Defining Wisdom


From the Library of Congress. Caption underneath the painting reads, “IGNORANCE IS THE CVRSE OF GOD, KNOWLEDGE IS THE WING WHEREWITH WE FLY TO HEAVEN.”

Clearly, the 21st Century presents different challenges and opportunities than the 20th. To prosper we should think about developing mental abilities and skills that are in demand that few have — abilities such as wisdom.

Ad On Wisdom

Wisdom is a rare and valuable ability. Considered a gift of the the divine in some cultures, it’s built over time if one learns The Essence of Wisdom.


Words of Wisdom Quotes

Some quotes are particularly interesting. You might call these wisdom quotes because you its  true, but are not sure why.  Sometimes years later you see it again and go, “Oh, now I understand.”

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” — Socrates

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” — George Bernard Shaw

“The longer the explanation, the bigger the lie.” — Chinese Proverb

“Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.” — Unknown

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” —  Sun Tzu

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” — The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Characteristics of Those Who Act Wise

According to Hall (2013), a wise person exhibits the following characteristics:
    • They see in shades of grey; i.e. their decisions are nuanced. Unlike authoritarian personalities, who think in terms of dichotomies, these people think in black and white terms (i.e it’s right or wrong but cannot be both).
    • More social than selfish. Clearly, someone who is selfish would be interested in acting in the best interests of another.
    • Focus on developing understanding. These people are naturally curious, they may have book learning, but they also learn from life.
    • Deciding to be wise. Since wisdom is not based on genetics, and their doesn’t seem to be a defined related to IQ, it’s a mental ability

Of course, wisdom is especially important for those who lead and exercise power, whether that is political, economic or military.  This is especially the case since human civilization faces a number of stressors that can lead to collapse.

It would also be helpful if senior business leaders could chart a course where what is good for the company would be good for society. This is the exact opposite to the sentiment attributed to an automobile executive  which went, “Wants good for General Motors (GM), is good for the country.” But many business people no double not see what is wrong with a more general statement such as, “What’s good for business, is good of the country.” A wiser person would have understand the nature of externalities.

Hall, Stephen (2013). The Older is Wiser Hypothesis NY Times, May 6.

Meaning of Wisdom

Generally speaking, wisdom is not a well studied area in psychology or sociology. But there are a few people who publish extensively in the area. One of these individuals is Monika Ardelt and she has made available her research on wisdom.

Her approach suggests that wisdom has three general characteristics: a reflective, cognitive and affective side. But this is not the only view as the article, “The Science of Older and Wiser,” points out. Many have commented that seniors or getting old causes some to become wiser. Not all surely, some 70 year olds are just as immature as they were when they were 17. 

The Practice of Wisdom

It’s hard to find individuals everyone would consider wise. And sometimes this understanding develop only after someone has passed. 

Below are a couple of individuals who speak in the area of psychology, but what they are saying has broader social implications

Tim Kasser: The Psychological Impact of Materialism

In b-schools and businesses throughout the world, smart individuals are putting serious thought into getting you to buy something-maybe something you really don’t need. Discover the impact of consumerism on your mental health. 

Donald Kalshed: Trauma and the Soul 

The focus here is understanding the problems and opportunities in individual development. It’s a bit of developmental psychology that among other things discusses suffering.

Test Your Wisdom: How Wise are You?

There are a number of different ways to test your wisdom. Two are presented hear. 

Test 1: The Scientific Approach

It’s the age of stats, anything that can’t be quantified is suspect. So it had to happen, a multiple choice test to see if you are wise or not. It reminds me of a estimating the beauty of the Grand Canyon buy looking at a map of Arizona. Still, it’s better than nothing.

Take this quick 36 question on-line test hosted by the NY Times.

Test 2: The Metaphoric Approach

Meynier: Wisdom Defending Youth Against Love

Prior to the rise of science, one way to  judge whether someone wise was their ability to use teaching stories. Teaching stories contain hidden meanings. Wisdom is required to devise the story and to interpret what was meant. Take the story below, that comes from within Sufism. In this spiritual tradition within Islam.  In this tradition there is an individual by the name of Nasrudin. Nasrudin does foolish things, similar to the average man or woman.

A man is walking home late one night sees an anxious Mulla Nasrudin down on all fours, crawling on his hands and knees searching frantically under a streetlight. “Mulla, what have you lost?” the passer-by asks. “I am searching for my key,” Nasrudin says worriedly. Soon both men are down on their knees under the streetlight, looking for the lost key. After some time, the man asks Nasrudin, “Tell me Mulla, do you remember where exactly did you drop the key?” Nasrudin waves his arm back toward the darkness and says, “I lost the key inside my house…” Said the passerby, “Then why are you searching for the key  here?”  “Because there is more light here than inside my house,”  Nasrudin replied.

Do you know what this means? Here is one answer.

    • Lost: A Problem
    • The Key: The answer
    • Light: What is known
    • Darkness: What is unknown

Therefore you have to sometimes seek the answers to your problems in the darkness of what you don’t know, rather than the light of existing knowledge.

Wisdom Resources and References

Ardelt, M. (2005). How wise people cope with crises and obstacles in life. ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation, 28(1), 7-19.

Grant, Adam (2013). How to Think Like a Wise Person. Psychology Today. August 28.
Hall, Stephen (2007). The Older is Wiser HypothesisNY Times, May 6.

Nonaka,Ikujiro and Takeuchi, Hirotaka (2012). The Big Idea: The Wise Leaderr, Harvard Business Review

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