In our era of “big data”, I’ve been thinking about the differences between and the relationships among what we call data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Happy to share some thoughts with you and also to invite you to do a similar reflection and share back with me what you come up with!
All of what’s in my books and my programs comes from my incredible good fortune to connect with and learn from the amazing people at Education for Living (in Louisiana) and the Newfield Network (in Colorado)… and especially from the teaching and writing of Newfield founder Julio Olalla. I love Julio’s take – actually, his several takes – on the difference between knowledge and wisdom. In his book “From Knowledge to Wisdom” he says:
“The same way we, in Western Culture, believe that more material possessions will make us happy, we believe that more information will bring us wisdom. Confusing ‘knowing’ with ‘having information’ has left out the emotional and aesthetic dimensions of knowing, as well as the intuitive and spiritual aspects of our connection with the world. We have developed our learning practices as a frantic pursuit of more information…”
He notes that our philosophy of learning and our learning practices “must include and transcend our concern for conceptual knowledge and effective action; they must also be able to illuminate the paths toward wisdom and effective living.”
This notion that knowledge is for the sake of effective action, while wisdom is for the sake of effective living, is to me a wonderful and powerful distinction.
I remember in one of my workshops at Newfield that Julio also said something to this effect, and it has stayed with my since that day: “Knowledge is indifferent to meaning and purpose, while wisdom is inseparable from them.” I invite you to really think about this, as to me it is another profoundly important claim.
(Note: I highly recommend the Newfield Network (https://newfieldnetwork.com in the US) and The Coach Partnership (https://www.thecoachpartnership.com in Singapore) if you are interested in deepening your understanding in these areas).
At this point in my life – being 64 years old and a brand new grandfather (hooray!) I’ve also been thinking about what it means to be an “elder” and what wisdom is all about. First, while many of us do get wiser as we get older, it’s certainly not guaranteed. One of my friends famously shared this with me years ago, and it’s stuck with me… he said: “Dumb people get old, too!”
For me, one aspect of wisdom has to do with gaining clarity about whose feedback about you – and in what domains? – do you care about, and whose do you not? In other words, who do you give permission to assess you, and in which areas?
Not everyone is competent to provide beneficial feedback in every domain – obviously. For example, I do not give much weight to feedback a 9-year old neighborhood child may give me about my financial portfolio management… while I care greatly about feedback from him or her in the domain of keeping promises. I care deeply about the assessments my program participants have about me and my programs… but not at all about the assessments they may have about my home landscaping. (It doesn’t mean they won’t have those assessments… it’s just that I don’t care what they are!). This brings to mind the importance of clarity and discernment here, because it’s not all or nothing! Giving everyone permission to assess us in every domain of our life certainly isn’t wise, nor is never granting anyone permission to tell us how we show up for them.
We talk about learning – adult learning, lifelong learning – in my programs and one question I always ask is this: Independent of subject matter (learning to ride a bike, learning to rebuild a relationship, learning to lead a team in times of change) what would you say are the most important pre-requisites for learning? That is, what has to be in place to optimize the learning, no matter what the subject matter? With a little reflection, the answer “open minded” virtually always comes up… and I agree entirely. And at the same time, let’s look at this closely.
First, open-minded is clearly a metaphor… our heads aren’t popped open! So what are we talking about here? For me, it has to do with the power of language to open a context, to create a space for learning… and this we do with a first step in learning that doesn’t require your legs. This we do with a language step, via 3 little words: “I don’t know”. When you or I think or say “I don’t know”, we’re not describing a state of affairs nearly as much as we’re creating something. And what we’re creating is this space, this openness to learning that wasn’t there before making that declaration.
As I think about open mindedness, I also think about closed mindedness… and this comes up: I think wisdom also has to do with not being so closed-minded that nothing can get in, nor being so open-minded that our brains fall out!
When I say not being so open-minded that our brains fall out, I’m attempting to point to the value and power of data, facts, evidence-based decision-making. Now, I have an engineering background so am biased here toward logic and facts… and also am very clear that one of the best and most powerful distinctions I was ever taught was the distinction between Assertions (what we have historically called Facts) and Assessments (what we have historically called Opinions or Personal Judgments).
Wisdom, I believe, includes being aware of when we are making Assertions (which can be true or false and are always verifiable by an objective third party) and when we are making Assessments (which can be grounded or ungrounded and are based on individual standards, moods and preferences).
I believe in the power of intuition, although I’m not sure I can define it or fully understand it… and I also believe in the power of separating observable and objectively verifiable facts from subjective opinions that may or may not have any basis in fact and may or may not even be resting on any consciously-declared standards!
For me, one aspect of wisdom includes having what we can call some degree of “intellectual rigor” in these areas… especially when working in teams and in families in situations where differences in perspective exist, and the ability to learn with, from and through each other is valued and needed for sustainable success and fulfillment.
I’ll finish up by sharing with you a few dictionary definitions, as well as some quotes about wisdom and a final observation or two.
According to dictionaries, wisdom is:
o The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge and good judgment.
o The ability to contemplate and act productively using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight.
o 3 types of wisdom identified by some scholars (Jeste & Vahia, 2008) are: cognitive wisdom – involves knowledge and the ability to think critically; reflective wisdom – involves introspection and self-awareness; and compassionate wisdom – involves empathy and concern for others.
Happy to also share some quotes that can hopefully stimulate some reflection and beneficial pondering:
o “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” Marcel Proust
o “Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh and the greatness which does not bow before children.” Kahlil Gibran
o “Knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows.” Alfred North Whitehead
o “Wisdom and deep intelligence require an honest appreciation of mystery.” Thomas Moore
o “The truest sayings are paradoxical.” Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)
Speaking of paradoxes, I’ll share an observation that you may have also come to yourself: In my life, some of whom I would call the dumbest people I’ve encountered are rock-solid certain about a great many things… including a great many of life’s greatest questions… while some of whom I consider the wisest people I’ve met have great areas of mystery and “not-knowing” in their lives!
Wishing you well always, and remember: Never Stop Learning!