In a world fraught with challenge, polarization and controversy, wise reasoning is a critical skill. It can provide perspective and calm nerves during difficult times, and it can infuse good judgement when things get intense.
Despite the constant deluge of information, you likely don’t feel any more informed. It may seem like trying to find the needle of insight in the haystack of information, but the haystack just keeps getting bigger. As the saying goes, “We are drowning in information while thirsting for wisdom.”
The good news is you can expand your wisdom, and contrary to popular belief, wisdom isn’t reserved for only the elderly. It is a trait you can learn and cultivate. Wisdom can help you in your personal life when you need to stay grounded. It can help you avoid burnout when you want to feel more in control. And it can assist in making decisions which are more inspired.
Ways to Be Wiser
Science and philosophy have embraced five elements of wisdom, and developing these will make you wise (or wiser), no matter what your age.
Recognize Your Limits
One of the first elements of wisdom is to recognize the limits of your own knowledge and remind yourself you don’t have all the answers. By definition, your viewpoint is limited by your own experience and vantage points. What may seem like obvious truth to you, may be very different for others. You’ve heard the concepts before, but the ability to put intellectual humility into practice is the true measure of wisdom.
Wisdom is also found in a willingness to admit mistakes and change your point of view when you have new information. Humans make face cognitive bias frequently and the sunk cost fallacy suggests people tend to be more committed to a course of action or a belief if they’ve invested a lot of time or energy in it. Similarly, confirmation bias means people tend to tune into information more readily when it is aligned with what they already believe. Be aware of these biases and look for things that surprise you—letting you know you’ve hit upon a bias.
Remind yourself you don’t have all the answers. Ask questions of others and value their viewpoints. Stand up for what’s important to you, but also know when to stand down and defer to others who may have a different perspective. All these will help you expand your wisdom.
Be Aware of Varied Contexts
Another way to grow your wisdom is to consider multiple contexts and how they evolve and change over time. Making decisions by considering the current situation, temperature and conditions is good. But broadening your view is better. Consider how your decision will be perceived in other situations, and how it will impact people over time.
Research shows when you can put your decision in the context of a five or a ten-year window, rather than an immediate view, you’ll tend to think more creatively because you don’t have the pressure of time to hamper your ideas. Put yourself into the future and look backward from that vantage point. Imagine the ideal and consider what action or decision might have led to that more perfect point. Imagining is the first step in creating a better future, and it can motivate wise choices.
Also consider the implications of any choice. How might your actions on this project impact on another department or a future project? How might your choices on a policy or practice in your community affect other communities in the area. Thinking with a broader perspective is a fundamental characteristic of wisdom.
Acknowledge Others’ Points of View
Closely related to recognizing your own limits is acknowledging and appreciating others’ perspectives. New research from the University of California finds this may be tough. A region of the brain called the gestalt cortex processes and makes sense of incoming information. When others express different opinions, the brain can interpret this as a threat to its reality and trigger an anger or fear response. In addition, the brain takes shortcuts and may discount or dismiss information which is difficult to take in—all of this can make it tough to see and accept others’ points of view.
The implication is wisdom requires intentionality—seeking to understand others and valuing opinions which are different. Controversy can be a vehicle for learning when it is accompanied by listening and a genuine desire to learn from others’ points of view. And compromise will be the fuel for moving forward. It is the demonstration of wisdom which takes in multiple points of view in order to find the best course of action.
A perspective of distance can be especially useful in fostering wisdom. Simulation research by the University of Waterloo found when people thought of themselves in the third person, they tended to make wiser choices. The third person helped them think more objectively and remove a sense of personalization which clouded judgement.
The take-away message is this: When you’re considering a challenging choice, get some perspective and think of yourself in a less emotional, more distanced way. What would long-term you do? Or what would someone else do? When you look back on this decision later, what will you think of it? These kinds of questions can help you gain perspective and be wiser.
Trust Your Gut
The study at the University of Waterloo also found when people tuned into their heart rates more closely, they tended to make better decisions. You may think of wisdom as driven purely by the head, but there is a component of heart as well.
Check in on your own reactions to a situation and trust your gut. Assess things rationally and then apply a dose of intuition and emotion. When you’re tuned into to your own reactions, the awareness can provide insights about your values and passions—paving the way for wiser decisions.
A big part of wisdom is perspective—separating yourself enough to assess the best options. It is also characterized by awareness of yourself and others, so you can hold multiple points of view in mind. And wisdom considers the future. Ultimately, hope for the future requires embracing the uncertainty that comes with it—and reminding yourself you have the skills, resilience and wisdom to make the best decisions for today and in the future.