We are not sure how to define wisdom but we recognise it when we see it. It has a calming effect. It slows you down and takes you out of the race and your routine, out of your habitual and automatic thinking. It leads you to higher perspectives at which you are able to soar above your issues rather than feeling bogged down by them. Perspective is synonymous with wisdom. When you are touched by wisdom, you feel comfort, acceptance and peace. You more easily access your inner resources to better cope with your reality.
The ‘problem’ with wisdom
Wisdom is indeed a noble quality that has always been valued by all cultures, but it seems it is not that sexy in our modern culture.
Because wisdom is slow!
And people want a quick solution to their problems. Those who offer wisdom (such as consultants and counsellors) often find themselves in the dilemma of how to work with a client who wants a quick fix to a complex matter. Similar dilemmas are shared by politicians, who are expected to explain in a few seconds their model of repair for greatly complex societal and economic problems.
In our fast-paced lifestyle, being wise is almost considered being out of touch. Indeed, soaring to higher perspectives requires time, and may also feel remote or devoid of passion. Just imagine what might happen to spontaneity and passion if you brought more wisdom to your relationship with your partner or your kids! Or think what might happen to your enthusiasm and optimism if you brought more wisdom to your career or even to your political activities. I assume you wouldn’t feel much excitement—wisdom is anything but a stimulant.
Then why bother?
In his classic book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman describes the difference between two systems in our brain: one is automatic, intuitive, impressionable and fast, and the second is reflective, thoughtful and slow. Through years of research on decision making, he was able to demonstrate how people, particularly those in positions of power, become lazy in considering facts carefully when choosing to rely on that quick ‘intuitive’ system. This often ends in terrible outcomes. The Nobel Committee awarded Kahneman the prize because of his explanation of the negative effect of such unwise decision-making processes on financial and economic matters.
This brings us to answering the question of why you would want wisdom.
To avoid poor judgement, Kahneman advises us to slow down. Slowness means allowing for deeper understanding, careful consideration and better long-term outcomes.. Acting wisely is not insurance for any outcome but increases in the likelihood of making the right decisions. This will result in a happier and more successful life.
What does research tell us about wisdom?
There are two teams today that research wisdom: one in Berlin and one in Yale University. The key difference between them is that the German team emphasises cognitive aspects of knowledge and thinking (i.e. meaning of life), while the US team examines the importance of balance between thinking and feeling (i.e. compassion and values).
But both teams agree on the criteria for assessing wisdom:
- know the ‘whats’ of the human condition and human nature
- know the ‘hows’ of solving life’s problems
- know the ‘where’ and ‘when’ to apply knowledge—consider context factors
- know the limits of knowledge and be able to manage uncertainty
The common method for measuring wisdom is asking people what advice they would give someone in a situation that involves uncertainty and social dilemma.
Here is an example of the type of question asked to measure wisdom: ‘What advice would you give a 15-year-old girl who wants to leave home?’ The unwise person would say, ‘No way, she is too young’. The wise person would first ask questions and explore contexts and motivations: ‘Is she being abused? Is she being forced into marriage?’
Using the following scale, ask yourself which of the following factors are important for wisdom:
1 = nothing to do with wisdom, 5 = extremely important for wisdom
- acceptance of others’ perspectives and values
- orientation towards goodness
- self-reflection and self-awareness
- love for humanity
- general knowledge
- expertise in literature, philosophy or psychology
- life experience
- ability to understand complex questions and relationships
People tend to choose ‘self-reflection and self-awareness’ as being the factor of most importance for wisdom, and I completely agree. Interestingly, developing the ability for self-reflection and self-awareness was the advice of the philosophers in Ancient Greece, who inscribed the famous saying ‘know thyself’ in the entrance to the Temple of Gods.
Questions: How well do you know your fears and their impact on you? and how about shame or aggression? Can you recognise how you project your ‘stuff’ onto others? Can you recognise those ‘gremlins’ that are triggered within you to cause hurt and stress?
In the next part of ‘On Being Wise’, I will share with you some thoughts on ‘how’ to act more wisely. In the meantime, if you are a keen learner and would like to be stimulated by more complex ideas, please read the summary of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. (How lucky we are for the good service of this brilliant summary).
And if you believe that younger people can’t be wise, watch this extraordinary four-minute conversation with a nine-year-old boy.