After becoming the new CEO of a company that was enduring a stalled economy, Tony had an interesting dream. In this dream, he was hiking uphill on a rugged terrain path deep within an uncharted forest. Along the way, he discovered an odd-looking metal object protruding from the ground. It was different, like something he’d never seen before. He felt the bottle calling him, pulling him closer as he willingly obeyed and picked it up.
On wiping the dirt away to take a closer look at the metal object, its unique shape and tarnished finish began to reveal itself. In that instant, the air felt strange, a bit chilly for a few seconds, and suddenly, a genie appeared, offering Tony the chance to grant a wish in exchange for the genie’s freedom. What could he possibly wish for? The list was endless, eschewing riches, fame, or long life? However, Tony opted for the one thing he knew he needed to help him guide his company in the best way possible. He chose the gift of wisdom.
In today’s hyperactive digital age, attaining wisdom is a challenge. We are constantly glued to our phone screens, computers tablets, and TV’s; their endless apps are constantly vying for our immediate attention. Amid this struggle for attention, it has become increasingly difficult for many people to find the time and mental energy for engaging in insightful conversations, deep reflection, or exhibit emotional intelligence traits necessary in the pursuit of life itself.
Indeed, it is an unfortunate fact that many leaders in similar positions to Tony do not realize that wisdom is the principal thing. Although wisdom might require education, education doesn’t necessarily make people wise. As Professor Charles Gragg noted in his classic case study “Because Wisdom Can’t Be Told,” the mere act of listening to wise statements and sound advice doesn’t necessarily ensure the transfer of wisdom.
What does it mean to be wise?
Most people repeatedly equate wisdom with intelligence or being knowledgeable. Still, all too often, it becomes apparent that being intelligent and being wise are quite different. The world is never at a loss of brilliant people who intellectualize without really understanding the essence of things. In contrast, wise people try to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and strive to understand their knowledge limits better.
Wisdom implies more than merely being able to process information logically. Knowledge becomes wisdom when we can assimilate and apply this knowledge to make the right decisions. As the saying goes, ‘knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.’ Wise people are blessed with good judgment. Also, they possess the qualities of sincerity and authenticity, the former implying a willingness to say what you mean, the latter to be what you are.
Wise people are also humble; their humility is stemming from a willingness to recognize their knowledge limitations. This drives them to acknowledge that there are certain things they will never know. By accepting their ignorance, they are better prepared to bear their imperfections. Wise people know when what they are doing makes sense, but they are also humble enough to acknowledge when their actions aren’t good enough. Ironically, it is exactly this kind of self-knowledge that pushes them to do something about it.
Wisdom can be viewed from both a cognitive and emotional lens. Cognitively, wise people can see the big picture. They can put things in perspective, rise above their viewpoint and observe a situation from many different angles (thus avoiding simplistic black-and-white thinking). People acknowledged that their wisdom is reflective, introspective, and tolerant of ambiguity from an emotional perspective. They know how to manage negative emotions and possess empathy and compassion, qualities that differentiate them in an interpersonal context.
Ironically, what makes wisdom more important than success and riches is that it enables us to live well. Our mental and physical health flourishes when we are congruent with our beliefs and values. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Wise people are attuned to what constitutes a meaningful life. They know how to plan for and manage such a life. This implies that having a behavior that is consistent with their core values and a journey that requires self-exploration, self-knowledge, and self-responsibility.
Age doesn’t make us wiser
Unfortunately, while older people may be more capable than their younger counterparts, many never put their life experiences to good use. To acquire the required sense of reflectivity may necessitate the help of others. Educators, coaches, psychotherapists, and mentors can play a significant role by assisting with disseminating knowledge and helping those searching for wisdom work through challenging experiences, and encouraging them to work on emotional awareness, emotional self-regulation, relational skills, and mindfulness.
If we do not necessarily become wiser with increasing age, how can we acquire wisdom and accelerate its acquisition? Becoming wise is a very personal quest. It is only through our own experiences that we learn how to cope with the major tragedies and dilemmas embedded within life’s journey. In these experiences, we discover our capacities and learn how to create wisdom.
Setbacks are memorable growth experiences contributing to a deeper understanding of the fluctuations of life. Overcoming difficult situations contributes to an increased appreciation of life and the recognition of new possibilities. These experiences enable us to rise above our perspectives and see things as they are.
Several steps can be taken to expedite the road to wisdom. Numerous experiences with leaders and executives reveal that creating a learning community in which participants can tell their stories has a cathartic effect and helps the wisdom acquisition process. While written case studies can be helpful, life case studies narrated by participants have a much more dramatic, emotional impact. Telling and listening to personal stories is a starting point for a deeper understanding of oneself and others and helps participants learn to hear what’s not being said.
Wisdom and authenticity
A learning community is also a great place to practice open-mindedness. Encouraging participants to step out of their comfort zone and deal with very different people leads to a deeper understanding and acceptance of the ambiguous nature of things. If designed holistically, these communities are a great exercise in humility, giving participants a better awareness of their limitations as well as a greater ability to integrate their knowledge and experiences when dealing with the challenges ahead.
In their pursuit of wisdom, group members will be encouraged to learn from their mistakes, think before acting, and reveal their true self, to become more authentic in living their values.