Cultivating Wisdom for Uncertain Times

I first began thinking about how we can cultivate more wisdom when I was reflecting on the differences between fields of knowledge, such as the sciences and mathematics; and the wisdom traditions from around the world, such as religion, philosophy, and spirituality.  If you look at what texts have emerged from these two broad areas of human endeavour over the last 500, 1000, or even 2000 years the sciences seem to have seen a lot of progress with the core messages and underpinning concepts and assumptions having completely transformed; while the texts from the wisdom traditions contain basically the same messages, expressed in subtly different ways over and over again. 

If you look at a book on biology, for instance, from even a thousand years ago and a modern biology text you will see big differences – most people would say big advances.  If you look at the Tao Te Ching, thought to be one of the most ancient spiritual texts, and compared its essential message with Eckhart Tolle’s modern classic ‘The Power of Now,’ for instance, you’d see a very similar core message.  With wisdom, different traditions may vary a bit but within any given tradition the core teachings, messages, underpinning concepts and assumptions are basically the same over time. 

Now, this suggests to me that either the sciences have been progressed by generations of brilliant minds while wisdom has been, at best, handed down faithfully by some minimally creative bozo’s, or that what is being passed on is profoundly different in each case.  The first possibility strikes me as extremely unlikely!  It would be very hard to argue that there haven’t been some brilliant minds and deeply insightful people working, studying and teaching in the wisdom traditions even in recent times, let alone over the centuries and millennia.  So, the question for me then becomes:

What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

There are various differences I have explored (set out in a longer article here) but a core difference is that knowledge is quantifiable whereas wisdom is unquantifiable.

By ‘quantifiable’ I mean that knowledge can be clearly recorded and tested for.  We are overflowing with sources of knowledge: from the millions, if not billions of books in existence to academic papers, to the internet.  We have lots of knowledge very clearly recorded, and for many people, easily accessed.  You can also relatively easily test whether or not someone has a particular body of knowledge by asking them questions and seeing if they get them right.  That’s mostly what we do in schools with testing (and by schools I mean academic environments in general).   This isn’t limited to cognitive knowledge either.  Even if we break it down into domains of knowledge using a model such as Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, practical skills can be recorded and tested for and while growth in feelings or emotional areas is hard to record as knowledge (and may bridge knowledge and wisdom as I am defining them), sophistication in this realm is increasingly measurable using psychological methodology.

Conversely, wisdom is unquantifiable, it can’t be recorded and it can’t be tested for.  “What about all those wisdom books you mentioned before?” I hear you cry.  Ah well, I think there’s a reason that the core messages have stayed the same over the centuries: they are not about recording wisdom, they are maps to guide us towards cultivating our own wisdom.  If you are recording knowledge then as the data changes, the record must change, but if you are trying to provide a map or set of sign-posts for someone to have their own experience of life’s essential guiding principles then that is not going to change generation to generation.  I would argue partly because these things have a timelessness about them, but more concretely, if knowledge can be passed from one generation to the next then one generation starts from the point the last one ended and progress is therefore linear.  If wisdom must be based on your personal lived experience then while one generation can be guided by their elders, they can only ever progress for the length of a human life.  Wisdom is cyclical in each generation rather than being linear. 

In an ideal situation where we have an unbroken lineage of wisdom we may be able to see a kind of ‘spiralling upwards’ of cyclical progress over generations but such progress is going to be much less direct than the linear progress of a knowledge discipline.  The system of maintenance is also much more fragile because it is based on the intentional cultivation of inter-generational relationships rather than the preservation of documented concepts and ideas.  How long do you think a library would last if a book was destroyed every time you had an argument with your parents?!

So, while I continue to work on writing and sharing the theories and insights I have researched and developed on how we design learning for cultivating wisdom rather than only focusing on knowledge transfer, I have also started working on a kind of wisdom text specifically for modern leaders.  That is the group I primarily serve in my work and a group of people whose power to affect change for good in the world I profoundly believe in.  I hope my words help you in these truly testing times.


Understanding, wisdom, knowing

All too often, when we are trying to understand something we get so focused on dissecting it that we lose sight of the fact that in order to dissect it, we first have to kill it.

We reduce a vibrant, living thing to a pile of lifeless pieces.  The parts are far less than the whole.

To communicate about something I have to talk about it, but my words will always fall short of the lived experience.

