We are all born to be wise. Our brains are wired with the potential for wisdom at birth. As we age, we can develop that practical common sense and moral awareness that combine to produce that most sought after capacity – practical wisdom. A definition of practical wisdom is the ability to know how to do the right thing in each situation for the right reasons. The work I do is about understanding and practising the right way to become a wiser person as we age. It introduces and applies the simple, common sense that has become so uncommon today.
The difference between spiritual and practical wisdom
So I am not talking about spiritual wisdom here although practical and spiritual wisdom are often found together. Others are far better qualified to guide the personal quest for eternal, religious or metaphysical development of the spirit. Practical wisdom is a very simple but powerful state that we can all achieve in our everyday lives.
We already recognise it
Practical wisdom is often recognised but rarely defined. I was at a 60th birthday party recently where at least three of the speakers acknowledged my friend for her ‘wisdom’. Her wisdom is not spiritual; another speaker described her as ‘not doing God’ – she is very ‘down to earth’. It is something that we respect people for and it is a state that develops over a lifetime through experience. Even though we can intuitively recognise the ability, there is a need to put a framework for developing practical wisdom in place for us all.
Wisdom and knowledge are different
‘Knowledge is identifying a tomato as a fruit. Wisdom is not adding it to a fruit salad’. Anon
Most people agree that there is a need for more wisdom today, but some people mistake knowledge for wisdom. Practical wisdom is developed through practice in the real world; through experience, trial and error, reflection and adjustment. Knowledge is only part of the equation; reading and academic qualifications are useless and can even be dangerous if used alone. ‘Knowing’ the answer without first applying the tools of wisdom will result in poor decisions. Theoretical knowledge is useful as a guide for reflecting on personal experience; a scaffold for building deeper understanding and judgement. Knowing what and why needs to be subjected to ‘how’ in many different contexts before knowledge becomes wisdom.
A benefit of aging
Practical wisdom is age related. It takes our brains many years to connect the dots though knowledge, experience and control of our thinking and feeling. This does not happen automatically; there are many older people who aren’t wise! It takes intent and practice and it is important to practice the right things at the right time.
I work with four stages of age-related development (you can download a copy at the bottom of this article). Each stage requires different practice. In youth we have the physical energy and are given allowance for breaking established rules and as we age there is the potential to develop good judgement, compassion and altruism. It is important to take the right action at the right time to develop wisdom.
Personal and collective wisdom
We can practice individually to develop practical wisdom. A small team or a larger community, such as an organisation, can develop a wise approach. It is not necessary for everyone in a team to have wisdom although it requires at least one person. Teams and organisations need frameworks and cultures within which wisdom can be respected, used and encouraged to grow. Practical wisdom, like a plant, will grow easily if given the right support and nutrients!
Why we should all aspire to develop wisdom
- Because we can – and who doesn’t want to be known as wise?
- It will enable communities and society to be wiser
- We will benefit from better decisions and relationships
- It will make us happier – it anchors our sense of purpose in life.
In their book ‘Practical Wisdom’ Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe sum this up: ‘Wisdom is not the mysterious gift of a handful of sages, but a capacity we all have and need.’
Let’s develop our innate capacity for wisdom.