What Is Wisdom?

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us.

— Marcel Proust

Proust was on to something.  I think there is profound truth to the notion that it is only through our own experience that we gain wisdom.  I also believe that there are certain kinds of experiences that are particularly suited to the development of wisdom.

Take a moment and think of someone whom you consider wise.  Perhaps it is a revered spiritual or political leader, a grandparent or one of your high school teachers, maybe a pastor or a college professor, or perhaps, as one medical student expressed, it is the person who cleans the hallways of the hospital at night.  What qualities or behaviors make you think they are wise?  Finally, how do you think that they got so wise?

Then, let’s back up for a minute.  What exactly is wisdom?  Truth be told, wisdom is not so easy to define in the abstract.  Why is that?  It may be, in part, because we understand wisdom in the context of a life, of decisions and actions, so it is difficult to define in the abstract.  This is, in part, why psychologists and sociologists have done research on wisdom by studying people who are exemplars of wisdom. This is not as easy as it might seem, because one of the characteristics of wise persons is humility, so a wise person is unlikely to say that they are wise.  Often, then, we identify these people by having other people nominate them, and it is interesting who gets on those lists. It can range from the Dalai Lama to Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey.

The other reason wisdom might be difficult to define is that wisdom actually has many dimensions.  I imagine that if I polled all of you about what qualities you selected as wise, we could create a long list of answers. Researchers have actually confirmed this, and the list includes things like compassion, ability to see the big picture, to put things in perspective, to see things from many points of view, to be able to reflect on and rise above one’s own perspective.  Wisdom is different from intelligence.  Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity.  Wisdom on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge. (Sternberg).  Monika Ardelt is a modern wisdom researcher who has put all of these into a 3 dimensional model of wisdom: cognitive, reflective and affective.   The cognitive dimension includes the desire to deeply know and understand things, including the limits of our knowing.  The reflective dimension represents the capacity for self-reflection, and the capacity to see things from many perspectives.  The affective dimension of wisdom is empathy and compassion.  So, a wise person is one who desires to deeply understand things, who is humble and aware of the limitations of knowing, who can see things from many perspectives and avoids black and white thinking, and who radiates compassion.

Does Adversity Make Us Wise?

But how do we become wise? Think about that person that you identified at the beginning of this essay.  How do you think they got wise?  This question takes us back to Proust.  If no one can hand us wisdom on a silver platter, and we must discover this for ourselves through our own experiences, our own journey, what kind of experience might be the best teacher?  I would argue that for all the downsides of adversity, just like necessity is the mother of invention, adversity is the seedbed for wisdom.  What better teacher of compassion than one’s own experience of suffering?  How better to learn humility than to make a mistake?  And what better to discover the deeper meaning of one’s life than to face a circumstance that forces you to focus on that which is of most value to your life?  An unexpected turn of events is likely to help us to understand the ambiguity and uncertainty in life, and the limitations of our own perspective. But what evidence do we have that adversity can lead to wisdom?

When researcher Judith Glück and colleagues asked subjects to describe a situation in which they acted wisely, compared to a peak experience, they found that the wisdom situations more often involved difficult or negative events, implying that wisdom perhaps develops through the experience of adversity. Pascual Leone and colleagues described these challenging situations as “ultimate limit situations,” circumstances that “cannot be undone and are nonetheless faced with consciousness and resolve…situations like death, illness, aging, …absolute failure…uncontrollable fear.”  Psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun have been studying this positive response to trauma for the past ten years, a phenomenon they call post-traumatic growth.  We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress, but these researchers noted that when asked about how trauma might have changed them for the better, people began to describe the positive ways in which they had changed because of what they had lived through.  This complex set of changes fall into five domains: increased appreciation of life, warmer relations with others, recognition of new possibilities for one’s life, a greater sense of personal strength, and spiritual development.

Tedeschi and Calhoun suggest that trauma induces a disruption in our understanding of ourselves and the world (our schema) and that disruption forces us to re-work our understanding of ourselves and the world, resulting in learning and growth with the potential for wisdom as the final result. In the Wisdom in Medicine project we were interested in this question of whether moving through a difficult circumstance in a positive way can result in wisdom.  We studied patients who had coped with chronic pain, and physicians who had made a serious medical error. When asked what they had learned and how they had changed for the better because of their experience, they used the language of wisdom.  They talked about having increased compassion for others, increased capacity for forgiveness and humility, an increased desire to understand things, but also a deeper understanding of the ambiguous nature of things, and becoming more aware of the limitations of our knowledge.

