What is wisdom (Part 1): A first date

Wisdom is a bit like love. It’s hard to describe but easy to recognize, and most of us would agree that more of it in our lives and in the world around us would be a good thing.

Yet, few of us would say that we are actively pursuing wisdom or that we even would know how to. We assume that wisdom naturally comes to us with age. So, we wait until the final chapters of life when our own wisdom emerges, and we get to share it with those lucky enough to be in our orbit. The cosmos unfolds as it should, right?

So, for now, we focus on simply being smart and all of the wonderful things that will bring us. Yet, despite all of our collective economic and technological progress (which come from being smart), we sense that it’s not enough. Or maybe even that, in some ways, it’s too much, crowding out other things that we intuitively know should matter as much or more. In our quest to become even smarter, we are becoming hyper-rational optimizers. And it’s not making us any happier. 

The problem is that we’ve lost sight of what our goal is or what it could be. We focus on metrics like SAT, GPA, and GDP that are measurable and sensible; they fit the logic of our economy and culture, which would be absolutely fine if we were thriving. But we’re not.

That’s where wisdom comes into play.

So, what is wisdom? I think it’s helpful to start by thinking about wisdom in two ways. First, wisdom is an ability or capability. In that sense, you can think of wisdom as the ability (knowledge, insight, judgment, etc.) needed to do the right thing in the right way. From this perspective, wisdom is about the process.

Second, wisdom is also defined by the desired outcome. This is, I believe, the most transformational feature of wisdom since it refocuses our attention on what we should be pursuing and why. Wisdom, viewed as an ability or process, is essential and actually where you need to invest much of your time if you want to become wiser. But, those abilities are only helpful if you stay focused on the right goal (and with the wrong goal, those same abilities can instead lead to a lot of foolishness or much worse).

So what is the goal of wisdom? In the simplest of terms, wisdom is the art – and science – of thriving. Thriving, of course, means different things to different people, and we can use related words instead, like flourishing. Indeed, flourishing is the term usually used when scholars translate Aristotle’s teachings about the purpose of life into English. And, of course, well-being as a concept is becoming more popular today. Sometimes it’s used too narrowly, but I think it’s a great term when used more holistically.

The point is that we live in a time and society at the fading edge of the industrial revolution, from which our dominant metrics and institutionalized goals emerged. Our maniacal focus on more money, material goods, and prestige is leaving the vast majority of us unfulfilled and anxious. We are languishing as we await the expected rewards around the corner. And if not now, we tell ourselves, we’ll get to enjoy it at the end of our careers and lives when we have “earned it.”

I’m not saying that great grades, a steady income, and growing your net worth within a growing economy aren’t good things. They’re great on their own, just not enough. And more of what we want (more money, more stuff, more prestige) isn’t what most of us really need. In fact, obsessively pursuing these is counterproductive if you’re focused instead on a different goal: to live a life well-lived. To be happy and fulfilled, now and in the future. To love and to be loved. The job, money, house, and all of our “things” are potential enablers of a life well-lived. But they are not the goal.

The goal is to thrive: to live joyfully, to take care of each other and all other life on earth, and to appreciate the mystery of life with awe and gratitude.

You can use different words to describe this. You can qualify it by acknowledging the real challenges of being alive, aware, and responsible. But that doesn’t change the essence of it. And where is wisdom in all of this? Wisdom is the way. It’s part philosophy and part process. But how to be wise doesn’t really matter until you first decide whether to be wise. Which, as you hopefully get by now, isn’t really about being smarter. It’s about shifting your focus towards a different goal or set of interrelated goals. And honestly, I think this is the harder problem for most of us. You can learn how to be a wiser student, parent, teacher, leader, doctor, or pilot. But knowing isn’t enough. We all know lots of things that we should do but don’t (and things we shouldn’t do but do anyway). So, understand this for what it is: a reassessment of what is important to you – important enough that it positively and consistently influences your decisions, choices, and behaviors. You can learn a lot about how to be wiser, but you first have to really want to change – to grow. In that spirit, here are a few final thoughts on “why wisdom” and “why now:”

  1. Wisdom is especially important when we are young. It seems fairly obvious to say, but when we are young, the future is full of choices and opportunities that wisdom can help guide. Wisdom is helpful in old age, for sure. But it is most valuable when we are young.
  2. Wisdom is especially important today. Life is especially complex now in part because of the abundance of options and choices. More options means that more can go right or wrong, depending on what we choose to do, what we choose to be, who we choose to spend our time with, and how we spend that time.
  3. Wisdom is learnable. There are very wise people who are young, and there are older fools (recent research shows, at best, a weak relationship between age and wisdom, and, of course, this is very specific to the individual). Wisdom can be learned from many sources – personal, academic, religious, etc. Waiting for wisdom is foolish; it won’t happen, so don’t wait and decide that it’s relevant sometime later in your life.
  4. Research on wisdom is flourishing. As a concept, wisdom has been around for millennia, but it has been primarily the domain of philosophers. With new research in psychology, we’re learning a lot about what wisdom is, how to become wiser, and why it matters. It will take time for this new knowledge to make its way into popular culture – but you don’t have to wait for that…

Next Part 2: An example and definitions

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