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Room for Wisdom

October 2, 2011

AThe Thinker colleague mentioned that he was not able to meet with me over the weekend. He was attending a “Wisdom Weekend” course and would be tied up. Really? Wisdom in only one weekend? I chuckled and made some comment about how he’d be really scary if he had any more wisdom and wondered if he was teaching the course. But of course, this conversation started me down yet another rabbit hole of inquiry. What is wisdom?

Who is wise? What are the characteristics? Who are the folks we think of as mentors, mensches or crones? Who do we think of as wise leaders? Certainly not all leaders in business, politics, education or other organizations are wise. It seems that today, precious few really wise people are engaged in public life. Or maybe they are just overshadowed by those ideological folks spouting out wisdom they gained over the weekend – or through the latest polls.

Wisdom then is not a prerequisite for leadership – although it does seem to help to have some. Wise people do not always have a formal education – although it seems to help to have some. Wise people do seem to have a lot of experience and knowledge, so they tend to be “older” rather than younger. Still, I often say that a young person is “wise beyond their years.” What might that mean?

Here’s what I’ve noticed with regard to wisdom.

Humility: People I consider to be wise, that is having gained wisdom, do not consider themselves particularly wise. They are humble. With wisdom comes a profound humility. I have never heard a person whom I consider to be wise ever state that they have wisdom. They are usually embarrassed when someone calls them wise. They do not flaunt their knowledge nor do they insist that their view be accepted as the correct view. I rarely hear a wise person state something as “THE” truth. So being wise is NOT believing that one is wise or possesses the truth.

Experience: As I think of the folks I’ve referred to as wise, almost all have wide experience in the world and so they are generally older in years – but definitely not calcified in their learning or thought processes. They seek new experiences and new knowledge and do not confuse knowledge and/or experience with wisdom. They do not let their experiences determine their future, and they do let their knowledge and experiences evaluate risk levels. So being wise is NOT considering that learning ceases when school or employment ends. Wisdom is NOT synonymous with knowledge.

Practical: Wise people connect the dots, they see the big picture. They see both the forest AND the trees. I have heard this referred to as “common sense” by some folks. I think what this means to many is that the wise seem to be able to take an abstract concept, theory or proposition and apply it in a practical, action-oriented manner to our social construct. So being wise is NOT viewing things in isolation without considering the context.

Thoughtful: It seems to me that those I consider wise rarely if ever make quick decisions or take quick action. They think about things. If they do seem to make a quick decision, I usually find out that they had prepared for this particular decision well in advance. Or perhaps I will find out that they had a well-thought-out process for weighing the circumstances and context in which they find themselves and used that process efficiently to reach what appears to me to be a “quick decision.” In actuality, it was not reached without forethought. So being wise is NOT making snap decisions or “shooting from the hip.” Being wise is NOT engaging in “group think.”

Flexible: I do not know anyone who is wise who refuses to change his or her view in the face of data and/or evidence demanding that they do so. They are not casual about this, they are deliberate. Yet they refuse to avoid data that may disprove their view. That is sometimes disconcerting for me. When I speak with my mentors and they have changed their position on a particular topic, I usually am taken aback. Wait! You said capital punishment is justified in some cases and now you are saying you cannot find justification in any case? What made you change your mind? The wise are not afraid to be different from others. So being wise is NOT holding on to a view without challenging it periodically. Being wise is NOT conforming to others’ views.

Self-knowledge: The mentors in my life know their fundamental organizing principles or values. They can, most often, eloquently express their value system when asked to do so. They can explain how they have come by those principles and rarely are they “given to them.” By that I mean, they have developed their own principles from deep examination of what works for them and what seems to best model how the world and people around them really work. Being wise is NOT leading an unexamined life.

Somehow, the wise people in my life – the crones, mensches and mentors – leave room for wisdom. That is to say, they clear their heads. They really listen and observe “newly.” They do not let past experience determine what they are seeing or hearing now. The wise leaders take the same approach that Gen. Stanley McChrystal takes, they “Listen, Learn then Lead.” They take risks, but not unevaluated risks. They learn from failure and are not afraid to chance failure. They are not afraid to take action.

When I consider someone “wise beyond their years,” I believe I’m expressing that a young person, even with limited experience in life, has figured out that they don’t know everything, that they can listen, learn then lead, that their view of the world isn’t the only view and that they can and should take the time to consider before they choose. They also “get” that they can choose and will have to live with the consequences. They accept responsibility and are willing to be held accountable for their choices. They will only become wiser as time goes on because they “leave room for wisdom.”

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