Never mistake knowledge for wisdom.
One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.
Happy New Year, everyone! In this first post of 2012, I’d like to continue the conversation about the attributes of a visionary by focusing on one that is probably the most obvious yet the most elusive to define: wisdom. We usually know it when we see it, but what is wisdom exactly?
Wisdom is in a sense a composite of many different characteristics—profound knowledge, conscious awareness, intuition, foresight, patience, the ability to see the big picture, experience, openness, and empathy—but even then, wisdom is greater than the sum of its parts, just as being a visionary has a greater impact beyond the self.
These characteristics alone do not confer wisdom, although developing them can lead us toward it. To do so requires going beyond the surface. Knowledge alone, for example, is not enough, although having much knowledge is often mistaken for having wisdom. Knowledge itself has many layers that go beyond simply understanding facts. Profound knowledge, which can help lead to wisdom, includes strategic knowledge (which often goes hand in hand with experience and foresight), understanding of change and variation, knowledge about context and relationships and about the multiple, often subtle consequences of our choices. Profound knowledge leads to embracing transformation and to knowing, both crucial aspects of wisdom.
Wisdom is often associated with age and experience, and this isn’t entirely false. With years of experience living and working and relating to others, our intuition and foresight are honed and our ability to see the big picture is usually strengthened simply from having a larger picture of experiences in our past to draw from. But we all know that not everyone over a particular age is wise, and most of us have encountered remarkable wisdom in a young person.
As my mentor Dr. W. Edwards Deming said, the past does not always determine the future. Just because you did well at something before doesn’t mean you will in the future, and just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it will going forward. We can’t predict the future from the past because there will always be unexpected discontinuous change. Seemingly more frequent “Black Swan events” (high-impact, unpredictable events) disrupt what was and dismantle what appeared solid.
But when we can meld earned wisdom with constantly evolving profound knowledge about chaos and transition, about Starship Earth and each other as visionary cohabitants navigating into the future, we can prepare for alternative futures . . . opening the gateway to greater creativity, innovation, and resiliency to sustain all that matters most—in our personal lives, our professional endeavors, and as a stewards of today’s tomorrows.
A wise person tends to be optimistic about these tomorrows, although whether this is the result of wisdom or a necessary factor in developing wisdom is interesting to ponder. For example, wisdom enables us to face uncertainties and chaos with confidence that we will be able to solve the problems before us, even if it takes us a while (and no small amount of patience) to do so. Wisdom also enables us to distinguish between the problems we can and should solve and those we need to let go.
We are moving into an era of increasingly available information at our fingertips, yet as a nation and as a planet, we are clearly not using this information wisely. One major reason for this is that the speed of information is overwhelming, and few of us take time regularly to reflect, a necessary habit of the wise—and our environment and our social and political landscape are paying the price.
We’ve never needed wise, visionary leadership more than we do now. In 2012, will you be one of the visionaries the world is waiting for?
Image credit: Photograph by Rick Audet.