. The straight line will only get you the track it provides. Think about it.

Obsessive obedience or habituation is not a matter of our autonomy or necessarily even in our self interest. It doesn’t care what we want. Its not really even about us. Fundamentally it is a dispossession, and a reneging on our sense of our own responsibility. Which makes it also fundamentally a moral issue: “I’m jogging here, so you must be wrong”, “The receipt says you get this amount of change, so take it or leave it”, “Its right, because this is the way I do it”….. Rather than the laws serving the people, we become slaves to the rules…..

Fate, tradition, our culture, the law, human nature, our own personality- these all are used to distance ourselves from moral responsibility and efficacy in the world. Its not always a bad thing. There are good rules. Sometimes good rules are good enough. Sometimes it is the best of a bad situation. However, going along to get along is sometimes also the worst decision we can make…. If we go too far down that road, can we even back out?

Thinking for ourselves takes practice and exercise. It acquires momentum, or it doesn’t. In what sense are we better off if it becomes as vestigial as the human tail bone. Oh wait. We get to sit on that…..

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s Barry Schwartz to splain it all to you:


Maybe some of the most important 20 minutes you will ever spend….. But in case you’d rather read my version of the highlights, here are some I picked out:

What we desperately need, beyond, or along with, better rules and reasonably smart incentives, is we need virtue. We need character. We need people who want to do the right thing. And in particular, the virtue that we need most of all is the virtue that Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” Practical wisdom is the moral will to do the right thing and the moral skill to figure out what the right thing is. So Aristotle was very interested in watching how the craftsmen around him worked. And he was impressed at how they would improvise novel solutions to novel problems — problems that they hadn’t anticipated.


And in interactions with people, almost all the time, it is this kind of flexibility that is required. A wise person knows when to bend the rules. A wise person knows when to improvise. And most important, a wise person does this improvising and rule-bending in the service of the right aims. If you are a rule-bender and an improviser mostly to serve yourself, what you get is ruthless manipulation of other people. So it matters that you do this wise practice in the service of others and not in the service of yourself. And so the will to do the right thing is just as important as the moral skill of improvisation and exception-finding. Together they comprise practical wisdom, which Aristotle thought was the master virtue.

Now Ken and I are not naive, and we understand that you need to have rules. You need to have incentives. People have to make a living. But the problem with relying on rules and incentives is that they demoralize professional activity, and they demoralize professional activity in two senses. First, they demoralize the people who are engaged in the activity. Judge Forer quits, and Ms. Dewey in completely disheartened. And second, they demoralize the activity itself. The very practice is demoralized, and the practitioners are demoralized. It creates people — when you manipulate incentives to get people to do the right thing — it creates people who are addicted to incentives. That is to say, it creates people who only do things for incentives.

Now the striking thing about this is that psychologists have known this for 30 years. Psychologists have known about the negative consequences of incentivizing everything for 30 years. We know that if you reward kids for drawing pictures, they stop caring about the drawing and care only about the reward. If you reward kids for reading books, they stop caring about what’s in the books and only care about how long they are. If you reward teachers for kids’ test scores, they stop caring about educating and only care about test preparation. If you were to reward doctors for doing more procedures — which is the current system — they would do more. If instead you reward doctors for doing fewer procedures, they will do fewer. What we want, of course, is doctors who do just the right amount of procedures and do the right amount for the right reason — namely, to serve the welfare of their patients. Psychologists have known this for decades, and it’s time for policymakers to start paying attention and listen to psychologists a little bit, instead of economists.


Rules and incentives are no substitutes for wisdom. Indeed, we argue, there is no substitute for wisdom. And so practical wisdom does not require heroic acts of self-sacrifice on the part of practitioners. In giving us the will and the skill to do the right thing — to do right by others — practical wisdom also gives us the will and the skill to do right by ourselves.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to My misadventure with straight lines

  1. Ashley says:

    But what I really want to know is if you went back to get the right change and your 10% discount.
    I find it humorous that they go so far as to tell you what your “fare deal” savings were, but then rip you off with the change đŸ™‚

    • I called them yesterday after I figured it out and was told that I would be reimbursed when I next came in. Their explanation was that the night before they had done ‘work’ on their computer system and that some new glitch may have been introduced. When I pointed out the problem the store had already been open for over 4 hours, so I just wonder how many customers had been given incorrect change over that time…. I’m just hoping they actually did something to correct it after I called. Once your trust is shaken you start to question these things. And maybe that’s not such a bad idea at times….

  2. linda says:

    Carter – have you read the wisdom of crowds by John Surowiecki ?,
    or this article in the Economist?
    Thought of this when I read your post, I think you’ll find them interesting.

  3. Sarrah Hurst Groves says:

    One of your best post EVER!

  4. Tom Johnson says:

    Ha! This is great!

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