Wisdom and Courageous Choices

Of course, not everyone who suffers through a difficult experience comes out with something positive.  In fact, you could argue, adversity is just as likely to make someone bitter, angry, cynical and entrenched as it is to make them compassionate, humble, more able to see things from other’s perspectives. So I will argue that it is not just adversity, but rather adversity plus the right matrix and the inner capacity to use that difficult experience in a positive way that leads to wisdom.

We asked the Wisdom in Medicine exemplars  “what helped?”, what made it easier for them to move positively through their difficult experiences?  Here’s a summary of what they told us.  Having a community, someone they could talk to, to tell their story, was importantCultivating gratitude and positive emotion, quiet reflection (whether meditation, mindfulness, prayer) was helpful.  Doing something positive, which often involved doing things for others, was helpful.  And having a moral or spiritual grounding helped to guide them through this process and helped them to “do the right thing” when it was hard.

There was something else surprising in the data.  As researchers we experienced an ah ha moment as we painstakingly combed through the data.  All of the exemplars had at one point made a choice, a conscious, deliberate choice to pursue something that was hard.  It may not have been what they really wanted to do, and certainly not something they thought would necessarily end up well.  But it was something they felt they had to do to set things straight.   They chose, in many cases, the harder course of action.  They chose to face their circumstances face on.  We say, they “stepped in”.  They may have decided to apologize to a patient or family, to go into a room full of intense judgment.  It might have meant that they had to face their addiction, or take control of their health.  At some point they made a courageous choice to make a difference in their own lives.

But how did these exemplars have the courage and the capacity to make these choices?  I believe that the matrix in which we experience these difficult circumstances has a lot to do with how we move through them.  Researcher John Meachum talks about a wisdom atmosphere as being one in which doubts, uncertainties and questions can be openly expressed, and ambiguities and contradictions can be tolerated, so that individuals are not forced to adopt the defensive position of what he calls “too confident knowing”.

So, the next obvious question is, assuming that we think wisdom is worthy of pursuing as an individual, or a society, how do we foster wisdom?

I believe that we can, if we are intentional about it, foster an atmosphere of wisdom, in ourselves and in each other, and I believe it will help us along the path to wisdom when we face difficult circumstances.  When we foster compassion, empathy and forgiveness, in ourselves and in others, we are opening up the possibility for wisdom.  When we foster the capacity for self-reflection in our children, or our community, we are creating the matrix for wisdom to develop. When we foster gratitude, wisdom is likely to follow.  When we accept the complexity and ambiguous nature of things, and refuse to accept a simplified black and white explanation, we are increasing the likelihood of wise decisions.   Wisdom does not arise out of the easy, simple parts of our lives.  Wisdom lives in the most messy, hard, complex and painful of our experiences.

Rumi has some important advice.  In his poem The Guest House Rumi suggests that “this being human is a guest house”.  We need to welcome each guest, “even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.”  He implores: “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond”.

(Note: References are included in links in the article.)

Questions for Discussion

How might our educational system change if it was wisdom rather than knowledge that we were trying to develop in our children?

For those who are parents, how might your parenting foster wisdom in your children?

Can people be wise in one context and unwise in another, or is wisdom a deeper attribute that, once gained, is visible in all contexts?

Discussion Summary

In my initial “what is wisdom?” essay, I make the case that wisdom arises out of experience, and that adversity is an experience uniquely suited to the development of wisdom.  One of the first questions raised in our discussion was whether wisdom is innate in us as human beings, something that rather than receive or create, we discover or tap into.  This is not just a philosophical question, because what we think about this is directly relevant to how we approach the notion of teaching or fostering wisdom.  Discovery is a fundamentally different process than receiving or creating.

