What is Wisdom?

After all, if we don’t know what it is, how can we confidently go about developing it? 

Obviously there could be many definitions of wisdom but there are some ways to qualify it which helpfully make this intangible faculty, tangible enough that we can find ways to cultivate it.  In a world where we need more wisdom, being able to design ways to cultivate it is useful!

The short, simple definition is that…

Wisdom is experience, distilled through a process of self-reflection to enable insight and good judgement. 

However, this is a little too simplistic for something of such depth and significance and therefore only partially helps us to cultivate more of it.  Not least of all, it leaves out the roles of interpersonal relationships in cultivating wisdom which I think is key if our wisdom is to have social benefits as well as personal ones.  There's lots more to explore, that's why there is a book on the way.  Let’s dig a little deeper…

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 it’s essential message with Eckhart Tolle’s modern classic ‘The Power of Now,’ for instance, you’d see 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?

As I considered this question I came across a quote from David Brooks[1]:

Wisdom doesn’t consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a field. It consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”

While it is still strongly focused around knowledge, I love this as a definition.  It has a poetry and humility about it which really speaks to me, but as I was thinking about this, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of senior leaders about wisdom.  To speak with any validity to these deeply pragmatic people, I felt I needed to get really practical about what I meant when I said ‘Wisdom.’  Going back to where I started, it seemed most useful to compare and contrast knowledge with wisdom and what I came up with is the following simple chart:

Knowledge compared with wisdom in Wisdom Economy

As you can see, they both have advantages and disadvantages and this work isn’t about arguing for wisdom instead of knowledge, I think we desperately need both.  The reason I’m focusing on wisdom is because all of our systems are brilliantly calibrated to capture, value and assess knowledge, while I see wisdom as being progressively lost, de-valued, and dismissed.  I am not against knowledge, I am for wisdom.

So, let me explain what I mean in my chart.  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 (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 second point in the chart is linked to this first one: that wisdom must be lived for yourself, it cannot be passed on.  You can be mentored in developing your own wisdom but it can’t be directly handed down.  With knowledge you just have to have access to the information, you don’t even have to have access to the person who made the discoveries – it’s relatively easy to pass on.  For any of you that have older children, or perhaps you remember your own adolescence, if you have ever tried to give a teenager advice, you’ll know that your wisdom cannot be passed on!  Typically it works like this: You offer advice (your hard-earned wisdom), they ignore it and do what they like anyway, and if you and they are lucky then a few years later they offer you the same piece of advice you gave them, in their own words, as if you had never spoken.  People, to a significant degree, have to make their own mistakes – and that’s one of the ways we gain wisdom that I’ll explore in other articles.  Wisdom cannot be passed on, it can at best be cultivated.

By ‘transferable’ I mean something different than the capacity to pass it on.  I mean this in terms of the application – that knowledge is mostly specific to a particular field you are working on, and the more knowledgeable you get to be in a given topic, generally, the more specialised that knowledge becomes.  When there is so much knowledge out there, this is a natural consequence of that abundance.  Wisdom on the other hand is more attitudinal.  It is not as specific and, although you can develop wisdom in the environment you spend your time in, generally speaking a lot of that wisdom will still be applicable when you move to a new environment.  If we go back to Brooks’ contention that wisdom is: “knowing how to treat knowledge” then that can be applied to any body of knowledge in any field.  It is an attitude towards knowledge rather than knowledge itself, and that attitude can help you to approach any environment in a more effective way than you would have done even 6 months ago, but certainly 10 years ago.  This is why the process of distillation through self-reflection is so important: without it, experience becomes just another body of knowledge “I’ve done that before and it works like this…”  The process of self-reflection enables us to derive meaning from our experiences; meaning about the way the world works, who we are as people, and how we learn and grow as human beings.  It is this experiential distillate which becomes wisdom, not the raw experience itself.  This is more like the learning that is intended to happen in traditional Oriental martial arts.  To begin with you are studying the techniques just to learn them (knowledge) but eventually the practicing of technique becomes a microcosm in which you are able to study the patterns of your behaviour and the interplay of forces as they are expressed in the world: the microcosm becomes an environment to study the nature of the macrocosm of the whole of life and human consciousness.  I would suggest that any activity can potentially offer a microcosm to help us understand the macrocosm but we have to approach it in this way and work with the discreet activities of the specific environment as metaphor’s for the larger patterns that play out in the broader sweep of our life in the world[2].  When we engage with an activity in this way it can become a gateway to cultivating wisdom but without it, it will at best be an exercise in knowledge repetition.  I think that is part of why many people become disenchanted and disengaged with their work because it becomes an exercise in the repetitive application of essentially the same body of knowledge rather than an elegantly defined microcosm within which they can better understand themselves and life itself.

