“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit…wisdom is not putting it in fruit salad.” -Miles Kington
I repeated this quote a number of times, because it so aptly demonstrates the fallacy of equating knowledge and intelligence with wisdom. All too often I have run into people who are knowledgeable by the world’s standards, but lack wisdom, and an encounter with a group of colleagues this week made me dive into it a little deeper. This group was made up of a wide array of individuals, some were graduates of some of the finest establishments of higher learning in our nation, some had decades of hands on experience, and some were just starting out in life trying to find their way. It was interesting to watch the dynamics of the group as discussions went from topic to topic regarding crafting a strategy for our evolving mission. There were, in each group, the stereotypical individual, the Ivy League know-it-all, dressed well, using words as a surgical tool to make very nuanced points allowing him the ability to be on both sides of the same issue at once, the raised himself up by his bootstraps, experienced veteran, who tended to be blunt, singleminded of purpose and self conscious about his lack of degrees from respected institutions, and the kid just out of college trying to figure out how to navigate such strong personalities. More interestingly, however, there was one guy in the group, who I thought was a great example of Kingston’s quote…and no this is not autobiographical.
Gene is retired Air Force, born in Texas and got both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at the University of Texas in Austin. He went through an executive MBA program out of Duke and is a voracious reader of all types of literature. He likes football, drinks beer, likes a good whisky, and enjoys watching auto racing. He owns a pickup and a BMW, wears cowboy boots with his suits and has been known to debate on topics ranging from Aristotelian versus Socratic methods of learning to why Phineas and Ferb was better than Rocko’s Modern Life. He also has a rule when approaching meetings such as the strategy one we were in. Say nothing for the first 30 minutes and then start by asking the opinion of the quietest guy in the room.
Gene is a believer in the idea that we have two ears and one mouth because we should listen twice as much as we talk. He also believes that too often good ideas and thoughts are not shared because people are afraid to challenge those who are louder or more outgoing. As a result, he has made it his personal goal to get the “silent majority” to start talking and sharing in these types of events, and he does it masterfully, because Gene understands the differences between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is what we learn. It sticks in our head and is what our intelligence uses to speculate on and predict what will happen, what should be done, etc. Wisdom, however, is based on our experiences. It is rooted in our heart and helps us understand “what could be” and why. Knowledge understands the logic in the argument, while wisdom understands the relationship between the logic and the person. Knowledge crafts the answer, while wisdom crafts the approach.
Many places in the Bible, the authors talk of the gifts of wisdom and knowledge separately, but linked together. Far too often we consider them to be equivalent and redundant, but the subtle distinction between them is critical to being well-rounded. So, if knowledge can be gained by observing and learning as we proceed through life, how do we gain wisdom? In James, we are told to ask for it, however, the longstanding joke is to be careful because, that means you’ll have to go through a lot of rough experiences to gain the wisdom you desire. However, not all experiences have to be bad for you to gain wisdom. In most cases, wisdom is in recognizing the danger before it becomes bad. Anyway, my approach to gaining wisdom (and I do not yet consider myself to have attained it yet), is to first ask God for it and trust that he will give me wise insight as I approach situations. Second, I seek the advice and points of view of people I trust, regardless of whether they agree with me or not. Again, wisdom doesn’t seek to validate a position, it seeks to understand it in context. Finally, I actively review past decisions, both good and bad, to seek what all I can glean from them. The purpose being not to wallow nor bask in the successes or failures of yesterday, but to reflect on what can be learned from the experience.
In any case, you will build up both wisdom and knowledge as you progress through your life. If you choose to actively seek it, you’ll be much, much better off, than if you learn it by letting things happen to you. I leave you with this quote by Confucius. “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”