For some reason as I thought about this question I started thinking about hand me down clothes, something I am quite familiar with as the youngest of four kids.  We talk about wisdom being handed down through the generations, just like that beautiful dress that my older sister wore to her elementary school graduation.  When I first tried to wear it, it was way too big.  Everyone, including me, was quite aware that the dress was really not “mine” because it didn’t fit.  My aunt tried to alter it, but it was not until I wore it many times, got my own blueberry syrup stains on it, grew into it and in fact wore it down in certain places, and connected my own indelible memories to it that it really became my own.  Even then, it was not fully my own because it was imbued with the lived experience of my sister as well.  So now that dress really was “ours”.  I wonder if that is how wisdom is.  Others can offer wisdom, but it is really through our own experiences, particularly of adversity, that we discover our own capacities for wisdom and create wisdom in our own lives. The wisdom that results is connected to the wisdom of other human beings (those who offered wisdom and those who fostered the capacities for wisdom in us), so that wisdom is really “ours” not “mine”.

Which brings us to a deeper question of what does it mean to foster (or teach) wisdom?  Is it the same as teaching chemistry?

Pioneers in the field of education are beginning to take on the big questions of how to “teach” emotional awareness, emotional regulation, relational skills and mindful awareness to our children in schools, all capacities for the development of wisdom.  Linda Lantiere and others, including congressman Tim Ryan, are taking on this task in the schools of Youngstown Ohio.

I believe that we are at an evolutionary tipping point in regard to wisdom.  On the one hand, our technological age is pushing us in a direction which could undermine our capacity for attention, a quiet mind, relationality and compassion.  Our love affair with science, reductionism and evidence has, over the past century, sidelined those things which are harder to measure, like love, compassion, relationality, contemplation and spirituality.

On the other hand, we are on the brink of an explosion of scientific investigation into these previously off limits topics, and both contemplative practice and contemplative science are growing exponentially.  We are beginning to embrace the importance of compassion and wisdom in ways we have not seen before.  I just returned from a conference at Virginia Tech (http://www.cpe.vt.edu/cpts/) that was all about bringing contemplative practice into our highly technologic world.  It was a fascinating and energizing two days.

So here are the new big questions:

How do we foster wisdom (capacities for reflection, compassion, humility) in our current technological age?   How do we foster the capacity for reflection in a world where technology provides continuous bombardment of information, where multitasking threatens our capacity for attention?  How do we foster compassion in a world in which relationships are more commonly “on line” than “in person”, where we are desensitized to suffering through constant exposure to “unreal” violence through video games, and where death can be delayed seemingly endlessly by technological advances?  How do we foster humility, an understanding of the limits of our knowing, and a sense of our common vulnerability in an age where knowledge of everything seems possible, even at our fingertips, and where the human being’s command over our environment limits our vulnerability in everyday life.  All of these challenges exist in a context of increasing awareness of the importance of these capacities for human flourishing.  These are indeed exciting times for wisdom enthusiasts.

17 Responses

  1. spacecalculus says:

    Can people be wise in one context and unwise in another, or is wisdom a deeper attribute that, once gained, is visible in all contexts?

    I perceive wisdom inherent in every human being and expound relative experience. The highest culmination of this wisdom, family and community. In virtuous latitude and longitude the beauty of wisdom, humility in humanity.

    These are only thoughts. Thank you for a wonderful question.

  2. Margaret Plews-Ogan says:

    Thank you for the thought provoking comments.  You bring up the question, can a community be wise, and can adversity experienced by a community result in greater wisdom on a larger scale.  I think of communities that have been through terrible tragedy, and I think we see examples of this, where the whole community came together in a collective response of extraordinary compassion.  So the question becomes, what is it that catalyzes that kind of response to tragedy in a community, rather than anger, divisiveness, and revenge.  It seems to me that what we learned in our wisdom study that helps individuals may also be applicable to communities.  The exemplar individuals that we studied, when we asked them what helped them to move through their experience in a positive way, identified the following:  talking about it, doing something positive, having a moral or spiritual framework, reflection, cultivating positive emotion and helping others.  It seems that there may be ways to strengthen communities in these capabilities, and then attend to these specifically if tragedy strikes. Martin Seligman (commonly referred to as the father of positive psychology) and colleagues are currently examining how to build resilience in our soldiers.  There is also a great deal of interest in how mindfulness and other contemplative practices might create resilience in our school children.  Wisdom development is, I believe, a step beyond resilience, but creating resilience is preparing the ground for wisdom.

