Wisdom is a personality trait earned through time and lived experience, which is characterized by strong emotional and crystallized intelligence, intuitiveness, and compassion.
People who are wise have the capacity to see below the surface of a situation and intuit a range of possible outcomes or factors that inexperienced people cannot discern.
According to Jeste and Lee (2019), wisdom can be defined as:
“…a complex human trait with several specific components: social decision making, emotional regulation, prosocial behaviors such as empathy and compassion, self-reflection, acceptance of uncertainty, decisiveness, and spirituality.”
Wise people also often have tacit knowledge, referring to the ability to know how to respond to situations intuitively, and crystallized intelligence, referring to a depth of stored knowledge that they can rely upon to make decisions.
- Understanding Human Nature: A wise person understands that all people are different, yet fundamentally similar. Through their extensive experiences with a range of people, they understand that everyone has their own motivations, perspectives, and fears, so they have a good grasp of human nature. They don’t expect others to think, feel, or act exactly as they do. Instead, a wise person may have emotional intelligence, meaning that they would seek to understand and empathize with the unique circumstances of each person they encounter.
- Learning from Mistakes: Wisdom involves learning from mistakes. We won’t grow wisdom without trial and error, making out own mistakes, and acknowledging that we aren’t perfect. Wise people themselves aren’t perfect – they’re often very humble because they’ve made about as many mistakes as anyone! That’s how they got so wise in the first place. So, wise people would teach us to embrace our past mistakes, learn from them, and apply these lessons to future decisions. Wise people see mistakes as opportunities for learning, growth, and personal development. rather than signs of personal failure or incompetence.
- Practicing Emotional Intelligence: A wise person knows that human emotions are central to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. But they also know that their emotions can be misleading. Take, for example, the Stoic philosophers, who are widely respected as some of the wisest people to live. These wise old men did not allow their emotions to control their actions. Instead, they aimed to understand their feelings and not let those feelings control their thoughts. They learned to manage emotions in a healthy way, such as through mindfulness.
- Valuing Life Balance: Wisdom often includes understanding the importance of balance in life, such as work-life balance, and often, acknowledging that embracing the present is better than chasing an imagined and unattainable future. A wise person knows that leisure, relationships, self-improvement, and service are all important aspects of a fulfilling life, so they ensure they don’t let work take over their whole life.
- Prioritizing Long-Term Gain Over Short-Term Gratification: A wise person understands the concept of delayed gratification, having experienced the results of both delayed and instant gratification in their own lives. They’re aware that delayed gratification is often the superior of the two. As a result, they can resist the temptation of immediate reward in favor of long-term benefits. This can be seen in various aspects of life, from financial planning to health choices and personal relationships.
- Empathy and Compassion: A wise person can put themselves in others’ shoes, allowing them to understand and share the feelings of others. This promotes harmonious relationships and effective communication. This empathy also often comes from personal experience, having often been in the shoes of others, and having gone through hard times themselves.
- Resilience in the Face of Adversity: Wisdom includes knowing that life will always present challenges; and that we have the ability to bounce back from them if we are resilient. Wise people often have the intuition and experience required to adapt and recover from adversity, enabling them to grow stronger and gain insights through experience. This is because they’ve been through adversity themselves and know what it takes to get through.
- Humility and Self-awareness: This is perhaps the biggest example of wisdom that comes to my mind: a humble person. Wise people tend to be humble because they’ve experienced enough in life to not think they’re above anyone else. A wise person understands their own limitations and never considers themselves superior to others. They are open to new ideas and perspectives, and are always ready to learn and grow.
- Mindful Living: Wise individuals are often conscious of their thoughts, feelings, and actions in the present moment. They understand the value of living in the now, rather than worrying excessively about the past or future. This knowledge may come from experience, but also from respect for a depth of philosophical and spiritual traditions that teach this timeless ‘conventional wisdom’.
- Discernment: Wisdom involves the ability to make sound judgments and decisions. This requires analyzing a situation from multiple angles, considering potential outcomes, and choosing the most beneficial or ethical course of action. A person who is discerning generally has walked down multiple different paths, and therefore has the knowledge of what will happen if they take one course of action over another.
- Valuing Inner Peace: Wise people understand the importance of inner peace and make efforts to maintain it. They do not let external circumstances easily disturb their inner tranquility, and they know how to manage stress and anxiety. For example, wise people may practice spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation which each help them to achieve this inner peace in their own lives.
- Appreciation for Life: Wisdom often involves a deep appreciation for life in all its forms. This can include recognizing the beauty in nature, the joy in simple pleasures, or the value in every human life. Wise people are often stereotyped as being very happy, such as the Dali Llama, and this stems from their love of life and other humans, reflecting their emotional intelligence.
