Wisdom: The Forgotten Dimension?


By Mary Jaksch

Wisdom – what is it and how do you acquire it?

According to Prof. Barry Schwartz, Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swathmore College, wisdom means having moral will and skill.

Wisdom means having the moral will to do right by other people, and to have the moral skill to figure out what doing right means.

This is not a new idea; it is something that Aristotle taught that in ancient Greece.

In his must-see TED video The Real Crisis? We Stopped Being Wise Barry Schwartz gives an example of how the dimension of wisdom is disappearing from our society. It’s the  job description for a hospital janitor. The job description is a long list of tasks and responsibilities, from mopping the floor to cleaning and waxing furniture. Schwartz points out that something significant is missing: there is not a single point on that list that involves other human beings! He says:

“The janitor’s job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital.”

Luckily there are some janitors who take no notice of such sterile restrictions, and will actually interact with patients and their families. They see part of their job as being caring, kind, and helpful – even though their job description doesn’t say a word about other people. Schwartz said of them:

“These people have the moral will to do right by other people. And beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what doing right means.”

In other words, such people are wise.

According to Schwartz, a wise person has four aspects:

  1. A wise person knows how to make an exception to every rule.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise
  3. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills to serve other people.
  4. A wise person is made not born.

Wisdom depends on experience – but not just any experience. Schwartz lists three important points that are crucial for learning to be wise:

  • You need the time to get to know the people you are servingnurse-with-patient
  • You need permission to improvise
  • You need to be mentored by wise teachers

Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, wisdom comes with age. So I’ll just wait a while and then I’ll finally be wise.” But is that true?

Does wisdom come with age?

I think the answer is, “Yes, but…” It’s true that with each day and each year we can learn to become wiser. However, we often ignore the teachings that life offers us. Here is one unforgettable teaching that I nearly ignored – because the teacher happened to be my son who was seven years old at the time.

It was a bitter winter in Wiesbaden, a beautiful but rather stuffy city in Germany. Sebastian and I were visiting my mother. On that particular day – just a week before Christmas – darkness had fallen early. I was hurrying through an underpass to catch the bus home. Suddenly I felt Sebastian tug at my coat sleeve. I looked down.

“What’s up?”

“Mum,” he said, “why didn’t you give that lady any money?”

I looked back and saw a woman sitting on a threadbare blanket, begging.

“Oh,” I said, shaking my head, “she would most likely use any money for drugs or alcohol.”

Sebastian took my hand and looked up imploringly.

“Only someone who is very unhappy would sit in the cold and beg, don’t you think?”

I blushed. Then I walked back and gave her some money.

In this story you can see that wisdom isn’t necessarily related to age. I was the adult and Sebastian was the child. But in that moment he was the wise and compassionate person – and I wasn’t.

What is the secret ingredient of wisdom?wise elderly lady

I think there is one key ingredient. And it’s not one on Prof. Schwartz’ list.

A wise person takes the overview

The story of Sebastian and the woman begging illustrates that point perfectly. When I walked past that woman, I was pre-occupied with getting the bus. My mind revolved around my anxiety and I wasn’t open to
anything that was happening around me. In contrast, Sebastian took the overview. He could sense that I was anxious and in a hurry, but he could also see the despair and suffering of this woman sitting in the bitter cold and begging for money.

Compassionate action – the outflow of wisdom – happens when we stop being the center of our concern .

Then we can open up to a wider view of reality that includes the suffering of others, as well as our  own – and  respond with compassion.

What teachings of wisdom have you stumbled across in your life?


Check out this related article:

Does Choice Make us Happier?

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  1. This is a very good reminder to us all! So often, we get wrapped up in our own problems that we forget to look at the big picture which is always around us. People tend to forget to be compassionate when it isn’t convenient for them, and the world suffers because of it. Simply by paying attention and responding with compassion to the bigger world around us, we can make it a better place for all of us.

    Jay Schryers last blog post..And Justice For All

  2. I love the story about being wise when we are young. Sometimes we think that we only develop wiseness as we grow old, but being naive can be a good thing, since you have no judgements about others.

    Thanks for sharing the video, I’m going to set some time aside to watch it. 🙂

  3. Amber says:

    oh so true! The more compassion we can inject into every interaction the better world we create! i think you are right about wisdom at any age…everyday we can take lessons and build a better self…we just have to be open and awake enough to see those lessons. I try to learn something from every interaction with people. Everyone is so unique and different..they all offer us something. Same with every situation.. the more we experience and internalize lessons learned the more we grow wise! Thanks for such a timely reminder.