  3. ianful says:

    Wisdom traditionally has been associated with seers.  Seers receive whatever is appropriate at the time, rather than analysing a situation in the context of their own (or others life experience) and then making assumptions to arrive at an expert opinion. I would put Solomon and to some extent Rumi in the field of seers. I put Oprah Winfrey and other media based opinion makers in the field of ‘experts’.

  4. bhuskey says:

    For those who are parents, how might your parenting foster wisdom in your children?

    Like many first-time parents, I’ve caught myself agonizing over whether or not I’m doing a good job of caring for my son’s health, development, and happiness.  I anxiously awaited his first smile, first steps, and first words.  He is now two-years old and I am relieved that he has reached these milestones, and is making great progress in his development.  His smiles, laughter, curiosity, and eagerness to play tell me he is happy and thriving.  I believe my parental instincts have carried me through this far, but what happens as he gets older?  How do I foster wisdom in my young son?

    My hope is to surrender my angst-ridden thoughts of raising a child into young adulthood, because worrisome thoughts can easily transform into words that provoke anxiety and instill fear in the mind of a child. Larry Chase recently published a short news article in the Concord Monitor,How to worry (or wisdom from the elders)”.  He was a child growing up in the 1940s. He recalls, “Life, my father taught me, was full of threats. I learned to worry early, and constantly.”  He then goes on to list over forty anxiety-provoking messages like: “Accidents will happen; Candy can rot your teeth; Be good or you’ll be sorry; We’re not made of money, you know; Don’t cross the street. You could get run over; Look into the sun – even by accident, even for a second – and it’ll blind you forever.”  

     These warnings may have had good intentions behind them, but I would argue that such messages would not cultivate wisdom, but breed fear instead. 

    As parents, I think we must be mindful of what we say, how we say it, and what effect we are having on our children. We must honor who they are as individuals and where they are in their personal development.  And if we use words that promote empathy, acceptance, and kindness, and model discernment in our own behaviors and decisions, children will have more opportunities to learn a language of wisdom rather than one of fear, to express their feelings and opinions healthfully, learn to better regulate their emotions, and grow in wisdom.


    Chase, Larry. “How to worry (or wisdom from the elders).” Concord Monitor, March 18, 2013:http://www.concordmonitor.com/home/5092382-95/worry-fall-supervised-teeth

    On a side note:

    I really enjoyed your essay!  By pure coincidence, I wrote on the same topic for a blog that will be posted on http://www.wisdomresearch.org next month.  An unpublished version that is still in draft form can be viewed here:  https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8FSzFacEQKmbWtJSDFETjlzNnM/edit?usp=sharing

    The current title is “The Wisdom of Oz: A Metaphor of Moral Courage and Self-Compassion”.

  5. Margaret Plews-Ogan says:

    You bring up an important distinction, expertise or expert knowledge vs wisdom.   Ardelt and colleagues have argued that wisdom is more than expert knowledge.  It is a lived concept.  This must be examined in the context of a life well lived.  I am not an expert on seers.  But the distinction between applying knowledge in an expert fashion, and wisdom as a lived attribute, it seems to me centers around that portion of wisdom that is beyond the reach of expert knowledge, that has more to do with the life well lived. The capacity for compassion and self-reflection are the capacities most distinct from expert knowledge, and most visible (but difficult to describe) in the lived model of wisdom.

  6. Margaret Plews-Ogan says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought provoking contribution.  First, it sounds like your son is very fortunate to have as thoughtful a parent as you are.  Second, you bring a clear and honest viewpoint to the topic of how to raise children to be wise adults.  If you take Meachum’s wisdom matrix to heart, at the dinner table (assuming that parents do eat dinner together with their children, which is a starting point proven to improve outcomes), the conversation would embrace, even invite, ambiguity.  Informed uncertainty is welcomed, curiosity is valued perhaps more than knowing.  This is a different atmosphere than students encounter in our schools, where knowing is the coin of the realm.  The humbling thing is that, with the internet, most honest people must admit that they cannot know all that is nearly instantly available as knowledge through the internet.  Knowledge is no longer the domain of a few well-informed individuals.  But the life well lived, that remains a lofty goal.

