What is wisdom? This is the first in a series of responses to that very question. In this blog, I try to demonstrate that accurately predicting outcomes is a fundamental aspect of wisdom. I bring in both old quotations about wisdom (“From the errors of others, a wise man corrects his own” ~ Publilius Syrus) and new (“Some of the best lessons we ever learn we learn from our mistakes and failures. The error of the past is the wisdom of the future” ~ Tryon Edwards).
The picture to the left is what is left of my kite. I bought a brand new kite, and I placed it by my car to take to the beach later today. I had to mow, and I use a riding mower that forces the grass clippings (and quite a bit of air) out of the side of the blade carriage. It had blown my kite a couple feet, and it was essentially resting on the grass. Now, I am new to a mower of this type (one with the aggressive expulsion of grass clippings), and I didn’t realize that it also sucked air in, essentially. Thus, it pulled my kite in and instantly shredded it. This is an example of what I am left with. I was angry at myself, and I felt stupid.
I thought about this in regard to the question, What is wisdom? because it clearly demonstrates my foolishness, and the opposite of that is wisdom.
One of the hallmarks of a wise approach to life is to be able to accurately predict outcomes. This is a superordinate skill, and it is largely learned.
“Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.”
For example, should I not have been able to accurately predict that if I got my mower anywhere near that kite package that something like this could occur? Did I not imagine that there would be some suction involved? When asking the question, What is wisdom?, one possible answer is: To be able to see that if you do something risky, you may pay the consequences.
Have you ever heard of someone getting pregnant – say, a teenager or some such person? You are kind of struck by a feeling of “That was unwise! Don’t you know to protect yourself using birth control?” As well, 2017 had the highest number of sexually transmitted diseases in decades. People are generally not great at predicting outcomes.
What is wisdom? has other examples. Speeding resulting in a speeding ticket. Running your mouth resulting in getting your face punched or slapped. Investing in high-growth stocks leading to taking a beating when the economy enters a recession. I know I myself have started a restaurant that failed (in 2007), been fired from a couple jobs, and brought home a snake (much to my wife’s chagrin). The outcomes were, in hindsight, fairly predictable.
“As with all decisions, a wise decision must be made with incomplete information. But to act wisely, one must plan a reasonable future situation, desire the outcome to be broadly beneficial, and then act.”
The point is that of course in hindsight folks can see what happened, and that it was fairly predictable. But wisdom is the skill that helps one to predict accurately what will occur, and avoid the pain, loss, and consequences that often result when we text while driving, shave in a hurry, and tell our boss’s boss that our boss isn’t very competent.
Leon F. Seltzer sees in his analysis of the question, What is wisdom? that “Wisdom derives more from mistakes and failures than from success.” And that is fair to say. I do think, though, that a person is wiser if they keep their eyes open, their perceptiveness attuned, and their “thinking caps” on than if they simply stumble upon one dubious situation after another. First of all, one is likely to get killed or go become an alcoholic if they don’t succeed at predicting outcomes successfully. That’s call Darwinism. And secondly, is it not better to put two and two together, if you will, and predict that the humming coming from that knot in the tree is more likely to turn out to be a beehive than a little air compressor?!
You’ve heard the phrase, invest your money wisely. I want to slice it pretty thin here and point out that wisdom is not simply witnessing the laws of probability operating. That would be simply flipping a coin, or winning/losing the lottery. So, investing, for example, is more about predicting what route to take that will grow your money and avoid unnecessary risk. Also, to tolerate fluctuations and the impatience of awaiting a return on investment.
So, when one asks, What is wisdom?, it has something to do with correctly gauging probability, but it also taps into that non-random aspect of outcome prediction (e.g., finding a qualified financial advisor versus giving your money over to a shady or incompetent one). To put an even finer point on it, the stock market does not rise and fall based simply on the laws of probability; macroeconomic and other factors influence the market, and a wise investor will see those aspects (and an unwise one will “sell low and buy high”, if you will).
To further explicate answers to the question, What is wisdom?, I will present some quotations on wisdom:
“History teaches that wherever you find human beings, certain lessons are worth learning. There is a root humanity that is reached by certain events and that allows us to predict how we are likely to behave under certain conditions and how those conditions, therefore, should either be promoted or shunned.”
“We seem to continue to expect intelligence and knowledge to predict rational behavior, as if rationality was some kind of byproduct of intelligence. Even skeptics can often be caught suggesting that if we just give people the right facts, they’ll change their minds about vaccines, E.S.P., and global warming. But that is not how people work.”
“If you think somebody’s transcendental hand – God, Lady Luck, Lakshmi, doesn’t matter – is pushing the coins to come up ‘half heads’ [and half tails], you start to believe in the so-called ‘law of averages;’ five heads in a row and the next one’s almost sure to land tails. Have three sons, and a daughter is surely up next. After all, didn’t de Moivre tell us that extreme outcomes, like four straight sons, are highly unlikely? He did, and they are. But, if you’ve already had three sons, a fourth son is not so unlikely at all. In fact, you’re just as likely to have a son as a first-time parent.”
“Wisdom at times is found in folly.” ~ Horace
“Personality-related factors, such as openness to experience, generativity, and creativity are better predictors of wisdom than cognitive factors such as intelligence.”
“Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.”
“A man only becomes wise when he begins to calculate the approximate depth of his ignorance.” ~ Gian Carlo Menotti
“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.” ~ Elbert Hubbard
“Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“It is certainly possible to have experience, but little if any wisdom. Think of an elderly person who — though he has lived a long life, and is rich with experience — fritters away his money and ends up on welfare. It’s likewise possible to be very knowledgeable, yet unwise. Think of the people on Wall Street who — despite impressive knowledge of financial markets — showed a staggering lack of wisdom in the lead up to the Great Recession.” ~ Michael Prinzing