I am paraphrasing this from another great Ted Talk, this one by Barry Schwartz. As part of his discussion on wisdom, Mr. Schwartz shares with us the job description for a hospital janitor. It is a very detailed job description, with many tasks. The tasks are probably what you would expect, sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, emptying trash, restocking
shelves, dusting the list goes on and on. All of the tasks described are for work that does not involve interaction with other people. It is as-of the janitors could work completely alone. The analogy used by Mr. Schwartz is that they might as well be working in a morgue. And yet there is an element of the job that involves people and how to deal with those people. It also involves breaking the rules. Consider these scenarios:
A janitor cleans the floor of a comatose patient two times. He does this because the patient’s father did not see him clean the floor the first time and the father is angry because he believes his son’s room is not being kept clean.
Another janitor skips vacuuming the visitors lounge. She does this because it is occupied by the family of a patient. This family has been in the lounge all night, waiting to hear about their loved one. She does not vacuum because they are all now finally sleeping.
There is no part of the job description for the hospital janitor that discusses or teaches how to balance the work of cleaning against the art of compassion for hospital patients and guests. Some of the janitors would absolutely NOT clean the floor a second time to make an angry father feel better and many janitors absolutely WOULD vacuum around the sleeping family. The wise janitors understand when to follow their job description to the letter and when the rules just don’t make sense.
As a person who teaches project management and helps project managers
understand the processes and best practices or the ‘rules’ of project
management, I will be the first to tell you; “If you ignore a best practice and your project does not go well, you need to go back and pay attention to the best practice.” I also know that those of you who experience success don’t always play by the book. You understand the rules and what the rules should represent. You know that navigating the rules and breaking the rules when necessary is an art, it is not a science.
Try as I might to explain this to people, the truth is I can’t really teach you when to break the rules. Learning when to break the rules is not a function of intellect, it is a function of wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience and from how you learn from that experience.
You were not born wise, either you allow yourself to become wise as you learn and grow or you do not.