What Is Wisdom?
Wisdom can be gathered.
Wisdom can be learned, or gained.
Wisdom cannot be taught.
That much we agree on. As the four of us talked about writing this book, we realized that our best service to you would be to serve as your coaches; to share with you the things we have learned along the way. And then, fully confident of your ability to learn, to allow you to apply to your own life what we have to say.
What is wisdom? We talked about what wisdom means to each of us in many meetings during several years.
We asked ourselves, "If I could go back and talk to the person I was when I started my career, what would I say?"
We often use words we think we understand, until someone asks us to define them. Then we are faced with the startling realization that we're—well, not quite sure; not definite; well, it's kind of like this; or Gosh, I think I need a dictionary. Even then, sometimes, the dictionary just doesn't quite fill the bill. We read the definition and find that something is still missing. And that's the way with wisdom.
Wisdom. We all have heard of it. We all have used it. But few of us, if any, can offer a definition that everyone would totally agree with...or that everyone would agree is all-encompassing.
In that light, I offer to you what "wisdom" means to me. I might add, too, that my definition comes not from Webster, but instead from my understanding of the Holy Bible. For to me that is where all wisdom begins: it is from our God, our creator. It is not merely the result of human ability or effort (Proverbs 2:6).
Wisdom provides guidance in the way of righteousness (Proverbs 4:10-19). It is very precious...it reveals itself with grace, preserves character, requires trust, teachability, servanthood, responsiveness, and reliance on God. It is the exact opposite of autonomy and arrogance. James 3:13-17 goes further, saying that it is peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. This suggests to me that wisdom doesn't take sides, does no harm, and requires understanding of others. It has a distinct element of humility that comes from and with it, as well as prudence and discretion. It is clear that inherent in wisdom, then, is the use of sound judgment further establishing that wisdom is just.
Applying wisdom to our human, earthly lives, I would say that wisdom is the ability to use the best means at the best time to accomplish the best ends. It is not merely a matter of information or knowledge but of skillful and practical application of the truth to the ordinary events of life. It is awareness to be sensitive to this situation, to this person, uninfluenced by any corruption of the past. I would even go a step further and say that wisdom relates to developing an eternal perspective on life. I would venture that few today know wisdom's value. The fear of the Lord is wisdom, showing respect and reverence for God and shunning evil. I reiterate, to me it is the only way to attain true wisdom. To fear God is to nurture an attitude of awe and humility before Him and to walk in total dependence upon God in every area of life. That is wisdom.
What is wisdom? How does anyone become wise? Is it something you are, something you have, or something you do? Does anyone ever set out to develop or acquire wisdom as a goal? How does a person become wise? Do people regarded as wise think of themselves as wise? What is it about someone that has others see them as wise?
Dr. Judith Ramaley enjoyed working in university administration at the University of Nebraska. She knew that one day she would become a university president. In 1982, Ramaley became the chief academic officer at the State University of New York at Albany and was acting president.
Judith developed a plan for learning about how to be a highly effective university president. At conferences for administrators in higher education, she would single out university presidents and interview them about what their experience had taught them about how to be effective. She asked what they wished they had known when they first started. She asked what to do quickly and what mistakes to avoid. She was told, for example, that some professors would be among the first people who would want to see her and they would present a long list of charges maligning an administrator that they had conflicts with. The professors who try to get to her first with their complaints, she was told, will prove in the years ahead to be the ones most likely to stir up faculty and staff antagonism toward her.
Judith took notes and created a small manual for herself about how to succeed as a university president. When she was hired to become president of Portland State University in 1990 she was ready. The wisdom she had collected from dozens of interviews significantly shortened her learning curve. She took hold of the position with self-confidence. She did many things right with the faculty, students, administrators, alumni, and the local community.
In the seven years that she was at Portland State, she instigated long-needed reforms, reworked the curriculum, downsized the staff, and created an impressive record. In 1997 she left Portland State to become President of the University of Vermont.
Wise people have accurate, perceptive insights into human behavior and understand how things work. They are observers of human nature, are master psychologists with excellent emotional intelligence. They have learned what they know from real life experience, not from academic study. They generally keep what they know to themselves, but are willing to share what they know with certain individuals. They are available to give advice to open-minded learners. They have a talent for asking questions that lead to new understanding. Are conscious of themselves, and can communicate what they know when they choose to.
Wise people are smart about what they do and don't do. They have an inner frame of reference for their actions and statements. They "read" situations well and understand others accurately. Can see through the obvious. Trust their intuition. Have a sense of hidden motives behind the actions of others. Are less vulnerable to cons, threats, criticism, and manipulators. Handle pressure and threats with humor. Remain stable and sustain equanimity in times of turmoil. Want and expect things to work well. They feel optimistic and self-confident when coping with rough situations.
A valuable way to understand something is to define what it is not. What is the opposite of wisdom? It is to:
- speak or act in stupid ways, then blame others for what happens.
- speak or act in ways that cause difficulties for people or groups important to you.
- speak or act in ways that lead to unnecessary loss.
- not learn from mistakes, make the same mistakes.
- be out of touch with what is happening.
- be bitter about the past, cynical about the future.
- be outspoken about what others are doing wrong.
- act in ways contrary to one's stated values and goals, and not know it.
