On Being Wise

On being wise

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,out of your normal routine, out of your habitual and automatic thinking. It leads you to higher perspectives with 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, advisers and counsellors) often find themselves wondering 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 complex social 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 the same 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.

Here lies the answer to 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 an insurance for any outcome but increases the likelihood of making the right decisions and responding to situations thoughtfully. This will result in a happier and more successful life.

What does research tell us about wisdom?

There are two approaches to researching wisdom: one focuses on cognitive aspects of knowledge and thinking (i.e. meaning of life), while the other examines the balance between thinking and feeling (i.e. compassion and values).

But both agree on these 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
  •       empathy
  •       intelligence
  •       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. Developing the ability for self-reflection and self-awareness was the advice of the philosophers in Ancient Greece. Remember the famous saying ‘know thyself’ which was inscribed 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 recognize how you project your ‘stuff’ onto others? Can you recognize those ‘gremlins’ that are triggered within you to cause hurt and stress? 

Six ways to act more wisely

So wisdom is ultimately about how you understand human nature, the problems humans deal with and their solutions. This implies the need to first understand the rules that govern you and then the rules that govern human beings and societies as a whole. Yes, it all begins with how you understand and govern yourself. 

1. Reflect before reacting

“What is the difference between wise and smart? Smart people will solve problems which the wise avoid” Anon

I remember a tale I read in my childhood that had a great impact on me. A farmer came back home from the fields and saw his toddler lying on the floor crying, bleeding heavily, with bites all over his body. The farmer then noticed his dog sitting quietly in the corner with his face covered in blood. The farmer was so enraged that he took the gun and shot the dog. He rushed to the bathroom, carrying his child, and in the bathroom he found a wolf lying on the floor, bleeding to death from the bites of the loyal dog. Apparently the dog saved the life of the toddler.

Such reactivity indeed gets us all into trouble: in relationships and in our workplace. Contaminated filters in our automatic mind distorts the perception and meaning of reality. We operate on our preconditioned assumptions and narratives only to regret the consequences later. People often justify their impulsiveness as ‘intuition’, ‘instinct’, ‘spontaneity’ or something else.

The most important skill of the wise is the ability to self-reflect, to be mindful, to be aware of what is going on inside: in your body, and in how you feel and think. This is essential if you are to keep an even temper and to activate the more advanced part of your brain.

To get practical, here is a simple yet powerful habit you want to integrate into your daily conversations – simply ask  “What’s that?” or “What do you mean?”.  The curious open mind is the antidote to the reactive mind.

2. Consider various perspectives

To act wisely, you need to examine a situation from various points of view. You need to consider situational factors such as context, personalities, developmental phases, places and cultures. When you deal with a distressing problem, it is of course a real challenge. The pain is great, and you want to stop it sooner, not later. Sadly, this very pain often blurs our clear thinking and makes us race to an inappropriate solution, resulting in greater pain down the track. It is a well documented phenomenon that anxiety often causes tunnel-vision. It causes us to ignore a variety of options and perspectives. This is why in times of political or economical upheaval people seek simple solutions to help restore a sense of security. As we know, it may later come with a heavy price.  

The wise person will delve into the complexities of the situation, learn the root cause of the matter, and carefully consider the options and their consequences. Such consideration takes time and effort and it slows you down!

3. Ask and inquire

Fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people full of doubts”—Bertrand Russell.

The wise will start with ‘?’ before ‘!’. It is not as much about your knowledge as it is about the process. The wise embrace uncertainty and step into each situation with an inquisitive mind. This can be a real challenge at times of distress. Kahneman (‘Thinking fast and slow’) explains: “The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition. Questioning your intuition is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. More doubt is the last thing you want when you are in trouble”.

A hallmark of the wise is the ability to acknowledge with humility, not knowing. The wise are aware that it is easier to observe a minefield when you are not walking in it.

If you ever feel stuck and helpless here is a practical tip for you – acknowledge humbly and with self compassion your limitations and ask for support from friends, experts or a counsellor. Receiving support from others is very wise and it is what makes resilient people.

So make it a habit to utilise resources in your environment. We are lucky to have lived in times of access to the great resources on the internet.

4. Get real and pragmatic

The wise are flexible. They are willing to replace one truth with another in order to adapt to a changing reality. The dogmatic person may try to impose on reality certain interpretations in order to fit a certain agenda. This way a greater congruence with one’s narrative is gained. The wise consider circumstances of here and now. It is not enough to ask what is right—the ideals—but you have to ask what works—the real. Being wise is about facing reality and coping effectively with problems in life; it is about being grounded. Individuals who stick to the wrong path or governments who stick to wrong policies just because they fit their ideals will ultimately clash with reality. And when you argue with reality you are always wrong. Wisdom is about being practical and pragmatic while trying to solve life’s problems.

5. Apply procedures for decision making

This is one of my favourite lessons from the book ‘Thinking fast and slow’. At the end of his book Kahneman raises the question “How can we make better judgments when we make decisions?”. Well, you can’t avoid the effort!  Your automatic brain is lazy and not easy to educate.  Kahneman admits :”My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions and fallacy as it was before studying these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely”.

So the question is how can we minimize these errors?

Kahneman proposes this simple principle: recognize the signs that you are about to fall into one of the mind’s traps. These traps are very common when you are overly excited about a possibility such as love, a job, a project,a big purchase or when you are overly worried about an outcome and by default tend to avoid it. Trusting intuition and impression is extremely seductive: easy and quick. The advice is to slow down and follow a  certain procedure. For example, when you are about to hire someone, invest money, buy a house or apply for a job, make sure you follow your own procedure and tick the checklist of criteria. Yes, it will slow you down!
In case you wonder what steps should be on your checklist consider consulting Dr Google.

Remember, your decision is wise not by its outcome but the way in which it was made. 

6. Influence others by touching their heart  

Do you ever wonder how influential are you in the life of the people around you—your family, your workmates, your friends and your community?

You will surely have noticed that your ‘intellectual’ arguments are not your most influential tools. To touch others, you need to touch their heart. The origin of the word ‘influence’ in English is ‘flow’. The origin of the Hebrew word for ‘influence’ is ‘abundance’. Well, you can see the similarities here, and this is where love connects with wisdom. You are much wiser with people when you approach them from a place of abundance, of love— you see, understand, care and support the people in your life.

And when this happens you sense the power in your wisdom. This is the power with which the good Kings and Queens ruled. This is the power of successful people in roles of authority: parents, teachers, managers, community leaders and politicians.

Lets be that wise authority for our own sake and for those we care about. 

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