What I am describing as ‘in practice’ opposed to ‘in theory’ is that wisdom is, by its nature, in contact with life as it is lived in the rough-and-tumble of daily life – roots deep in the dirt.  Knowledge does not innately have this quality; it can be recorded, passed on, and digested in isolation.  We have the phrase “Ivory Tower Academic” to express this exact phenomenon.  This is a label we have for someone who is the pinnacle of achievement in their field of knowledge – an expert in the truest sense of the word.  But, that knowledge has been developed in such isolation, the atmosphere of their thinking so rarefied that it is distant from day-to-day experience to the extent that it no longer seems relevant and applicable.  There is much knowledge and many academics who are wonderful practitioners as well, but this distancing from human experience is inherently possible by the nature of knowledge and simply cannot happen with wisdom.  If it has become that distant, it’s not wisdom anymore.  As I said earlier, wisdom must be lived – personally and intimately in contact with the realities of life.  Graduate trainees can be a perfect example of this kind of knowledge developed in isolation.  In my work on programs developing graduate management trainees I have worked with young people, many of whom are far more academically qualified than I am – arguably more knowledgeable than I am by most conventional measures – and part of what I think we have done in those programs is create an environment where it is safe for them to have their first car crash of learned knowledge with human relationships and professional challenge.  No few of them arrive armoured in their arrogance and surrounded by the golden aura of having been the best of the best in their educational establishments, and often they will leave a little more humble, a little more human, and I would suggest, hopefully a little wiser.  They have learned better how to wield the wealth of knowledge they have gained through schooling, and as Brooks’ poetically puts it, they have a better “…feel for the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”

It seems important at this point to clarify the distinction between wisdom and experience.  It would be understandable if you are struggling to see the difference.  I have touched on this already and I will speak more about this in other articles, but for now I just wanted to explore it a little more.  I would suggest that you can have plenty of experience without gaining wisdom.  Most of us will have met someone who has been working or living in an environment for many years and doesn’t seem any wiser now than someone 2 weeks in.  Most of us will recognise the character in the workplace who, in spite of their many years on the job is still a pain in the bum to work with and has relatively little to offer except completion of the most basic tasks.  In Britain the term ‘Jobsworth’ is often associated with such individuals.  Developing wisdom is not just a matter of passively sitting somewhere for many years.  The passing of time helps with the cultivation of wisdom and cannot be bypassed by speed-reading or having an eidetic memory, but it is not the only condition.  Someone can have a lot of experience and have developed very little wisdom.  As I have said, wisdom needs to be cultivated through self-reflection.  Just saying that isn’t necessarily helpful, that’s why I will have lots more to share here exploring how to engage in that essential cultivation process, how to shape your self-reflection.  For now it’s enough to know that experience and wisdom, while linked, are not the same.  I would also add a note of compassion for those who have many years of experience but little wisdom: we are all living with the legacy of many generations of systemic neglect or even destruction of the methods by which wisdom is cultivated in ourselves and those who come after us.  While laziness or just sheer apathy may well have played a part in the missed opportunity for growing wisdom, a decimated cultural legacy has affected all of us, and many people genuinely don’t know any other way to be.  Part of my hope with this blog and the coming book is that it could be part of a return to collective wisdom which will make it much less likely people will numb themselves to the passing of days and years and miss the beauty, wonder, and learning that life itself has to offer us.

