Popular belief suggests we gain wisdom through life experience—and with everything we’ve been through over the past year, we should all be brilliant sages, scholars and savants. But interestingly, wisdom has depth and nuance that is worth understanding—because it can be developed. Perhaps most importantly, it can be put to good use in our work and lives: making decisions, sustaining success and reinforcing relationships.
Wisdom isn’t reserved only for the elderly or the aged. Contrary to popular opinion, anyone can be wise based on their characteristics and skills—not just their years of experience. It’s more typical for the wise to be more senior, but it’s not a prerequisite.
In addition, wisdom tends to be correlated with less loneliness and it is also related to our biology. In a fascinating new study from the University of California, San Diego, researchers found a healthy gut microbiome (characterized by phylogenetic richness and diversity) was associated with higher levels of wisdom as well as compassion and engagement. Wow.
Wisdom is more than just knowledge, of course. It is the application of knowledge and the discernment that comes from perspective. This saying sums it up well, “Knowledge is knowing what to say. Wisdom is knowing when to say it.” Knowledge is required for wisdom. After all, you must have a foundation on which to build. But it’s possible to have knowledge—book smarts or awareness of something—without the judgement that goes along with how to use it.
Why You Need Wisdom
There are plenty of reasons you need wisdom—and the first reasons are happiness and fulfillment. When you make wise decisions, you keep your immediate needs in mind, along with holding long-term perspectives. This is key to making choices that bring you joy. In addition, wisdom allows you to make better contributions to your community by balancing your needs and boundaries with those of others.
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Wise people also pave the way toward greater fulfillment in their work because they can discern the best way to handle everything from relationships with colleagues to judgements about their customers—all important to effectiveness at work.
Previous research from the University of California, San Diego, makes it fairly straightforward to understand, build and develop wisdom. There are five key elements:
Consider others. One of the main components of wisdom is a sense of empathy toward others. It is altruism and the ability to cooperate. It makes sense: When making decisions and deciding on courses of action, the wise person thinks about how their actions will affect those around them. Since none of us live in a vacuum, this ability to consider the community, the connections and the bridges around you is important. In addition, wisdom is always about making decisions in context and understanding how any choice will affect not only ourselves, but those around us.
Manage yourself. Another element of wisdom is the ability to regulate emotions. As you seek to develop your wisdom, be aware of yourself and actively reflect on your own state of mind, opinions and attitudes. Then, be able to make choices about what you share and how you appropriately control your emotions. In addition, the wise are typically authentic. In our world of curated identities—where we put only our best faces forward through social media—those who are authentically themselves set a wise tone for their relationships.
Seek diversity. Those who research wisdom suggest it is associated with a tolerance of diverse values, but it’s probably even more than that. Wisdom demands ongoing learning, and this can only come from true openness to different points of view and a belief we don’t already have all the answers. Wise people also have a sense of humility, realizing their point of view is not the only one and appreciating how much they don’t know. As the quote from Sockman goes, “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” Wisdom demands asking questions and listening to expand understanding, appreciating all that is unknown.
Embrace uncertainty. Another element of wisdom is the ability to deal effectively with ambiguity. As humans, we crave clarity and certainty, so the maturity of wisdom allows us to work through this natural inclination and find ways to make judgements, take action and be constructive even without much clarity. It’s similar to agile expertise, in which small steps and incremental improvement allow for continuation on a journey—in which we aren’t stagnating or falling behind—making steady progress despite ambuigity.
Take a long-term view. Wisdom is also built through the ability to put aside short-term gain to make decisions that serve for the longer horizon—investing in yourself through additional schooling for development of your career or avoiding the additional cupcake in favor of the dress you want to fit into for your daughter’s wedding.
While wisdom can sometimes be the purview of older or more senior members of our community, it is also helpful perspective to apply to our work—no matter what our age. Whether you’re seeking to make better choices in business or for your community, a little wisdom can go a long way.