Wisdom is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Well-educated people are often wise, but one can also be wise without having undergone any formal education (25% of the smartest individuals never attend college). Many wise people are very intelligent, but there are plenty of smart people who lack even common sense…much less true wisdom. The wise seek a wide range of life experiences and may learn through them, but only if they actually recognize and apply the valuable lessons that these situations offer.
True wisdom is a precious gift and listening to the news and viewing social media today, it’s easy to believe that wisdom is in very short supply. Some people intentionally spread lies and misinformation to further their agendas, ego, bizarre perceptions, and need for attention, even if what they’re saying is so blatantly wrong. Others are happy to spread these falsehoods without taking the time to examine the statements and discern whether or not they are true (which is certainly something that a wise person would do). Indeed, Steven Pinker, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and psychology professor at Harvard University, wrote in his book Rationality, “Today’s humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding—and also appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that developed vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?”
Although it is deeply troubling that so many people these days seem unconcerned with true knowledge and understanding, wise people do exist. Although these folks may not be as loud as their foolish counterparts, they are still present in our families, groups of friends, workplaces, and churches, where they can be relied upon to thoughtfully examine ideas and give good advice based on their knowledge and experience. How can we recognize wise people within our own lives (and strive to be more like them)? Generally, they share many of the following characteristics:
They surround themselves with individuals who make them better. Wise people avoid one-sided discussions with those who refuse to compromise or consider views different from their own. Instead, they surround themselves with positive folks who are smarter, wiser, and more experienced than they are to help promote their own growth. Many seek help from a higher power in guiding their lives, believing that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10).
They acknowledge—and learn from—their mistakes and failures. The wise know that difficulties, while sometimes painful, are actually valuable learning opportunities. They don’t dwell on the past but do utilize lessons learned from their previous disappointments (and successes) to build the future.
They are quick to forgive. Just as they accept their own mistakes without shame, wise people accept others’ imperfections and don’t hold grudges. They look for the good in everyone, even those with whom they disagree, focusing on understanding others rather than passing judgment.
They choose their words carefully. Wise individuals tend to be calm and reserved. As recommended in James 1:19 for the wise, be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Many are able to look at arguments rationally rather than basing their opinions on emotions. When they speak—which tends to be after others have expressed their thoughts—people listen.
They are humble. Socrates once stated, “The only wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Wise people take this lesson to heart, recognizing that there is always more to learn. That’s why they aren’t know-it-alls, no matter how wise, intelligent, experienced, or educated they are. I began this journey for wisdom 20 years ago when I turned 50!
They make choices based on solid evidence and experience. The wise strive to analyze all the facts before coming to timely conclusions, and they remain open to reconsidering their stances if and when new information arises.
They constantly seek new perspectives. Rather than relying on friends, media outlets, and conversations that simply confirm the beliefs they already have, wise individuals look outside the “echo chamber” to develop their own factually-based and unbiased opinions. While they may discard some opinions after careful thought and consideration, wise people are willing to entertain all fact-based, rational arguments with a wide variety of perspectives—regardless of political, personal, or other affiliations and beliefs. As Aristotle said, “It’s the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
They help others. Because of their ability to empathize, wise people are often first in line to assist those in need, especially by sharing their knowledge and experiences. They tend to look beyond their personal needs and desires to find compromises that are best for everyone. Although they don’t take joy in arguing, they will challenge the status quo if they feel that an opinion or an issue is wrong or misguided.
They strive for continuous improvement. In all aspects of life, wise people seek to learn and grow. They push themselves outside of their comfort zones to achieve and experience more, always believing in their potential. Because they recognize that even disappointments are valuable learning opportunities, they are not afraid of failure, and passionately strive to implement their visions even when facing major obstacles.
They are purpose-and strategy-driven. Although they “hope for the best and plan for the worst,” wise people craft detailed plans so that they know where they are going and how to get there.
They value others’ help. Wise individuals recognize and appreciate the knowledge, experience, and talents of others. They realize that the chances of success are higher when working as part of a talented, passionate team toward common goals.
They are reflective. Aristotle once said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Wise people look within themselves. They are able to recognize their own faults and limitations without becoming defensive, and also extend this tolerance to others.
Their word is solid. They are realistic about their own capabilities, so they “underpromise and overdeliver” instead of blindly making promises they can’t keep. One can simply trust and count on them!
They are financially responsible. Wise people know that, as Plato noted, “The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” They avoid debt and live within their means, valuing relationships, spirituality, and personal growth over the trappings of worldly success. When they retire, because of preparation throughout their lifetime, there are few financial worries.
The Bottom Line: Wisdom is a rare and precious treasure…but it is not out of reach! As a wise friend said, “Wisdom is a condition of the mind and a journey that begins when we look beyond the barrier of our own self-interests.” With the desire and willingness to learn from the practices of wise people, we can all take steps, regardless of our age, toward improving ourselves and becoming wiser. As Plato noted, “Excellence is not a gift, but a skill that takes practice!”
Mike DuBose has been a staff member with USC’s graduate school since 1986 when he began his family of companies. He is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. Please visit our blog for additional published business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Surb Guram, MD.