What is wisdom? What does it mean to be wise? Is it about facts? Common sense? Can it only be gained through experience? We consider these questions because wisdom is an attractive concept. It offers the promise of knowledge, learning, and having a depth of understanding. Maybe even a bit more happiness. And, as a parent and a person in this world, these are important.
It makes sense that we would seek wisdom out by reading Buddhist texts, Sun Tzu, and countless quotes about being wise. These all cause us to nod our heads and give us hope. But the words, while enticing, don’t seem to have much of a lasting effect.
And it’s because our approach is off.
“No one can hand you wisdom,” says Howard C. Nusbaum professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and director and founder of the Chicago Center for Practical Wisdom
Rather than something to obtain, being wise is a form of deliberation about the best course of action in a complex social situation, says Igor Grossmann, associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and director of the Wisdom and Culture Lab.
But it’s not merely about identifying the unknowns and making the best decision. It’s looking at the bigger picture and going with what’s best for the group over what’s best for you. Just recognizing that possibility is true wisdom.
“A highly intelligent fool may not recognize that such a tradeoff exists in the first place,” he says.
A pivotal skill is also knowing when to apply this approach, because not every decision is equal. Some choices, like what sandwich to order, can come from experience, and others you make just because they’re the quickest. But with wisdom, there’s a moral component. The issue matters to people other than you, which can affect your actions. For example, you may not care about going to the doctor, but your spouse and children do. Going becomes the wise thing to do, Nusbaum, says.
But being wise isn’t clean and doesn’t come with a formula. It’s a constant evaluation, because every situation, even with the same people involved, is different and asks for different sensibilities.
“Whatever is right in a given moment may not be right five minutes later,” Grossmann says.
So, wisdom requires flexibility and openness, both to other people’s feelings and the notion that you don’t know everything. And while it’s complex, it’s not out of reach. It’s like tennis or golf. You don’t know anything but start somewhere. You hit balls into the wrong place, and, by paying attention to feedback, you make adjustments.
“It’s like a skill,” says Nussbaum. You can get better at it.”
So, how do you practice? It’s about slowing down and giving yourself time to interrogate decisions. The following can help.
1. Look Back
We all make mistakes. And it helps, per Nusbaum, to get your bearings by doing a post-game analysis on decisions that don’t go well. Directions aren’t needed to discern those situations. We know when we’re off. “We’re practical, and we can be lazy and stupid,” he says. “We don’t always do our best.”
When you do interrogate your failures, rather than asking what you could have done better, ask what you could have done differently. Think about, “When I made that choice, what was I thinking about? Could I have thought of other things?” Grossmann adds that evaluating behavior is easier when you’re specific with, “How did I handle that situation?” and “Did I pay attention to other people?”
Then, ask others how you did and if you could have considered something else or done something differently. Make the questions open-ended so you’re not assuming anything but letting the person answer. The point is not to criticize but to expand your perspective for the next time. Or, per Nusbaum, to think: “I may have been wise, but I could have been wiser.”
2. Test Your Assumptions
We like to feel like we’ve built up knowledge over time. We also don’t love uncertainty. “We like answers,” Nusbaum says. But we don’t know all the answers, and even when we’re self-aware, recognizing our limits is almost a counterintuitive feat.
“An intellectually humble person will be the last one to say they are most intellectually humble,” Grossmann says.
But when faced with a situation, before you do anything, pause. Taking a beat lets you consider your options. Then ask yourself, “What don’t I know right now?” “What could I learn?”And as a reminder of the reflection you’ve done in the past and a way to apply it, ask yourself, “What could I do differently here?”
3. Involve the Group
Decisions that have a moral bearing involve other people, like your spouse, children, relatives, friends. You want to bring them in. You need to. It’s taking the village concept to problems, Grossmann says. But it’s not just thinking of others. It’s tapping into how they would feel. That will cause you to weigh other options.
“When you have affective engagement, it influences other parts of our brain,” Nusbaum says.
And in doing this, there’s a two fold-benefit. The solution becomes richer when multiple perspectives are taken into account. It also takes the pressure off. When you argue for a position, you feel something personal is at stake, so you dig in. But when everyone gets a say, the focus isn’t all on you. You don’t own the answer. You no longer feel evaluated or a need to d-up and “win/not lose.”
“You don’t have to impress anyone anymore,” Grossmann says.
So, How Do You Know If You’ve Been Wise?
That’s the big question, isn’t it? There’s no absolute test and it’s not solely based on the outcome. You can be considerate, thoughtful, and fully engaged, and the result may still be bad. It doesn’t mean what you did was. “There’s always uncertainty and risk,” Nusbaum says. “If it’s a sure thing, you don’t need wisdom.”
It’s about having the intention of wanting to be better and continually asking how to get there. If you do this, you’ll keep finding little ways and those ways will build up. And it’s realizing that wisdom is a process that doesn’t end.
“You never get there,” he says. “But if you keep walking in the right direction, you’ll get better.”
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