What is wisdom (Part 2): An example and definitions

Wisdom feels like a very abstract concept, so maybe it’s easiest to start with a tangible example. Since wisdom is often reflected in specific decisions, let’s focus on a decision context that most of us will deal with someday: buying a home. Buying a home, a house or a condo for example, is one of the most consequential decisions you’ll ever make, and I don’t just mean financially.

Imagine Sam and Sarah, two smart homebuyers. Sam and Sarah sat down over coffee one Saturday and developed a list of the features they wanted in a home. They have visited the homes of many colleagues from work for dinner and other social events, which has given them a good chance to see how others in their network live and to get a sense of what is possible given their combined income. They find an agent through a friend and, with the agent’s help, they visit a dozen homes in three different neighborhoods. They narrow their list to four houses that fit within the budget limit set by their lender and that fit their minimum requirements for number of bedrooms and bathrooms. To help them decide on a specific house, they build a spreadsheet to track which house has the most features and the best price given its size. It’s a close call, but they finally agree to one that has a bonus they hadn’t planned on: a hot tub that fits six adults!

Next, imagine Wendy and Will, our two wise homebuyers.  Wendy and Will also sat down for coffee to develop a list of requirements, but their focus was different. First, following advice from older siblings, they reviewed their finances to figure out what they were willing to spend on a house. Though they knew they could afford much more given their combined incomes, they settled on a smaller figure so that they would have plenty left to spend in other ways, save, and so they wouldn’t feel any unnecessary financial stress. They also didn’t really want a large house. That would simply mean having to buy more furniture and bigger utility and maintenance bills. Next, they considered location. Avoiding long commutes was a priority given the daily impact that would have on their lives, so they decided to try to live closer to the city where they both worked. That meant not only a smaller house, but also a very small yard. However, they realized, that meant less time and money spent maintaining a lawn – as long as they had enough space for a little nature of their own, including some raised garden beds. And, of course, they thought about the number of bedrooms that they would ideally want for their family of four. Once they had settled on their requirements, they interviewed several real estate agents with specific experience buying and selling homes in the neighborhoods that they were most interested in. It took some time, but they eventually found a house that seemed like a great match. It needed some updating, but all the major systems seemed well maintained. It’s a smaller house than even they had anticipated, but an unexpected bonus is that smaller homes with smaller yards means closer neighbors, literally and figuratively. The great sense of community on their street was unexpected, but will likely keep them happy there for a long time.

So, why are Wendy and Will wiser than Sam and Sarah? The answer has less to do with the specifics of what they chose and is more about their approach. Simply put, they considered a much broader range of issues that all have a significant impact on their well-being both now and in the future. From how much to spend, to how the location would affect their lifestyle. They had to make trade-offs to do this, but they had the self-insight to know which trade-offs made the most sense for them, at this stage of their lives – and the conviction to listen to that insight. Sam and Sarah instead focused too much on what their work colleagues were doing, and maybe, too, on what their agent thought would be best (the agent that someone recommended to them, and who they hired without interviewing other possible agents).

By the way, my wife and I have been Sam and Sarah more than once. It’s taken time for us to realize what went right with prior home purchases, and what went wrong. Sadly, this specific example is one that is repeated frequently in the US. Many of us are prioritizing large, often poorly built homes, in homogenous neighborhoods, with commutes that make it hard to find enough time to spend on things that affect our well-being – like exercise or catching up with our children. Ok, so it’s not just about process; sometimes you can argue that specific options are wiser in general (or maybe just my bias poking through on a pet topic of mine). Sadly, home buying is getting even harder right now, with escalating prices that are out of reach for many – especially first-time homebuyers. However, even in tight and expensive markets, we have choices. Wisdom, then, is all about making the best choices for you given your situation, needs, resources, and values.   So, beyond a home, you can apply the same lens to all sorts of decisions that you make: what career to pursue, whom to marry, whether to have children (and how many), where in the country (or world) to live.  Then there are all of the smaller, but still consequential decisions: what food to buy, what clothes to wear, whether to join a gym, or buy an exercise bike. Learning about wisdom will help make these choices easier, and lead to better outcomes.

So, let’s abstract up a little now. What, then, is wisdom conceptually? One of the hallmarks of wisdom is the consideration of multiple perspectives, and this is actually something we can apply as we think about how to define this beautiful, complex, concept. In that spirit, here are few different perspectives on what wisdom is:

Wisdom from a philosophical perspective

We often associate wisdom with ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle, for good reason. Wisdom, from their perspective, is defined by the behaviors that lead to eudaimonia, roughly translated as “living well” or flourishing. Indeed, many ancient philosophers believed that the goal of life was to live well, but they acknowledged that there were many different ways to do this. In modern philosophy, wisdom has shifted more towards a focus on ethics, or doing that which is right and good. This is similar to the ancient Greeks’ focus on well-being, but focused more on how our behaviors affect others.

Wisdom from a psychological perspective

Research on the psychology of wisdom has itself flourished over the last few decades. From this perspective, wisdom is a set of behavioral traits – ways of being and behaving that generally promote well-being. When approached this way, wisdom is something that we can measure – and learn (without waiting until you’re 80!). There has been a wide variety of conceptual models of wisdom, each identifying a unique set of dimensions, or categories of traits. More recently, psychologists have performed a “meta-analysis” to find out where the points of agreement are. Fundamental dimensions of wisdom that emerged from this include a) pragmatic knowledge of life, b) prosocial values, c) reflection and self-understanding, d) acknowledgement of and coping with uncertainty, and e) emotional intelligence (Bangen, Meeks, and Jeste, 2013).

More recently, some psychologists have proposed an even simpler model that includes only two dimensions: meta-cognition and morality. Meta-cognition basically means “thinking about thinking” and includes ideas like self-reflection, acknowledging uncertainty, etc. From this point of view, wisdom is like cognition and knowledge, but on steroids – taking in more perspectives, being more open to new ideas, and recognizing the limits of knowledge and what is even knowable. But, what good is all that if not focused on promoting the good in life for yourself and for others – that is where morality comes in. Nice and simple; I like that.

Wisdom from a practical perspective

So, what does this all mean? I think a final, practical perspective helps bring some of these ideas and nuances to life. Here are some of my favorite quotes or summaries of wisdom from a variety of sources:

Wisdom is the pursuit of a common good by balancing intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal interests across short and long-term orientations.

This is a simplified version of Robert Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom. The intrapersonal refers to the self, interpersonal refers to our relationships with others, and extrapersonal relates to society overall.

Wisdom is doing the right thing in the right way.

This, too, comes from a psychologist – Barry Schwartz.

And here are a few of my favorite quotes about wisdom from modern day non-psychologists:

Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.

William Durant

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.


And, finally, one that alludes to the distinction between being smart and being wise:

 Our future is a race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure that wisdom wins.

Stephen Hawking

So, what then is wisdom? Well, it’s complicated. And, it’s also context dependent. Being a wise doctor isn’t the same as being a wise professor, pilot, husband, or police officer. And we all know people who appear wise in some domains of their lives, but relatively foolish in others (e.g., the wise doctor who is a fool with their money). Putting it all together, here is a simple definition that I’ll provide about what it means to be wise that captures most of the above. Nothing new here – just trying to summarize this into something that is as simple yet complete as possible:

Wise people think and act in ways that promote their own well-being and values, both in the present and in the future.

That’s my take anyway, but I’d welcome to hear what you have to say as well.

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