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?