BACK in the late 1980s, Dana Carvey of “Saturday Night Live” used to do a funny impression of President George H. W. Bush, in which the character would justify his own supposed timidity by muttering “wouldn’t be prudent” to himself about every small risk. The impression neatly captured the contemporary notion of prudence: faintheartedness, caution and a general bias against action.

So perhaps it seems odd that this is my advice for young people heading out of school and into the world: Be prudent.

Yes, it sounds boring, but it may turn out to be a more radical suggestion than most graduates hear.

I thought prudence was not my cup of tea. When I quit college to go on the road as a musician, I was being imprudent. When I quit music to go back to school in my 30s, it was imprudent. When I left a tenured professorship for an unsecure job? You guessed it — imprudent.

Then I had an epiphany. When I finally read the German philosopher Josef Pieper’s “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” which had sat unread on my shelf for years, I was shocked to learn that I didn’t hate prudence; what I hated was its current — and incorrect — definition.

The connotation of prudence as caution, or aversion to risk, is a modern invention. “Prudence” comes from the Latin “prudentia,” meaning sagacity or expertise. The earliest English uses from the 14th century had little to do with fearfulness or habitual reluctance. Rather, it signified righteous decision making that is rooted in acuity and practical wisdom.

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Mr. Pieper argued that we have bastardized this classical concept. We have refashioned prudence into an excuse for cowardice, hiding behind the language of virtue to avoid what he calls “the embarrassing situation of having to be brave.” The correct definition, Mr. Pieper argued, is the willingness to do the right thing, even if that involves fear and risk.

In other words, to be rash is only one breach of true prudence. It is also a breach to be timid. So which offense is more common today?

A new study by the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt helps answer this question. He started with the premise that people who agonize over important choices may systematically make wrong decisions, defaulting to either “yes” or “no” with too much regularity. To investigate, Mr. Levitt found several thousand people in the throes of a difficult decision, weighing choices like job offers and marriage proposals, who volunteered to let him make the decision for them — with the flip of a coin.

Heads meant to decide in the affirmative; tails meant to decline. (Let it sink in that thousands of people agreed to have their most important decisions made by a stranger — worse, an economist — flipping a coin.) When given heads, Mr. Levitt found people were much more likely to take the decision affirmatively than they would be if left to their devices, so the experiment was effective.

[Source”timesofindia”]