Wisdom is a lot of things. On the theoretical side of things, it might be seen as an exceptional level of human functioning – a state of mind and way of behaving that is all about excellence and displaying high levels of competence, and a balanced approach to the emotional, motivational and intellectual aspects of life. But wisdom is more than a theory. Much more.
Wisdom is the difference between navigating life’s twists, turns, highs, lows and pitfalls, and succumbing to them. It’s the ability to accept what needs to be accepted, and change what needs to be changed. It’s the awareness of when it’s time to walk away, and when it’s time to stay. It’s appreciating when to stay silent and when to speak. And, even more than all of that, as this clip from the movie Patch Adams shows, it’s about helping yourself, and maybe others, too – to see things in a new way.
But not everyone displays wisdom, and even those who do often do so erratically. So, what makes some people wise, and others not so much? I mean, when you strip it down to its core, what actually is wisdom?
Well, for me, wisdom is an interplay of seven aspects of life. No single aspect stands alone – each relies on at least one other to play its part, and it is that inter-reliance that gives wisdom its value and its power. So, let’s break it down and look at each one.
Knowledge: wisdom relies on knowledge. Without knowledge you have nothing to offer yourself or others. It may be knowledge about a specific subject, like mathematics, or it may be knowledge about an area of life such as business, relationships, physical or mental health, or finances, for example. And wisdom does not require you to know all things about all things – you know what you know, and wisdom draws on that.
Understanding: knowledge on its own, though, is just knowledge – it is understanding that gives you the ability to take that knowledge and do something with it. It is understanding how to apply that knowledge you have to situations you face, or to the situations that others bring to you for your, help in navigating. Understanding takes the knowledge you have stored in your brain, and makes sense of it.
Experience: knowledge and understanding flow out of experience. You can swallow every self-help manual, business toolbox, nutritional guide, or whatever, but unless you have first-hand experience of applying what you know and understand, it’s all just words and ideas.
It is experience that allows you to shape your understanding and refine your knowledge so that it applies in the real world. It is experience that provides the fertile ground for the seeds of knowledge to grow, and offers up the opportunity for wisdom to flow.
Age: you aren’t born with an encyclopaedic knowledge, boundless understanding, or an expansive bank of experience. Those things come as the years unfold and, crucially, you apply yourself to the pursuit of knowledge, understanding and experience. Those things come with age.
But, while those critical components of wisdom rely on age in order to grow, age itself is no guarantee of wisdom. Never make the mistake of believing that just because someone has age on their side, they are wise, or vice-versa. We all know an old fool, and you may also have the privilege of knowing a wise young person.
Learning: wisdom is never complete. It is never ‘done’. It never rests on its laurels. Wisdom relies on a hunger to learn – not just from text books, courses and documentaries, but from life. Every day offers lessons that shape and enrich your experience, complement and even complete your knowledge, and expand your understanding. Every encounter, every experience can teach you something, and a truly wise person never stops learning.
Self-regulation: armed with knowledge, understanding and experience, hungry to learn and with age on your side, you are not done yet – you still need the ability to exercise self-regulation. You may recall the conversation of a couple of weeks ago where we talked about just that capacity – the capacity to manage your behaviour, emotions and actions in a way that was not just appropriate in the here and now, but was also focused on a bigger goal.
Wisdom relies on your ability to manage yourself in a way that is appropriate – you may have wisdom to offer, but if you offer it in a way that is not befitting of the circumstances you are in, then that wisdom will be lost. Knowing how enthusiastic or calm to be, how forceful or gentle, how forthcoming or reserved, for example, will determine whether that wisdom is received gratefully, or discarded in disgust.
Empathy: finally, comes what is, in my view, the most critical element of wisdom – the capacity to empathise. You can know the answer, you can have the advice, you can be clear on exactly what’s to be done, but if you can’t put yourself in the place of the person seeking your counsel, then whether or not you deliver your input in an appropriate way is left entirely to chance. A truly wise person can, and does, empathise with the person to whom their wisdom is being offered.
So, what does all that mean for you?
Well, with all that in mind, I have two questions for you. The first is this: who in your life displays those seven characteristics? Or, put another way, who in your life is truly wise? Then ask yourself if you spend enough time in the presence of that person, seeking their wisdom to help you navigate your own journey. Have you let them know how much you value them for their wisdom? How they can help you? The areas of your life in which you need their wisdom? And, crucially, ask yourself how you can put yourself in a place where you can tap into it when you need to.
The second question is this: in a world where you have much to offer, how wise are you? When you measure yourself against those seven criteria for wisdom, how do you fare? What aspects of wisdom do you need to work on?
You see, you have knowledge, you have experience, you have understanding, but are you using those things well? You have the capacity for self-regulation, but do you use it? And you are most likely capable of empathy, but how often do you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? In the days ahead, make an honest appraisal of yourself in each of those areas, and identify where you can make improvements, so that you offer wisdom not just to yourself, but to those who would seek it from you