How does a person acquire wisdom? It develops from life-long, child-like curiosity and a playful spirit. Wise people are happy rather than hostile, no matter how badly life has treated them. You gain wisdom when you ask questions, explore, want to know how thing work, and learn valuable lessons from rough experiences.
A friend of mine defines wisdom as a three-part process: (1) information; (2) knowledge; and, finally, (3) wisdom. Information, of course, is the raw data—the kind of stuff you can find in books, in the research, on the internet. Knowledge is knowing how to apply the information. And wisdom is knowing when, and under what circumstances, the information and the knowledge are appropriate, or useful, or even true. And when and how—and even whether—to apply the knowledge you have gained.
Another friend thinks of wisdom this way: "Wisdom is bringing all of your knowledge and skill to a situation to bring it to a successful conclusion."
If there's ever a lull in the conversation, try asking the group, "What is wisdom?" I guarantee a lively conversation!
I believe that personal wisdom begins with knowing who—and whose—we are. And in living by a values system consistent with that understanding. In seeing, and in appreciating, the unique gifts we have been given as personality traits and capabilities; as opportunities, and as outright things! Appreciation, too, is part of wisdom.
When I think of wisdom, I think of a client I worked with many years ago. A truly wise man, even though his formal education had gone only as far as the third grade. A fair and honest man of integrity and great wisdom. A man who understood, and consistently lived by his values. And a man who, along the way, managed to build a multi-billion dollar empire.
As part of my assignment to write a company video for this man, I had the unique privilege of "shadowing" him for several days—sitting in on all his business meetings; listening as he made his decisions. What a wonderful way to get inside that remarkable thought process! I found a man with a clear, and sometimes rather stubborn, vision; unshakable in his determination to act in what he saw as the "right" way. And that's how he built his empire: by looking first at how he could benefit others, and then by taking the steps to derive mutual benefit from each decision he made.
He stuck by his same suppliers, even when someone else might charge less in the short term, reckoning that if he did right by them, they would do right by him. He was seldom disappointed. He believed strongly in the future, and in his part in it. He planned for good times—and bad, so he had nothing to fear. And he refused to accept that anything could not be done. When conventional ways did not work, he found another way to get what was needed.
Of the many inspiring lessons I learned from him during that time, one stands out very clearly. It happened that some months before, one of his most trusted executives had made what turned out to be a devastatingly poor decision, ultimately costing the company millions. And yet, the executive remained in place.
Strongly pressed at a Board meeting to fire that executive, he refused, because "I paid enough tuition for him to learn that lesson; I don't want him going to school on me, and using what he's learned for the competition."
Wisdom is knowing your limits and your resources.
Being all wise is not for me.
I know that I can't know everything, yet I'm certain that I know someone who knows someone who knows the answers I'm seeking.
By stringing together connections to as many of the people who will share those pearls of wisdom as I possibly can, I tap into a treasure trove of truth, beauty, and pragmatic advice that has stood the test of time.
Sometimes that takes a little faith—like Tyler, the company president who had given up only to find that sometimes the shortest distance between you and your objective is a circle.
Or the confidence to go "pearl diving," to "work the room" for fun, profit,and possibly for love.
Sometimes it is cold hard facts—the kind that keep a politico in power and can provide the practical advice you need about technologies that are wise in the ways of managing contacts.
Occasionally it is a piece of advice from a much-traveled friend, like Bob, my buddy with the razor-sharp mind in a rumpled suit.
Or like Sam Gamgee, one of the characters in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Early on in the story, stolid Sam agrees to accompany Frodo Baggins on the journey that will decide the fate of their world. Along the way, Sam recalls bits of advice from the "Gaffer" (his Grandfather) and stoically carries them out for at least two further books into the story.
The Gaffer's wisdom pays off. Without it, the "one ring to find them, one ring to bind them" would have wound up in the wrong hands.
Plain, plodding Sam knows his limits and trusts his "Gaffer."
Ultimately, whether you are building a business, a career, or a life of joy, it is neither what you know nor whom you know that matters so much as whom you trust—and who trusts you.
Those trusting relationships with customers and contractors, managers and mentors, friends and family, form your personal network. Networking through them, simply asking for their help, gives you access to the wisdom of the ages.
It begins with one contact at a time—one gem of a contact plus another and yet another until you have a string of them—like a beautiful string of pearls.
And so, while we all may come from differing points of view, we are united in one goal: to save you time and pain; to help you as you make your life better. To help you see how the pieces fit. To share the practical insights each of us has acquired from the thousands of people who have come to our presentations and workshops; who have read our books, and counseled with us. To help you build a richer fuller life of boundless success.
We start with the inner you and progress to focusing outward on others. Cheryl Matschek will share her thoughts on nurturing a vision, and on inspiring others to build it with you. Al Siebert will help you to build your resilience. Gail Tycer will help you develop techniques for communicating well with others. Jerry Fletcher will show you how to network effectively.
Let's get started!
Gathering Wisdom: How to Acquire Wisdom From Others While Developing Your Own
By Jerry Fletcher, Cheryl Matschek, Al Siebert and Gail Tycer
$20.00 ($29.95 Canada)
Softbound, 282 pages
© 2003 Practical Psychology Press
© Gathering Wisdom