    Your point about fear is very perceptive.  Sometimes fear is real and sound, and ignoring those circumstances as parents is reckless and irresponsible.  But oftentimes fear is born out of the unfamiliar, the uncertain, and the unpredictable, and allowing our children to navigate those experiences, learn to experience failure and recover, is the best thing we can do for them.  Raising children (just like navigating our own lives) is often about discerning when to protect and when to enable exploration, failure and growth.  There is real truth to the platitude of Nietzche’s statement “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. There is truth to that for our children, and a parent who is thoughtful has to discern which circumstances are best left to their children to navigate, and which require either protection or rescue. Sometimes, of  course, we have no choice, and life forces upon  us circumstances that no one would wish on their worst enemy.  Then the task becomes how to support the most positive response possible.  And sometimes, when we look back, those circumstances become our , or our children’s, defining moments.  As parents, we can only hope that we have both prepared our children to face these circumstances with hope and courage, and that we have the capacity to stand by them as they move through these challenging times.

  7. billie.jensen.37 says:

    With regard to the concept of “wisdom,” I agree that its acquisition may be preceded by a humble state of mind, an openness to new ideas and the acquiring of knowledge, but  I also believe that “being wise” rises above these other states-of-being as surely as “truth” rises above “information”. You’ve indicated that it is difficult to find a wise person because they don’t tend to brag about their wisdom; consequently, humbleness and invisibility seem to go hand in hand. I would add that an unwise person doesn’t always enjoy receiving “wisdom” from someone else and that a truly wise person has learned to keep his/her mouth shut; hence, invisibility and the seemingly rare condition of being wise may also be a survival technique.  Perhaps, that’s why Jesus said, “You have eyes but you do not see and ears but you do not hear.”

    How do we teach our children to become wise? It seems to me that children try to emulate their parents, so perhaps we should strive to become a bit wiser, ourselves. In fact, if wisdom is indeed preceded by humbleness, then maybe we need to start there.

  8. Abed Peerally says:

    As this is my first comment in this activity I need to say that i have been working on the Big Questions using my own unique methodology.  In this context my comment under Wisdom is that Wisdom is a subsection of Consciousness. As such there is in existence a natural potential for wisdom which will follow its course depending on the person’s environment, education etc. Wisdom therefore has a quantum improbability in it and the outcome will depend on an action-reaction basis.

  9. Margaret Plews-Ogan says:

    You bring up some really great points.  First, regarding your observation about wise people being somewhat invisible, I wouldn’t call them invisible necessarily, but they certainly don’t tend to bring attention to themselves, just for the attention.  And yet regarding wisdom, people will often say “well, it is hard for me to define, but I know it when I see it”.  So I think that although the wise person is not the one going around pointing out how smart they are, their actions are “noticeable” in a more profound way, perhaps not in the moment, but afterward, in reflection.  And sometimes it brings them focused and even wrathful attention.  Many of the people on the list of “wise persons” ended up killed for what they represented.  Which brings us to your other very good point regarding humility.  A defining characteristic of wisdom is humility.  The humility of wisdom, I believe, comes from a very matter of fact awareness of the limitations of knowledge, either personal or collective knowledge.  So a wise person knows better than to make too much of what they think they know at the time, because tomorrow may show that knowledge to be clearly misguided or inadequate.  It seems that is a fundamental message in the book of Job.  And a fundamental message that Socrates had for us.  Julio Olalla said “Knowledge is a love affair with answers. Wisdom is a love affair with questions.” It’s much easy to make decisions when operating in a cut and dried world of rigid ideas.  Seeing complexity and ambiguity in the problems we face makes decisions harder, but more likely to be successful (wise) decisions in the end.  I could not agree with you more that humility is fundamental.  That humility is not just for humility’s sake, but it is born out of a capacity to understand the limitations of our own knowing.  Curiosity rather than judgment seems an approach more suited to the wise person.  That curiosity (humble and non-judgmental as it is) often exposes the too confident knowing of others, or situations of suffering that those in power wanted to hide. And these humble people then become a target for the wrath of others. 

