01 June 2017

Sharing wisdom: reflections on the road to the country for old men

M.C. Escher
Not everyone is lucky enough to journey into the "country for old men" (and women). And even among those who are lucky enough to reach old-age, not all learn as much from the journey as they might. Some arrive at the destination having missed the journey.
Growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional.

Is practical wisdom valuable?

Even in a society which is increasingly technical and technological, there is some sense that wisdom is a worthy goal, a knowledge worth attaining. Adapting the words of Aristotle in Nichomacean Ethics only a little, we can see that his observation applies still today:
"Although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics [and technology and computers] and similar sorts of knowledge, they nonetheless lack practical wisdom. Such wisdom is gained from experience which the young do not possess, for experience is the fruit of years." (adapted from Nichomachean Ethics 1142a).
So even while we may rely on our children, our grand-children or both to help us download apps to our mobile phone, to show us how to connect our "smart" television to Netflix and how to stream music through Spotify to our tablet and other devices, there is still a place for wisdom.


Most people understand and even value wisdom at some intuitive level. Elders and ancestors have been revered in some cultures - even if ours sometimes forgets to do so. It seems that wisdom is most important in cultures high on Hofstede's cultural dimension of power-distance.

Practical wisdom is important in all cultures - even if only revered in some!

There are almost always some that appreciate wisdom.
Perhaps those who have lived longer. Which means there's a good audience because there are more people around today who have lived longer than ever before! 

In Australia (and reflected in western cultures around the world), 16% of the population are aged 65 years or more. Up from 8-9% in the 1960s and 70s.
Why do those who have lived longer have wisdom that is worth listening to? Well, a long life presumably reflects that have done the right thing – or at least, less things wrong! 

In a kind of natural selection way, those who have lived longer represent the ones who must be, in some ways, wiser than those who exited earlier!
However, living a long life doesn't ensure the person has wisdom. 

Wisdom comes from learning. Some learn sooner, some learn later. 

Age provides more time to learn, but it is the learning that is the critical factor, not simply having lived longer.
Still, we need to highlight that it is conscious learning that is important.

A very young child or a circus animal can learn that a repeated behavior will reap a reward (operant conditioning). They have learned, but they don't have wisdom.
“A learning experience is one of those things that says, 'You know that thing you just did? Don't do that.” (Douglas Adams, Salmon of Doubt).
Wisdom is a level above, it is evidence of meta-learning, learning from learning. 

It is about developing a sense of perspective, a sense that one's own view is just one perspective among others. Maybe even one among many.

The ability to view my own life, my own experiences, my own learnings in some removed, rather dispassionate way. 

Or even better, to be able to laugh at my experiences. 

For laughter is an acknowledgement of two or more conflicting perspectives:
"Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon." Woody Allen

The getting of practical wisdom

Practical wisdom does not require age. 

Not even experience is necessary - for many with experience can lack practical wisdom.

The key is to have learned from the experience, to have learned from the learning.

The essential element then, is reflection. To have an outer view of our own personal and inner experience.

This requires an active process, an examination of ourselves.

Curiously, one of the few tasks in our lives that inevitably requires reflection is teaching.  To teach something, we must reflect on what we know, what the learner needs to know.


So one path to developing wisdom is to teach. Through teaching, we reflect. Through reflection, we learn.

Perhaps this is why good teachers are considered to be those who "learn from the learner" (Kirkegaarde). 

Maybe this is why the French verb, apprendre, means both to learn (as in English), but also to teach.

Some people develop practical wisdom fairly naturally. In a psychological sense, they have a trait that ensures they gain wisdom. These are the people for whom "an unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates).

The characteristic (virtue?) that underlies the development of wisdom appears to be a capacity to self-reflect. Not just to be able to see oneself, but to process such self-reflections deeply – like looking into the eye of another, and seeing oneself. Like looking into a mirror, and seeing not just oneself, but seeing into and beyond the superficial self that stares at you.

Wisdom comes not from having lived a long life, but from having reflected on the reasons for why that life has been long.
"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." (Kirkegaarde)


The sharing of wisdom

Practical wisdom is to be shared. 

One obvious reason is for the benefit of others – even if they seem ungrateful or unaware of the value of what is shared. 

But a less obvious reason for the sharing is to benefit the teacher (learner). 

Sharing with others necessitates precisely the level of self-reflection that is required. 

Moreover, in the sharing, the comments, the challenges, the feedback of others dynamically shape the identity of the speaker.


Self-reflection is an endless rabbit-hole. So wisdom is to be shared, not just for the benefit of those with whom the wisdom is shared, but also for the benefit of those who do the sharing.

This is how practical wisdom develops.

1 comment:

  1. Wisdom is actually something which is either with someone from the time he's born or it comes to him when he faces the world and gains experience. This blog has an impressive work on it!

    ReplyDelete