Characteristics of Wisdom

Wisdom – or at least the pursuit of it – seems to be one of the cornerstones of the human condition. Found at the intersection of experience, knowledge and discernment, wisdom guides us to right action.

Often we associate wisdom with age, thinking the oldest among us may be the wisest. Perhaps that is true. Our elders have had far more experience, after all. And yet I’ve seen great wisdom come from the youngest of people. Likewise, wonderful wisdom may be found not only in the most formally educated or the wealthiest, but also in people who never finished even 8th grade or who live in poverty.

When I recognize someone as wise, even if only in a moment, I am typically making a gut judgment rooted in my own biases. I wondered today as I pondered the concept of wisdom what criteria I use to make that judgment. Thus I’ve challenged myself to name some characteristics of those who exhibit wisdom.

Wise people:

  • Consider the full range of consequences of decisions and actions
  • Take many perspectives and sources of information into account
  • Stay level-headed in tough situations
  • Filter decisions through their own core values
  • Seek to understand themselves, others and the world around them and beyond
  • Are lifelong learners
  • Don’t go around telling people they are wise

I can think of a number of people in my life who fit the list above. Some I think of as mentors, people I go to for insight and guidance again and again. They’re the people who just seem to know things. They leave me feeling inspired and full of hope. And others, well I’m in awe of their decisions, choices made for long term and far reaching benefit in spite of the pressures of culture or apparent immediate gain. For an example of the latter, I’ll share a story of someone very close to me.

Toward the end of a whirlwind 9th grade year, my son began considering his life. In addition to personally high academic standards, he was playing a sport with practices or games most days of the week, taking music lessons weekly, playing in a community youth orchestra with rehearsals every Sunday, and was very active in a detailed and time-consuming hobby. He loved every piece of that mix except that he had little time to just be. In late May he made a tough decision to eliminate the youth orchestra. He had weighed the options and saw that with the private lessons and his school string ensemble, he’d still get the music need met and gain several hours a week to do whatever struck him as worthwhile at the time. (To my benefit, that has included spontaneous house-cleaning and help with shopping and cooking. Yay me!) I was unable to say much more to him about his decision than, “that is very wise.”

Before I leave you today, I'd like to throw out an idea. Some of those characteristic I list of wise people are components of compassion. Is wisdom driven by compassion? Are they parts of the same whole?

Today’s post was driven by a prompt from Think Kit.