What is Wisdom?

From the beginning of recorded time, people have been intrigued and fascinated by the presence of the wise person in the room. Aristotle said wisdom is the realization of one’s ignorance, a belief I long ago came to appreciate and adopted as a personal mantra. More recently, wisdom (like just about everything else) has become a focus of considerable research in neuroscience and the consensus seems to be that it is a distinct, measurable human quality.

It is defined as “a pragmatic knowledge of life that enables one to resolve personal and social problems, an ability to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and see multiple points of view, a concern for the common good, emotional stability, a capacity for reflection, self-awareness and dispassionate self understanding.” That is powerful stuff indeed.

Some believe wisdom equates to intelligence, creativity or expertise. However, many smart people aren’t necessarily wise. Some are viewed as shrewd and skilled though certainly not as wise. Intelligence prizes certitude but this purity of thought can trigger intense provocation with those who do not share the same points of view.

Wisdom is more about deep understanding than it is about possessing knowledge. Wise people know how to relate to others, achieve social harmony, solve interpersonal problems and achieve a collective good in actionable terms. Wisdom prizes humility and compromise – a willingness to appreciate broader perspectives and integrate different opinions, and the capability to maintain emotional and intellectual equilibrium in ambiguous situations.

In simple terms, wisdom is intellectual humility – admitting that you don’t know. It’s recognizing the limits or the constraints of your knowledge, valuing the insights of others and searching for the elusive answers to life-defining questions. It does not happen during our formative years – much like perspective, it is acquired over time. Many never achieve it. Because, in today’s culture, where confidence is admired and mistakes are mocked, self-confessed ignorance is a highly unusual trait.

My first job was that of a university administrator. Eventually, I became a member of the teaching faculty. After about eighteen years in academe, I concluded that few of my colleagues possessed intellectual humility. I then transitioned into the private sector and observed how a lot of industry leaders suffered from the same affliction. These experiences were edifying.

The noted Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck distinguishes between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, both of which are formed early in life. Those who possess the latter assume our character, intelligence and creative abilities are static – something we are “born with” and cannot change in meaningful ways. They are unwilling to consider critical feedback and incapable of admitting errors and thus correcting deficiencies. In their view, success is an affirmation of our inherent intellect and proving you’re smart, therefore always right, about most things. For them, acquiring wisdom is just not possible.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, thrives on challenge, learning and failure. It asks the tough questions and confronts the sometimes harsh and brutal answers. Mistakes made are not evidence of unintelligence but are used as a springboard for personal growth. Those who possess it have a passion for learning, not a hunger for approval.

Growth oriented individuals are open-minded. They view disagreement as entirely constructive, acknowledge when they are wrong or ignorant about some things and understand that such admissions don’t mean they’re stupid. It just means there’s a lot more to learn. Since success is about stretching oneself to acquire knowledge, it accepts the principle that continuous study, practice and persistence are the stepping stones to achieving wisdom.

Wisdom demands time for contemplation. It cannot be rushed. It has little to do with accumulating inspiring thoughts and more about a lifetime of endurance. Thinking otherwise pushes us to look for premature closure and certainty. Nor can it be taught. It is learned through trial and error, curiosity and discussion, self-awareness and evaluation, assessing and critiquing, listening to exemplars (wise people of other generations), and comparing or contrasting the imperatives of different social and political contexts.

It is nurtured by trying to understand change and integrate novel perspectives, acknowledging our cognitive biases and blind spots, and paying heed to the intuitive voice within – the one we all possess. It is taking calculated risks and expanding the bounds of possibilities. Ultimately, it is the uncanny ability to explain complex issues in simple, uncomplicated and intelligible terms, much like a good teacher of younger minds invariably does with ease.

So, how do we acquire wisdom? We start by recognizing and overcoming our innate confirmation bias – we are less open to possibilities than we might like to think. We must own our actions, especially our mistakes. We need to acknowledge our fallibility, frailties and imperfections. We must be tenacious and “hang in” when the going gets tough – because that’s where real learning begins. Having a network of trusted advisors and supporters can help us make sense of a fundamentally chaotic world and appreciate the inherent value of perspective.

Lastly, we must celebrate our precious life experiences and find the time for regular deep personal reflection and writing. The math of time is fairly straightforward. When you appreciate that, you discover you have less than you think and need more than you know. Thinking takes time but our thoughts give rise to our uniqueness and that determines our identity and eventually our destiny. Wise people are those who leave behind a legacy worth remembering.