- Patience: A wise person knows that some things simply take time. They do not rush unnecessarily, instead they understand the importance of allowing things to unfold in their own time. For example, you could imagine the wise character in a movie preaching patience to their apprentice – Yoda to Luke Skywalker or Mr Miyagi to the Karate Kid.
- Focus on Service: Many wise individuals believe in serving others. They recognize the interconnectedness of all life and understand that helping others often brings happiness and fulfillment to oneself. This inner fulfillment is referred to as intrinsic rewards for inherently pleasurable behavior.
Conventional Wisdom Examples
Conventional wisdom refers to wisdom that belongs to a society or culture, rather than an individual.
For example, it can refer to widely accepted beliefs or propositions that are presumed true by the general population and are often distilled in words of wisdom, such as the phrases below.
Here are some examples:
- “Practice makes perfect.” Perfection is a result of practice, practice, and more practice. This simple phrase acknowledges the power of repetition and highlights the importance of deliberate effort. It’s a reminder that as we engage with tasks repeatedly, we naturally become more skilled. Ultimately, it emphasizes our innate capacity for growth and learning, urging us to persevere even when faced with challenges.
- “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” These words of wisdom urge us to delve deeper than surface appearances. Recognizing that looks can be deceiving, this saying encourages us to take the time to truly understand something or someone before forming opinions. It serves as an important reminder that there is often much more beneath the surface than what initially meets the eye—a valuable lesson for all of us.
- “Actions speak louder than words.” This saying holds profound significance in its directness. It highlights the belief that our actions carry greater weight and meaning compared to mere verbal promises. This powerful statement calls on us to value behavior over empty talk—an essential reality check for those who fail to follow through with their commitments.
- “The early bird catches the worm.” This old adage celebrates proactivity and seizing opportunities without delay. This age-old adage reminds us of the benefits gained from starting early or taking swift action. By emphasizing the advantage gained through proactive behavior, it inspires individuals towards success through promptness and initiative.
- “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” The saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” holds wisdom not only in financial matters but also in various situations where relying too much on a single strategy or asset can lead to significant loss or risk.
- “Honesty is the best policy.” Ever heard of the saying “Honesty is the best policy”? It’s a common understanding that being truthful and sincere is often the optimal approach, even if it means facing discomfort or challenges initially.
- “Time heals all wounds.” This notion suggests that with time, emotional pain and difficulties become more manageable and easier to handle.
- “Money can’t buy happiness.”We’ve all heard it before: “Money can’t buy happiness.” This age-old saying conveys the idea that despite the comfort and luxury money can bring, true happiness and contentment cannot be purchased.
- “Opposites attract.” This is a common saying suggesting that people with opposite personalities or traits are often attracted to each other.
- “Slow and steady wins the race.” Based on the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, this saying encourages persistence and consistency over speed or haste.
- “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” This saying suggests that if there are rumors or indications of a problem, there is likely some truth or issue that needs to be addressed.
- “Better safe than sorry.” This common phrase suggests it’s better to take precautions and avoid potential problems than to take risks that might lead to regret.
- “You are what you eat.” This saying communicates the idea that the quality of food one consumes has a direct impact on one’s health and wellbeing.
- “All good things must come to an end.” This phrase suggests the inevitable end of all positive experiences or situations, highlighting the transient nature of life.
- “A stitch in time saves nine.” This phrase encourages addressing small problems immediately to prevent them from becoming bigger issues later.
- “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” This saying suggests that being apart from someone can intensify feelings of love or affection towards them.
- “The customer is always right.” A common saying in the business world, it indicates the importance of customer satisfaction in maintaining a successful business, even if the customer’s requests or complaints may seem unreasonable at times.
- “Birds of a feather flock together.” This phrase suggests that people with similar interests, ideas, or characteristics will often be found in each other’s company.
- “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This implies that even if something seems to be given without a cost, there may be an indirect or hidden price to pay.
- “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” This is a reminder to practice empathy and to avoid judging others too quickly, as we may not fully understand their circumstances or experiences.
- “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” This phrase implies that you can’t have everything you want or that you can’t enjoy both of two desirable but mutually exclusive choices.
- “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” This is often used to remind people that important work takes time and that patience is needed when embarking on a major project or change.
Wisdom refers to a degree of intelligence, knowledge, and skill, that can only be achieved through time and experience. It is a trait that is often associated with older people, who have had sufficient time and experience to develop wisdom, and is why elderly people in societies are often deeply respected and honored. While personal wisdom reflects the wisdom of an individual, collective wisdom reflects the combined wisdom and common-sense of a cultural group, which we may see in words of wisdom examples, such as “better safe than sorry” or “slow and steady wins the race.”
Jeste, D. V., & Lee, E. E. (2019). Emerging empirical science of wisdom: definition, measurement, neurobiology, longevity, and interventions. Harvard review of psychiatry, 27(3), 127.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]