What is wisdom?

What makes a person wise? What do they do that sets them apart?

I started asking myself these questions a couple of years ago when I encountered the work of Bent Flyvbjerg. His book, Making Social Science Matter, sought to develop a research approach aimed at improving society’s practical wisdom. I thought practical wisdom was a great thing for society to develop, but what exactly is it? Since then, I have applied this approach to my own research and uncovered a treasure trove of information about what wisdom is, how it operates (or fails to operate) in organizations, and how we can develop our capacity to act wisely.

We all know wise people

You’ve probably encountered people you felt were wise, maybe a teacher, mentor, family member, or friend. Take a moment and think about them. What do they do that leads you to consider them wise? Do they lash out at other people, or do they put effort into seeking to understand other’s perspectives? Do they focus on their own gain, or do they pursue broader, more inclusive goals? Are they competent in their field? How do they act when they don’t know something? Do they pretend they know everything, or do they humble themselves and seek advice from others? Do they sit passively, quietly knowing what should be done, or do they take action to do what should be done?

Four thousands of years, scholars and philosophers have explored what it means to be wise. As you might imagine, there are differences in the conceptualizations of wisdom across time, cultures, and individuals. For example, if you’ll allow me to speak in sweeping generalizations, Western concepts of wisdom often focus on decision-making in a complex and chaotic world. Eastern philosophy, conversely, tends to view wisdom as inner spirituality, balance, and harmony.

For all those differences, though, when I read the literature on wisdom, I see three themes emerge again and again.

  • Values guide wise action
  • Knowledge is required but insufficient on its own for wise action
  • Wisdom is action-oriented

Values guide wise action

Generally, the people we consider wise act in the pursuit of values we honour. Different people and groups pursue different values, and this is partly why one person’s sage is another’s fool. Regardless, we see people that act by a set of values we agree with as possessing wisdom.

Importantly, I have discussed elsewhere that those we call wise often recognize that other people or groups honour different values. Though those with wisdom may be guided by their own values, they seek to act in a way that respects the values of others. As I have discussed in another post, they recognize that a flourishing social system requires a variety of values.

Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action

Often, the people we consider wise possess considerable expertise in their field. They know how to do the job at hand and have sufficient skill and experience that they are a font of insight. Why, then, do I say that knowledge alone is insufficient for wisdom?

Consider what situations call for wisdom. Do you need wisdom to, let’s say, make toast? Not really. You put bread in the toaster, press the button, wait, and voila–toast. It is a rote task. We know how to make toast, but that knowledge does not make us wise. Typically, situations call for wisdom when they are complicated, challenging, and shrouded in ambiguity. They require us to use our knowledge creatively. Making toast requires us to use rote knowledge. Figuring out how to feed a nation of millions struck by poverty, war, and famine involves wisdom.

Moreover, those we consider wise recognize the limits of their knowledge. As I have discussed before, they realize knowledge takes many forms, and they are willing to learn from others and experiment when the situation requires them to act beyond the boundaries of what they know.

Wisdom is action-oriented

Wisdom is not knowing the right thing. It is doing the right thing. And it is not just doing the right thing but doing it effectively. Those we consider wise get things done.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, effective action requires people to understand how power operates within their social setting. It then needs the courage and motivation to exercise power in pursuit of a goal.

Share your stories

I would love to learn about the wise people in your life. Please take a moment to share the story of those you consider wise in the comments below.

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