To avoid pointlessly sacrificing experience on the altar of precision, we must learn to value the subjective as well as the objective.  We must balance a desire for tangible results with a respect for the intangible nature of many of life’s wonders.

If you ever want to find real wisdom you have to make peace with Not Knowing.

People go looking for answers not realising that questions often make better allies in uncertain times.


If, like me you have days where you cannot see the way forwards in an increasingly confusing and chaotic world, I invite you to consider:  What question can you 'live into' which could guide your actions in place of needing answers or certainty?

If knowledge could solve our problems Wikipedia would have saved the world

Increasingly, in politics and in business, leaders are talking about a VUCA world. That is an acronym standing for volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous.

It was originally developed as a concept in the military but I think most of us would recognise these factors in our world today.  While change might be, in some ways, no greater in scale than other times in human history, the pace of change is dramatically faster. As with most things, in response to this we have followed our habitual reaction and sought to gather knowledge to arm ourselves to face this difficult time, but knowledge just isn’t doing the job. 

If knowledge could solve the world’s problems, then a combination of the internet, Google, and big data would be in the process of fixing everything: The fact is knowledge is not enough. We have to take that knowledge, we have to take all the data and process it, filter it, make sense of it, and more than anything else make meaning out of it.

In many ways we are well equipped to do this: humans after all are meaning making machines. We are constantly bombarded with huge quantities of information through our senses and unconsciously filter this according to our beliefs, values, feelings, and previous experience. The problem with this is that if at some point we have done some less constructive meaning making, interpreting the data in ways which limit our possibilities, then that pattern of meaning making can become habitual every time we experience similar circumstances.

We have tried to counteract this potential for unconscious bias in our judgement by having more knowledge, more data, to balance the picture.  However, even if we can access the right kind of information in the moment we need it, the speed of change in the modern world means that as fast as we can generate new knowledge, that knowledge is made irrelevant.  This is why I believe that we need to cultivate our capacity to process the knowledge and information that we have in order to make better judgements. Wisdom is what enables us to make the judgement calls, to synthesise knowledge and wield it creatively in such a way that the world makes more sense after we have applied our wisdom.

This is how we come to label someone as ‘Wise’: they offer a perspective or make a judgement, under difficult circumstances and often with limited data. They don’t rely on having exhaustive knowledge of the situation.  Based on the weight and gravity of their past experience they make a judgement call, and it seems to be a good one. This is not a diatribe against knowledge, let me be clear, we need all the knowledge we can get as well. The problem I’m trying to highlight is that we have developed such a strong societal bias towards knowledge generation, rationality, and the tangible that we are neglecting the cultivation of wisdom, creativity, and our intangible faculties. We need to bring balance to our development or we may rationalise ourselves out of existence.

As William Bruce Cameron wrote:

“… not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”[1]


[1] Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking by William Bruce Cameron

Why does wisdom matter?

To some of you reading this it might seem obvious why we need more wisdom in the world but I want to explore this because no matter how important we might intuitively understand wisdom to be, it is a faculty that is being undermined. We have a huge societal bias towards the generation and passing on of knowledge which to some degree must go hand-in-hand with a broader bias towards the tangible and away from the intangible, towards the sciences and away from the arts and humanities. While many, probably most of us, love at least some of the elements of the arts, the reality is that we are not investing well in the cultivation of the creative side of human nature or the methods by which wisdom is generated.  There has been a steady drive over the last 30 years (at least, arguably this has been going on for MUCH longer) towards an elevation of the rational mind, knowledge, and a science-driven, reductionist view of the world to divine status.  Those things might seem strange to talk about in terms of divinity but as we have invested more heavily through finance, attention, and belief, in the sciences; spiritual and religious perspectives have been progressively dismissed and creative endeavour increasingly devalued. What is the relevance, you might ask, of all this to wisdom?  Knowledge is tangible, wisdom is intangible. I will explore and explain this in one of the Key Concepts articles but when we seek to cultivate wisdom the primary sources that may help us to do this more skilfully come from the spiritual, philosophical, and creative traditions. It is no mistake that such traditions are sometimes lumped together and labelled “the wisdom traditions.”

Why does wisdom matter?  Because it is the partner and balance to knowledge in enabling us to create a better world and its cultivation has been neglected for too long.  As the carving over the entrance to The Rockerfeller Centre says: "Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times" and we could sure use some more stability in these troubled times.