    Ambers last blog post..On Simplicity

  4. Ken K says:

    I have learned quite a lot from my kids – they would walk up to people I would shy away from (due to my perception filters and “grown up” values), while shrinking behind me when near people I found to be just fine. Looking past the obvious (physical appearance and societal norms) and seeing a hidden threat or bad intention seemed to be something they could do, and which I could not. I’m getting better at it, and each new encounter is a test, a challenge. Notice the person. Speak with the person. Get a vibe or feeling about the person, ensuring it’s not a knee-jerk reaction (they smell bad, so they must be bad). Check with kids to see what they thought (they don’t think much of it anymore, Dad’s being a pain, again). Well, I am, but it’s in my job description as Dad. Look it up. 8)

    I’ll try to end a bit more on-topic:
    The difference between the wise and the fools is not the number of mistakes made, but whether they learn something from their mistakes. We all make mistakes – let’s learn from them…

  5. Dean Rieck says:

    This is an inspiring article. I think it even applies to marketing, the industry I work in. If you can’t improvise, you really can’t succeed.

    People get way too caught up with trivial details, and don’t understand the big picture.

    Dean Riecks last blog post..Snap Pack Facts: An interview with Ted Grigg

  6. Hi Jay!
    I agree – sometimes we’re only compassionate when it suits us.

    We can be ‘too busy’ to visit the sick neighbour. Or we “don’t have time” to keep in touch with friends who are having a hard time.

  7. Hi Nathalie!
    You say: “being naive can be a good thing, since you have no judgements about others.”

    That’s a very interesting point. In particular because “being naive” is a pejorative way of saying someone has “an open mind”.

  8. Hi Amber!
    I love what you say: “The more compassion we can inject into every interaction the better world we create!”

    Yes, the world is changed through our modest compassionate actions!

  9. Hi KenK!
    Yes, we all make mistakes – and should learn from them. However…
    what sometimes baffles me is that the same life lesson will roll around, but in a totally different guise. Often it’s only afterward that I’ll recognize it.

    What I’ve developed is a simple guideline for my most common mistake. At difficult decisions, I remind myself to be “inclusive, NOT exclusive!”

  10. Hi Dean!
    Your idea of apply this article to marketing is very interesting. Too often I encounter marketing formulas on the net that degrade human beings to “leads”.

  11. It is important to stay in the present and be open minded, this way we learn constantly and consistently.

    One thing I’ve learn is that we all unique individuals and by understanding our uniqueness we appreciate more other people uniqueness and do not tend to judge others. I am still struggling with that but I got much better, after I start to learn more about myself.

    Totally agree that wisdom also comes with time. The more we learning and growing, the more wiser we become and can evaluate any situation through multiple angles.

    Great Post Mary

  12. Puerhan says:

    Great call to be present ~ another way of saying take the overview.

    It reminds me of a book by Joh J Muth called “Three Questions” (based on a Leo Tolstoy story) that I gave my son as a present. It moved me to tears when I read it, essentially it is a beautifully illustrated (in both senses) story of how to be wise.

    Puerhans last blog post..Seizing

  13. That’s a good point, that many of us are walking around locked in our trance of anxiety and suffering much of the time — and that stopping to notice what’s going on around us, whether or not it’s to give to somebody else, can at least momentarily snap us out of it.

    Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coachings last blog post..Everyone Has Different Places To Grow

  14. Hi Chris!
    The wonderful thing is that we can train ourselves to become more present!

  15. Hi Peter Levin!
    You say: “One thing I’ve learn is that we all unique individuals and by understanding our uniqueness we appreciate more other people uniqueness and do not tend to judge others.”

    That’s a fine sentiment! However it can get lost quite quickly when we’re irritated by our loved ones, don’t you find?

  16. Hi Puerhan!
    Thanks for recommending Joh J Muth’s book “Three Questions”. I”m going to check it out.

  17. Amelia says:

    Hi Mary,
    I really like your connection between taking the overview (taikyoku) and wisdom, I had never thought of it like that before. Thanks so much for the enlightening article!

  18. Hi Amelia!

    my fascination with the concept of ‘taking the overview’ started with my first karate lesson many years ago (I studied karate for 18 years).

    The first Kata (set sequence of movements) that we learned was called “Taikyoku kata”. ‘Taikyuku’ means ‘taking the overview’. After I was awarded my first Dan Blackbelt, it suddenly occurred to me: “Oh, that first kata was teaching me wisdom!”

  19. Evelyn Lim says:

    I like your sharing of what it is meant by wisdom. Yes, I don’t think that age necessarily means wisdom. Wisdom is also about how conscious we are about our surroundings and our response to them.

    Evelyn Lims last blog post..Making Sense Of Life Events

  20. Hi Evelyn!
    You say: “Wisdom is also about how conscious we are about our surroundings and our response to them.”

    I find that very interesting. Let me ask you something, please:
    Are you saying that wisdom is a particular form of consciousness?

    I agree with you that wisdom is more about how present we are, than about our accumulated experience.

    Although that helps too, don’t you think?

  21. Agree with you Mary, I didn’t think about that 🙂

    We have too deep emotional connections with our relatives and I totally with you that it is much harder to have awareness with relatives because we so use to automatic response when communication with them.

