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04 Jul, 2017

Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught

Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught

The day after becoming the CEO of a company facing turbulent times, David had a dream. In it, while walking on a beach he discovered a bottle. On opening, a genie appeared offering him a wish in exchange for her freedom. Eschewing riches, fame or a long life, David chose the gift of wisdom.

In today’s hyperactive digital age, attaining wisdom is a challenge. With tablets and phones and their apps constantly vying for our immediate attention, it is increasingly difficult to find the time and mental space for making meaningful connections or engaging in the deep conversations, reflection, emotional awareness and compassion, necessary in the pursuit of wisdom.

What does it mean to be wise?

People often equate wisdom with intelligence or being knowledgeable; but all too often, it becomes apparent that being intelligent and being wise are quite different things. The world is full of brilliant people who intellectualise without really understanding the essence of things. In contrast, wise people try to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and strive to better understand the limits of their knowledge.

Wisdom implies more than merely being able to process information in a logical way. Knowledge becomes wisdom when we have the ability to assimilate and apply this knowledge to make the right decisions. As the saying goes, ‘knowledge speaks but wisdom listens’.

Wise people are also humble; their humility deriving from a willingness to recognise the limitations of their knowledge. By accepting their ignorance, they are able to bear their own fallibility. They know when what they are doing makes sense, but also when it will not be good enough. Ironically, it is exactly this kind of self-knowledge that pushes them to do something about it.

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.”

Age doesn’t make us wiser

So, how can we acquire wisdom? Becoming wise is a very personal quest, gained through our own experiences and learning how to cope with the major tragedies and dilemmas within life’s journey.

Setbacks are memorable growth experiences contributing to a deeper understanding of life. Overcoming difficult situations enable us to rise above our own perspectives and see things as they are and contributes to an increased appreciation of life and of new possibilities.

Unfortunately, wisdom is not something that automatically comes with the passing of years. While older people may have more experiences than their younger counterparts, many never put their life experiences to good use. To acquire the reflectivity needed may necessitate the help of others. Educators, coaches, psychotherapists and mentors can play a significant role, by assisting with the dissemination of knowledge and by helping those searching for wisdom work through challenging experiences and to work on emotional awareness, emotional self-regulation, relational skills and mindfulness.

Increasing wisdom and authenticity

In my own work with executives I have found that creating a learning community in which participants have the opportunity to tell their stories, not only has a cathartic effect but also helps wisdom come to bear. 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.

A learning community is also a great place to practice open-mindedness. Encouraging participants to step out of their comfort zone and to deal with people who are very different from themselves, leads to a deeper understanding and acceptance of the ambiguous nature of things. If designed in a holistic manner, 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, to think before acting and, by taking off their masks, to become more authentic in living their values.

First published in INSEAD Knowledge, Manfred Kets de Vries, June 22, 2017. To read the full article, please follow this link: INSEAD Knowldege

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