Cultivate Wisdom

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. 

Isaac Asimov

I’m teaching my youngest son to drive. Or rather, I’m helping him get the experience and wisdom that he needs to be able to pass his test!

Over the months that he’s been practicing, I’ve seen his knowledge, skill and confidence soar. And his wisdom. He’s increasingly able to make the right call in the moment in complex, fast-moving situations. It’s impressive.

I’m also learning that as his driving has evolved, the way I mentor him has to evolve too. In the early days, it was fine to tell him what to do. In fact, it was essential. He soaked it up. Now, if I tell him what to do, I’ll get a sharp rebuke and be told in no uncertain terms that he knows what he’s doing. Which is true, mostly. I’m learning that, especially with the small errors he might make, it’s wiser to keep quiet, and let him work it out for himself.

Wisdom. The 19th century theologian Charles Spurgeon called wisdom ‘the right use of knowledge.’ Jimi Hendrix noted that ‘knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens’. Wisdom is using your experience to make the right call in the context you find yourself. My colleague Chris Miller is a little more grandiose. He calls it ‘the truth that lifts humanity’. I love that.

While wisdom has always been in demand, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s more valuable than ever. Why? Because when things get more complex, when change happens at a rapid clip, and there are no more easy answers, knowledge alone won’t help us find the way forward. Wisdom will.

Take the massive uptake of ChatGPT. It's become easier and easier to access and shape the world’s knowledge through large language models like this. Yet as I increasingly use it as a starting point for my research, it’s clear to me that it’s only a starting point. It might give me knowledge, but it won’t give me nuance. That’s where my own experience, as a human being who’s lived a little, comes to the fore. 

Another example: leading through change. This is all about stepping boldly and wisely into an unknown future. We might think we know what’s going to happen, but we actually don’t. We can’t Gantt chart everything. The stuff we can’t put in a project plan requires wisdom: making the right calls amidst the moral dilemmas that change inevitably brings. Not easy stuff.

Wisdom: Your value as a leader will only increase the more you cultivate it.

Cultivating Wisdom

To cultivate wisdom, you need a few key ingredients:

  1. A breadth of experience
  2. Experience over time
  3. A reflective practice
  4. Foresight

Let’s break those down a little more:

Breadth of experience: When we face a complex situation that we’ve never encountered before, we could get flummoxed. Yet, if the details are new, the patterns may not be. If we’ve experienced a range of challenges in different environments, we’re more likely to recognise the broader patterns at play in our current situation, and be able to discern a way forward.

Experience over time: It’s not enough to have a load of one-off experiences in different domains. To have wisdom, you need to earn it through showing up time and time again. Take my son’s driving. He didn’t gain his skills, knowledge and confidence from just one go at it. He’s gone time and time and time again, each time building up a little more perspective to help him begin to cultivate the seeds of wisdom that I’m seeing coming through now.

A reflective practice: You might have experience, but have you learned from it? The wisest people I know deliberately and regularly take time out to reflect, inquire, and learn from experience. They know how to slow down and practice being unhurried. That way, they’re more easily able to discern the real insights that can be applied to new situations in the future.

Foresight: Wisdom requires the ability to consider the consequences and implications of your actions ahead of time. It means taking the time to consider different scenarios and look at them from multiple perspectives. It requires the humility and curiosity to know that you don’t have the full picture, and the willingness to seek it out.

Everyday Practices

Over my years of working with thousands of leaders in a huge variety of different industries, one aspect stands out in those leaders who create an enduring impact: they are committed to cultivating wisdom. Not just being smart. Or getting stuff done. Or being great at presentations. They’re committed to developing wisdom. Every day.

The next time you’re faced with making a wise choice (and let’s face it, that happens every day) here are three questions to ask yourself to help you make the right call:

  1. What could I do to look at this situation from another perspective?
  2. What’s the choice that benefits the greater good (or, the longer term)?
  3. What would my 90-year old self suggest I consider here?

Go well and go wisely 🙂

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