  10. RogerIles says:

    I believe you capture the tangible qualities of wisdom in your essay, but I believe it goes deeper. To be wise one must of course provide wisdom, if this were based purely on Life experiences, in particular adversity, this tends to exclude a large majority of people from being wise. So I think it is both the natural (born with), and also possibly learnt (through adversity) capabilities that you have explained, but also the ability to know when to refer to these experiences and when to ignore them. A wise person must know how to provide wisdom even in a situation for which he/she has no previous relevant experience, or to know that this experience would give a bias view. Therefore, one must also rely on intuition, or in Buhdist terms, to be mindful, or in the present. To leave away all the distractions, emotions and ego, and to focus on the pure situation at hand. In Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the art or motorcycle maintenance” he refers to this as “stuckness”, which is required and should be faced in the present or with Gumption. In his analogy to a train, a “non-wise” person may continue to run through the carriages of knowledge on the quality train and so fail to realise the solution which is out the front of the train. A wise person is “aware” and has gumption to progress with meditative attention towards a solution.

  11. Margaret Plews-Ogan says:

    You bring up a really interesting question.  There are notions of wisdom as a universal but changing phenomenon (ie we are creating wisdom as a species, or as a universe, as we continue to evolve), a universal but static phenomenon (something akin to universal truth that we, as human beings “tap into” as our natural state), and notions of wisdom as an individual, created phenomenon, changing over time for each individual, and not necessarily shared between individuals.  in this latter case,  “my wisdom” would be different from “your wisdom”. I’m thinking that your notion of wisdom as a quantum improbability phenomenon would fit philosophically into the latter, though perhaps there is a universality to it that fits somewhere.  I do think that we are, as living beings, creating our reality as we move along in this world, which would include, i suppose, wisdom as we live it.  But I also think that there is universality to that lived experience, both in real time and historically.  Awareness of action-reaction is key, because that is where our leverage to change reality resides.

  12. LifeWisdom says:

    I agree that you can acquire wisdom through experience. However, I also believe that wisdom can be systematically learned. I teach a course in which middle and high school students learn how to make wise decisions, using a combination of logic, math, experience and intuition. The course is available for free at http://www.LifeWisdom.com. A “journey through the wilderness” may be helpful but is not required.

  13. ianful says:

    Margaret, I agree with your comments, but about self-reflection – I see this as the flaw in our perceptual process. This is made clear in the old Jewish proverb: we don’t see things (or people for that matter) as they are, but as we are.

     I am not a seer, and I am thankful for that, as the demands of others for answers would be overwhelming. However, I have experienced elements of seeing on many occasions. The most memorable was when I saw my mother as she was at seven years of age, and in her eighties at the same time standing in front of me. I was also in her as well, directly experiencing everything she was. I saw where, how and why an aspect of her behaviour arose. I was humbled by the experience. Deep personal knowledge enabled me to know what was mine and what was not.  It was true empathy, and wisdom was understanding from true empathy. It was a knowing with out drawing on any previous knowledge.

     Rumi, from his writing knew about it. To me, seeing is hearing the voice of the Spirit or being guided by the Spirit. I do not need to have the desire to deeply know and understand another, only the desire to serve. The receiving came from within, but at the same time its origin was not from within. As Rumi wrote about in Two Kinds of Intelligence, the soul receives and it cannot be learned, nor is it generated by experience.

     Wisdom is probably the most natural human capability there is.  However, we have become lost in self reflection, thinking, classification, and preoccupation with the material world on our way to harness Reason as our raison d’etré.

    To me experts make self-reflective assumptions about another person. Often people undertake training and studies in psychology in order to understand themselves and others, but unfortunately much is based on causative models, that may or may not be indicative of an individual.


  14. Peter Samuelson says:

    We are in the middle of a study about the implicit theories or “folk” concepts of intellectual humility, (similar to one Sternberg writes about in the book you cited in your essay).   We asked people to give us a list of words that describe an intellectually humble person and also asked for words that describe a wise person.  There were many shared descriptors, but among the words that were unique descriptors of a wise person were “old,” “older,” “gray-headed,” and “mature” (though mature was shared as a descriptor of an intellectually humble person).  These findings (as well as your quote from Proust) imply that a certain amount of lived experience is required for wisdom.  My question is:  can a young person be wise? 

    This would seem to be an important question to answer before we can know how to go about developing wisdom in children.  We struggle with the same question as we think about educating for intellectual humility, an important aspect of wisdom.   Perhaps one approach would be to identify components of these virtues and make those the goals of education.   Love of learning, for example, is one of the unique descriptors for intellectual humility in our study. Cultivating love of learning may or may not make people intellectual humble or wise, but it might be hard to be either (or both) without it.  How the various components come together to make a wise person is a question that begs for an answer.  Making wise people is not like baking a cake – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – yet educating children for the various components gives a chance for the practice of those things that may lead to wisdom.

