Part of taking risks, is taking your knocks. Maybe you pack a Donald Duck sleeping bag on a cold night of camping. Rookie mistake. Or you buy some “precious” gems from a friendly fellow in Bangkok. What a rube! Or you just generally get in deeper than intended, up a snowy mountain or up the proverbial creek with no paddle.
Fortunately, mercifully, most of us absorb our lessons with time. Whether by imitation, reflection or hard knocks, the rashness of youth and inexperience gives way to shades of wisdom. Part of the deeper value of exploration is that we experience the nature of our environment first hand and grow intellectually and emotionally. But what does it mean to be wise? Can it be defined and measured? Scientists think so.
In the latest stab at defining wisdom, a team of psychiatrists asked experts on the subject – gerontologists, sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and so on – to rate the importance of various traits in making a person wise.
“One of the most elusive psychological constructs is wisdom,” Dilip V. Jeste, MD, of the University of California San Diego, and her colleagues wrote in their report on the study. “Although the concept of wisdom is possibly almost as old as the history of human civilization, there is still no standard definition of wisdom. There are notable similarities between the ancient and modern notions of wisdom; yet, the scientific study of wisdom dates back only to the 1970s.”
Despite the various ways that scientists, cultures and individuals define wisdom, the researchers found “a remarkable consensus among the expert participants on wisdom being a distinct entity and a number of its characteristic qualities.”
To the point of wisdom being distinct, the experts distinguished it from the related concepts of spirituality and intelligence. Of the 53 characteristics the experts were asked to rate as characteristic of a wise person – traits such as the ability to give good advice, desire for learning and knowledge and humility – wisdom differed from intelligence on 46 items and from spirituality on 31 items.
The wisdom gurus identified a number of characteristics that typify a wise person, many of which only come with with time and breadth of experience. They agreed wisdom is a hard-earned quality, and one that will never come in a pill.
Several of the characteristics of wise people that the experts identified are related to a person’s cognitive abilities, including a rich knowledge of life, tolerance of ambivalence, the ability to make pragmatic decisions, recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge, realism and acceptance of uncertainty in life.
Others were associated with a person’s tendency to reflect on life, including the ability to learn from experiences, possessing practical life skills such as sound judgment about difficult problems and the ability to translate that judgment into action. This reflective ability also includes self-insight, a sense of justice or fairness and the ability give good advice.
Then there’s the ability to get along with other people. Wise people aren’t mean. They tend to be emotional generous, the experts said, capable of empathizing and cooperating with others and are concerned with nurturing and guiding younger people and contributing to the next generation.
None of these things really come as a surprise, but they do represent a kind of wish list, a collection of qualities to which one can aspire.
They also serve as a reminder that wisdom, in large part, is a byproduct of experience. Who you are depends on what you’ve done.