The qualities of linear and cyclical are neither positive or negative particularly and I will explore them more fully in their own article but I wanted to include them here briefly for completeness of my definition.  Essentially knowledge acquisition and even generation is a linear process.  You acquire one piece of knowledge which is foundational to enable the acquisition of the next piece or body of knowledge.  You would struggle to jump straight to algebra without first learning basic mathematics.  This linear development of knowledge, as I have mentioned already, can be passed from one person to another thereby enabling knowledge to be cumulative from one generation to the next.  Wisdom cultivation is cyclical both in how we cultivate it for ourselves and in how it translates between generations.  If I am essentially distilling insights about how life and the world works then I will keep hitting the same subjects over and over again.  Life, death, love, loss, meaning, purpose, communication, relationships, patterns of behaviour, a felt sense for when to take action and when to pause and see how things play out: all of these things will be themes I hit up against in life over and over again.  When I am doing the work of wisdom cultivation though, I should encounter these issues subtly differently each time and hopefully with greater maturity and grace.  They come around in cycles and in an ideal world in each cycle I ‘spiral higher’ developmentally and my growing wisdom enables a more skilful response to the challenges in my life.  This means that I cannot pass on my wisdom to someone else because it is a result of direct contact with life’s realities, but if I know how to and there is the social context for this to be accepted by the other person I may be able to help them to navigate the cycles of their life.  I may be able to help others to make the spiralling upwards more likely rather than the cycle becoming painfully and numbingly repetitive, making life less rather than more meaningful.  I will discuss this elsewhere in the context of mentoring but for now hopefully this brings together the idea of wisdom’s cyclical nature more clearly.

So, finally in my chart we come to replaceable and irreplaceable.  Hopefully you are already seeing how this applies to these now distinct fields of knowledge and wisdom, but I want to be explicit.

Seeing the world only through the lens of knowledge, as long as you have a record of their knowledge, a person can be replaced.  If you find someone with a similar background in learning then they will be able to read the notes of the person they are replacing and be up to speed fast.  If the last few things they were doing are missing, the largely linear nature of knowledge means that there’s a good chance of extrapolating what they were developing.  Even if you just get someone with a very high IQ, good basic education, excellent recall and then make sure they can speed-read, then you can replace someone almost from scratch relatively fast (at least compared with how long it took to grow that person in the first place!).

Most of us would recognise that what I’ve just described is rarely how it works.  It can sometimes, I have seen people in organisations replaced ‘like-for-like’ with shocking speed at times, sometimes even quite successfully, but much of the time we’d recognise that the person isn’t replaced and the ‘getting up to speed’ takes much longer than our efficiency-driven systems would like to tell us is possible.  So while I think that many of us would recognise the irreplaceable nature of a person it can be rationalised away because even in the Knowledge Economy with its aspirations to valuing people, knowledge can be replaced – or even upgraded.  I think this rationalisation is made at our peril.  When we fail to recognise the innate and specific value of other human beings it’s easy to make them less than human, just cogs in a machine.  And once they are not fully human we don’t have to treat them like real people, we can treat them like things.  And you only have to look at the world’s hazardously growing rubbish-tips to see how we, as a culture, treat things: they have a limited value and when we decide that has run out we throw them away.  I am of course not recommending total stagnation – change is necessary, in fact I’m advocating it here.  But the attitude we take to that change, the way we create it together, the way we treat each other, and the responsibility we collectively take for making a world where people learn, grow and are honoured for that rather than becoming ‘obsolete’ is deeply needed.  I think a wonderful step towards that kind of change exists in the opportunity we have to re-learn how to recognise and value wisdom rather than, at best ignoring it as un-measurable, and at worst dismissing it as irrelevant.


[1] In his book ‘The Social Animal’

[2] I explore some principle for how to do this in my book: ‘A Little Book on Finding Your Way – Zen and the Art of Doing Stuff