  15. Margaret Plews-Ogan says:

    You both bring up similar points, really interesting and insightful comments.  So you both note that although experience may be one way to gain wisdom adversity for example) it is neither necessary nor sufficient.  You note the importance of awareness, mindful awareness, in order to use the experiences to gain wisdom.  You also suggest that wisdom can be learned, minus any experience of adversity.  I could not agree more that mindful awareness is critical to wisdom development. Wisdom researcher Monika Ardelt has suggested that of the three components of wisdom, the reflective capacity is perhaps the most important, because it is through reflection (read awareness) that we can learn from our experiences and grow in wisdom.  I do, however, still side with Proust on the issue of whether this whole wisdom thing can be learned without any experiences of our own.  The thing is, the more aware we are, the more able we are to use even the smallest experiences of challenge or difficulty.  And all of us have plenty of those.  Who among us has NEVER made a mistake?  If we are mindful, we can use these small experiences to learn and grow, and we don’t need to wait for those earth shattering experiences to shake us out of “stuck” selves.  In a similar way, reflection and awareness can help us to develop the capacity to see things from other’s perspectives, to be able to see the complexity of situations, and to hopefully make wise decisions in circumsances that we have never faced before.  Which brings me to the last point.  It was clear from our interviews that people who had learned something and grown in wisdom from a particular experience, applied that wisdom to all manner of new situations.  Wisdom, as opposed to knowledge, is not domain specific, because wisdom is about deeper notions (like knowing the limits of knowing), which guide information gathering, help people to “see” things, and guide the whole process leading up to decisionmaking.  Bottom line: i think that how wisdom is “taught” is more about fostering capacities for things like awareness and compassion, which certainly can be done from a very young age.  With these capacities, our experiences of adversity, large or small, have more of a chance of moving us along the wisdom trail.

  16. Margaret Plews-Ogan says:

    dear ianful,  great point.  i think that the self reflection that is wisdom is actually this capacity to rise above our own perspectives, to get out from our selves and see things as they are, not as we are.  Awareness is perhaps a better term.  And yes, i think you raise an interesting question about receiving wisdom, as a seer does.  I wonder if the “awareness” of a wise person is perhaps awareness of the self, the other, and that deeper thing which connects us as beings in this universe.  You refer to wisdom as the most natural state.  The compassion of wisdom is, i think, grounded in that natural and deep connection that a person feels for another, or for the earth.  That connection is not grounded in knowledge or reason, it is deeper than our thougts about it.  I really do think that is why people have such trouble defining wisdom but they are quick to say “but i know it if i see it”.  Fostering the capacity for wisdom may have a great deal to do with opening ourselves and cultivating deep presence.

  17. Margaret Plews-Ogan says:

    Peter, thanks for the great question and comments.  we are struggling with the same question, though not re children but medical students!  how do we prepare medical students to be wise physicians?  You know that saying “she is wise beyond her years…”. i think there is something to that, and generally what we mean by that, it seems to me,  is that this child, or young person, has both lived experience that is beyond what most children have experienced at her age, but also i think we mean that she has done something extraordinary with that lived experience, she has deeply learned and changed, and is wise because of it. Yes, i think that we all know children who we might call “wise beyond their years”, which doesn’t mean we think that they are wise, but we recognize emerging wisdom in them despite their young age.  On the other hand, i also think, based on studies like yours and others that have looked at wise elders, that being an elder, though not perhaps sufficient, may certainly be either contributory or perhaps even necessary for wisdom.  I do think that if one shifts the framework from “teaching” wisdom to “preparing the ground”, then developing capacities related to wisdom is what we can do for children.  And then we can truly mentor them through the challenging experiences they will face, perhaps even resist protecting them or rescuing them from those mildly difficult experiences.  We do tend to have a revusion to failure in our society right now, and perhaps our protectionist stance may be shielding our kids from even the most mild of failures, like getting the wrong answer in front of their peers.  But these experiences are perhaps truly formative if mentored well.  

    this is our last evening for discussion of this topic, and i wanted to thank each of you who read or commented.  It has been a lot of fun to think about these important questions with you.