Wisdom is Never What You Think It is

It is more than the sum of knowledge and life experiences

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“Akrasia” — The first time I heard the word, I thought it would be one of that small country out of 195 nations that I didn’t care to remember during my geography lessons. But of course, I was wrong. It turns out to be a word. “Akrasia” has Greek origin & means “lacking command (over oneself).”

In other words, it means — Things that we should be doing, but still, we don’t.

After knowing the exact meaning of this exotic-sounding country, I don’t think I would prefer to have its citizenship. Because (like everyone else), I would like to believe that I am in control of my life.

Though, I need not struggle hard to come up with strings of contrary pieces of evidence in my daily life to prove to me otherwise.

That apart, deep within our hearts, we all know what we should be doing, and still, we do seem to have an endless list of excuses for not doing it.

I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t know that for a better and more balanced life we should eat our meals in moderation, consistently exercise every day, follow a routine of regular sleep, have a sense of gratitude towards whatever little we might have, practice some mindfulness, spend more time with family & friends, have real conversations with other people without judging them, read a book instead of binge-watching Netflix, not get too obsessed with our goals, and stop buying all the stuff that we don’t need.

Sounds very fair, straight, and reasonable. Isn’t it?

Despite knowing all these, why is it hard for us to do what we already know we should be doing?

Because like most difficult things, Knowledge is the easy part; it’s the execution where we often end up making a complete fool of ourselves.


“If more information and knowledge were the answer, then we would all be billionaires with perfect abs.” — Derek Sivers

There is such a widespread tendency to mistake Knowledge for Wisdom.

According to Professor Staudinger, life span psychologist, and professor at Columbia University, Wisdom is lot to do with self-insight; the ability to demonstrate personal growth; self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history; understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and an awareness of life’s ambiguities (the most difficult one to make peace with).

Knowledge helps us in making a better living; that’s why there is a higher premium to acquire it. Since Wisdom takes a lot of effort and time, there are not many takers for it. Besides, you might need a lifelong practice to get good at it.

But in this attention-deficit world, very few seem to have the patience for a lifelong practice. And those of us who do have the patience is well aware of the process.

They know that learning from Knowledge has to go through the organic process of practical application to give it a fair chance of transforming itself into lifelong Wisdom.

And since it might take a lot of time to go through pain, perseverance, sweat, errors, and tears, therefore, most of us are always in search of a shortcut to cross the bridge of wisdom?

And that’s precisely our problem — we aren’t helping ourselves by looking for shortcuts where there is none.

Knowledge As Your Savior?

Allow me to introduce you to Smith, who knows a thing or two about life and its unpredictable lessons.

Coming from a financially broke family, as a kid, Smith knew precisely how money, especially the lack of it, was capable of snatching all the joy out of living. So growing up, he had no ambiguity about what he wanted from his life.

Having a special mission in life helped him immensely in successfully navigating the unforeseen valleys of his life. On his way to success, he managed to master all the possible tricks of the trade that could keep him at the top of his game.

During his formative years, external stimuli combined with default cognitive biases and peculiar emotional regulations played a pivotal role in shaping how Smith ended up prioritizing things in his life, building his unique set of life experiences.

But all these experiences proved to be woefully inadequate to prepare him for the shock of his life. His beloved wife of 15 years chose to desert him for someone who was just a regular guy with receding hairline & ordinary job.

The Bigger Picture

In his book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, Neel Burton shares the opinion that

Wisdom is not so much a kind of Knowledge as a way of seeing or ways of seeing. When we take a few steps back, like when we stand under the shower or go on holiday, we begin to see the bigger picture.

It helps us in seeing things from a fresh perspective that looks visibly different from our mundane myopic view. And in case you don’t have the luxury and time to take a few steps back, even a slight pause to bring awareness in your existence can make things a lot better.

Wisdom has a practical dimension in that it involves an understanding of the goals and values of life, the means of achieving those goals, the potential dangers to avoid, and so on.

But above all, it helps to be courageous, because the view from up there, though it can be exhilarating, and ultimately liberating, is at first terrifying — not least because it conflicts with so much of what we have been taught or programmed to think.

The Art Of Simplification

Coming back to Smith, he had all the Knowledge about ways to make money and was managing it properly through sharp savings, expenditures, and investment.

However, he was unable to develop an understanding of how money impacts the quality of his professional & personal life while shaping his not so distant future.

Wisdom, in his case, is delayed realization that money is simply a tool to be used, that money has no inherent meaning beyond its usefulness.

Some people have trouble with the idea of settling for less ’cause “they’ve gotten so used to the game of acquiring more,”

Settling for less and simplifying is not the same as giving up.

One of my schoolmates displayed this wisdom by turning down an offer for a high paying job. The job would have required him to work in a foreign country and live separately from his family. After the sudden demise of his father, he realized the importance of health and family. Had he not learned valuable lessons from his life experiences, he would have chosen that high paying job.

“Wise are those who learn that the bottom line doesn’t always have to be their top priority.” ~ William Arthur Ward

In the words of Professor Ardelt, an associate sociology professor at the University of Florida, Wisdom is characterized by a ‘reduction in self-centeredness.’

Since wise people try to understand situations from multiple perspectives and not just their own, they end up showing more tolerance as a result.

Daniel Goleman, the author of “Focus” and “Emotional Intelligence,” said, “One aspect of wisdom is having a vast horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves,” or even on our group or organization.

He said an essential sign of wisdom was “generativity,” a term used by the psychologist Erik Erikson, who developed an influential theory on stages of the human life span.

Generativity means giving back without needing anything in return, Dr. Goleman said. The form of giving back could be creative, social, personal or financial, and “the wisest people do that in a way that doesn’t see their lifetime as limiting when this might happen,” he said.

Parting Thoughts

Unfortunately, our current education system seeks to transmit Knowledge, not Wisdom. Especially in elementary and primary school, the focus is rarely on learning a thing or two about good judgment.

The basics of decision making never find a place in the curriculum. Apart from honing the skills of reading, writing, and numerical ability, we should also be teaching our young students how to navigate their lives, which in most cases are left very much to the individual.

These young lots need to understand that Knowledge is okay as long it is helping them in identifying products, people, and pleasures that make them happy. But they also need to be forewarned that this is never an end in itself.

There are subsequent layers to the whole story.

The next layer brings us closer to Wisdom. It knows that while those products and people may bring them some joy, but happiness is something that is not derived from things or situations or people.

Wisdom helps in understanding that happiness comes from within and that it’s a temporary state of mind.

Another layer brings us further close to Insight. This layer teaches us happiness is not the purpose of life, that it’s not the yardstick to measure the quality of life — it’s merely one of the many fleeting states of mind in the broad spectrum of full emotions. Those emotions don’t make up our lives; they are only experiences like passing clouds.

While acquiring and applying information is valuable, we also need to distill and judge the color of that information, and ultimately find the more profound meaning, while not forgetting that part of wisdom is knowing you don’t know everything.

Perhaps the purest form of wisdom is in acquiring all the possible life experiences to gain new perspectives and insights (which might be more than sum of all our knowledge & life experiences) so that we could enhance the quality and experience of our finite being.

Written by

Curious by Nature I The Startup, Better Humans, ILLUMINATION-Curated II Loves to Play at the intersection of Cognitive Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy.

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