Suppose, for whatever reason, that we want to improve our organisation’s flow of value. It is easy to imagine that we will achieve this with consistency if we make wise decisions. The wiser our decisions and actions, the more impactful our efforts.
Yet, where does wisdom arise from? What does it really mean to act with wisdom? How can we become wise? And once we have achieved wisdom, what chances do we have to remain wise indefinitely, without any further action?
Where does wisdom arise from?
The dictionary definition of wise suggests “having the power of discerning and judging properly as to what is true or right; possessing discernment, judgment, or discretion.” and “having knowledge or information as to facts, circumstances, etc.”, among other variations.
We are awash in an ocean of data. Zeroes and ones flit around the world and all around us in vast currents. All this digital swirl means nothing without interpretation into information. So the first step towards wisdom is to structure data chunks into meaningful information.
However, even information alone is useless. There are myriad viewpoints and messages being expressed in a variety of media. Which chunks of information are reliable? Which should we be wary of? To achieve knowledge, we must test the information through study and practice. Developing knowledge from the ocean of information is not a trivial task. Yet this enables us to form mental models about the information we consume and develop knowledge. We learn that certain ways of thinking or sources of information are mostly accurate and reliable, and others are suspect. The second step towards wisdom is to shape information into knowledge through study and practice.
Over time, the more we practice, the more our experience starts to teach us wisdom. As we develop wisdom, we allow ourselves to notice that some aspects of our prior knowledge are no longer accurate. If we act with wisdom, we also let go of dogma and adjust our mental models for a more accurate perspective of knowledge. Wisdom manifests in broadening our awareness to notice our own blind spots, letting go of wilful blindness, and practicing intellectual and spiritual humility.
In summary, wisdom is a form of awareness born of knowledge and experience. Knowledge arises from information through study and practice. Information derives from data interpretation.
What does it really mean to act with wisdom?
Wisdom requires awareness, employs assessment, and invites action. Wisdom manifests when we notice clues, we sense and assess accurately, and act in a manner that achieves our intended outcomes. Wisdom is highly context sensitive. What is wise in one context may prove foolish in another. What is wise in one time-frame may prove foolish in another.
For example, there are patterns of societal flourishing and sharp decline manifest in human history time and again, and they all share many similarities. When we ignore the lessons of history and fail to heed their warnings, we do not act with wisdom. When we limit our awareness to activities necessary to achieving only very short term goals and deliberately deny concerns about longer term implications, our wisdom is suspect.
So, acting with wisdom requires balance. If we focus too much on broad study and long term implications, we run the risk of neglecting the pressing needs of the moment. Yet if we only enjoy the moment and ignore the likely future consequences, we pave the way for ruin and suffering either for ourselves or our descendants.
How can we become wise?
Much as we might love to jump quickly straight into wisdom, developing it requires the patient acquisition of information, astute development of knowledge, balanced application of assessment and choice, and the practice of decisive action.
If we are not well informed, we cannot make wise decisions – we may be missing vital facts or make inaccurate assumptions, and our reasoning is likely to become flawed. Becoming well informed requires us to expose ourselves to a multitude of views rather than a mono-culture or echo-chamber. When we become aware of other views it does not mean we somehow “betray” our social club membership. On the other hand, when we deny upfront the validity of other viewpoints and wilfully or through apathy ignore them, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to practice wisdom. The practice of empathy does not mean we cease to hold true to our own beliefs or ways of thinking. It simply means we broaden our awareness and develop the ability to assess situations more wisely.
If our knowledge is inaccurate, the match between our thinking models about reality and reality itself may drift, so the forecasting aspect of wisdom may become impaired or absent altogether. When we practice a sense of wonder and curiosity about our knowledge, and make it a habit to change our mind as we consider better evidence, we can refine our abilities to understand and assess situations wisely.
When we rush to act only with short term satisfaction in mind, we are likely to pay dearly for our shortsightedness. When we are too slow to act by excessive focus on too many details, we are also likely to miss significant opportunities for progress. Figuring out what’s too rushed and what’s too slow requires the practice of balance that over time manifests in wisdom. I suspect we cannot become wise without embracing the small failures along the way that teach us dynamic balance.
So, developing effective wisdom requires a deliberate practice of information gathering from as many sources as we can afford, ruthless knowledge validation and renewal, and an ongoing practice of balance between long term and short term perspectives and concerns.
Where to next?
In a world of rapid flux, what is wise today may become unwise tomorrow. It seems to me that there is no perfect, immutable wisdom. Yet, if we approach wisdom with an attitude of empathy, curiosity and experimentation, we may find ways to perfect our balance of wisdom. What do you think?