    I am struggling with that way to often 🙂 I got better, especially when I calm and relaxed, other times unfortunately it is on autopilot

    Great point

  22. Ken K says:

    Wow – the more I read this, the more complex it becomes, the more facets I see. I love it, and will be working my way back into the archives, as time allows.

    I like how Dean’s comment on Marketing relates to Leo’s post (on ZenHabits.net from sometime in Feb – slowly catching up on my reading) called “Let the World Pass You By”, which had a link to a ‘talk’ by Leo on a site called Micro Persuasion, about the “Tao of Marketing” – and finding a true *compassionate* win-win (as opposed to traditional win-win, which is usually translated to I win, you’re not hurt too badly, so I’ll call it win-win).

    As for the repeat lessons in different clothes you (and the rest of us) have been experiencing, life can be such a pain. Even if you don’t notice the connection until after the fact, just that you notice shows wisdom. Finding a template to use which covers many of the cases, and sharing it, shows both wisdom and compassion. It also allows the rest of us to take part in the higher form of learning – learning from the mistakes of others, as there simply isn’t enough time in one life to make every mistake (so make every mistake count!)

    In your comment to Evelyn, you mention that being present is part of wisdom. Perhaps I’m picking at nits, but my perception is that being present allows to notice things that we might otherwise miss. The wisdom comes into play when we decide on how to act on the information. A very aware fool could notice the same thing and come to a different conclusion. I would strongly agree that compassion is the foundation of wisdom. Experience and intelligence are then built on top of it.

    In closing, Evelyn’s comment on wisdom and age reminded me of something I heard on the net…

    Wisdom doesn’t always come with age, sometimes age shows up alone.

  23. Hi Ken!
    Yes – you’re right, awareness isn’t enough. It’s the next bit (the moral will to do right) that is the wisdom bit.

    By the way – I forgot to mention one more attribute of wisdom. And that is to have a sense of humor.

    Do you agree with sense of humor being an attribute of wisdom?

    By the way -thanks for a lovely comment, Ken!

  24. Great article! I love this quote “Wisdom means having the moral will to do right by other people, and to have the moral skill to figure out what doing right means.”

    Thanks for sharing…

    Here sre a few more quotes on Wisdom:

    “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it”
    Albert Einstein

    “The key to wisdom is knowing all the right questions.”
    John A. Simone, Sr.

    Jonathan | enlightenYourDay.coms last blog post..Stillness Speaks: Meditative thoughts by Eckhart Tolle

  25. Hi Jonathan!
    Thanks for the lovely quotes. I especially like “The key to wisdom is knowing all the right questions.”

    So often people think that wisdom is knowing all the answers. Wrong!

  26. Hi Mary,

    Its wonderful to spread this outlook. I have subscribed to this blog and am loving it. Zen teachers unite!

    Daniel Doen Silberbergs last blog post..The Future of Lost Coin Blog

  27. Hi Daniel!
    Welcome to Goodlife Zen. It’s great to see a Zen colleague starting to blog.

    I look forward to an ongoing dialogue, Daniel!

  28. […] you tell a story, you take people on a journey. I recently wrote an article about wisdom on Goodlife Zen and used a story to illustrate it. The story had evocative ingredients, a homeless […]

  29. DiscoveredJoys says:

    Work by Dr Nicholas Epley and Tal Eyal (see http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/07/improve-your-mind-reading-focus-on-big.php) suggests that when we wonder about how other people see us we are overburdened by our detailed self knowledge (the egocentric bias). We think people have a much more detailed view of us than is true.

    Their argument is that we need to think of ourselves from a higher level of abstraction (the satelitte view rather than the street level view) to read others’ thoughts and intentions more realistically.

    I’ll turn this thought on its head. When you look at a street beggar you judge them by the egocentric view in your head – “I don’t want to be slowed down. I don’t want to give my money away for it to be misused. I don’t want to be taken for a chump.”

    Wise thought means taking the satellite view, a little distanced, a little (but not totally) dispassionate. Then you can entertain the thought “How would I feel if I was in their shoes?” without triggering all your own egocentric defences. And then you take wise action.

    Wise thought + wise action = Wisdom.

    Gosh, that’s helped me clarify my own thoughts marvelously!

  30. Hi DiscoveredJoys!
    Thank you for a very interesting comment.

    I had a look at the article you mention and it’s really fascinating and instructive. Ah – some more food for a blog post 🙂

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  32. Lyn says:

    If we stay a slave to our ego mind then there is little room for compassion.

    Stepping outside of ourselves gives us more room in our hearts. It broadens our minds ability to see and accept the frailties of human existence and allow forgiveness and understanding.
    These are the the seeds of compassion which bursts forth that delightful tree of wisdom. And this tree bears the fruit of knowledge and light. The fruit of this tree contain the seeds of enlightenment available for developing. Wisdom comes from the heart and mind and has nothing to do with age.

    Wisdom will feed others and nourish the self.

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