Knowledge, Intelligence, and Wisdom

For my first post, I want to talk about something that is vitally important, but does not seem to be widely discussed, and that is the difference between intelligence and wisdom.

Knowledge, at its basic, is information.  Typically, when people think of knowledge, the first thing that often comes to mind is facts, but knowledge comes in many different forms.  Intelligence is knowledge of skills, which can be as varied as hunting, singing, and mathematics.  Wisdom is the ability, or set of abilities, to make correct judgements and choices in different situations.  While there is some overlap, these types of knowledge tend to be very different.

Intelligence is the type of knowledge that is most discussed, and usually most sought after, in American society.  Schools grade students based on skill in particular areas, so children are brought up with an emphasis on intelligence.  They are also taught about famous scientists and inventors such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.  Today people like Steve Jobs are often revered.  Wisdom, on the other hand, is hardly mentioned.  It is true that we learn about people like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. and the influence these people were able to exert over the situations they faced.  Such examples, however, are few, and students are not usually asked to explain why the decisions made by people like Martin Luther King Jr. were the right choices.

Part of the reason is that wisdom is more difficult to obtain than intelligence.  Intelligence can be gained by reading books and practicing certain skills.  While some wisdom can and should be taught, most wisdom has to be gained from experience.  Knowing that something is true is often different from experiencing it firsthand.  Wisdom, being about situations and how to handle them, and making the right choices, is knowledge of a very different kind.

Growing up, I saw examples of this in people that were considered intelligent.  In high school I learned about people like Albert Einstein, Carl Gauss, and Richard Feynman.  They were all intelligent people, but each exercised seriously poor judgement in more than one situation.  Einstein ruined the chances of his first wife of becoming a physicist by having child out of wedlock with her when she was a grad student.  Once famous he then divorced her leaving her destitute and caring for mentally ill children.  Gauss had a poor relationship with his son.  Feynman was known for being a womanizer.

As a kid, I was taught that no one is perfect, and everyone has flaws.  While this is true, it seemed like a poor excuse for the behavior these intelligent people showed.  It always struck me as strange that people could be so intelligent, and yet have such massive shortcomings.  In retrospect it makes sense, as you’re usually taught that knowledge and intelligence are practically the same.  Believing that there is only one type of knowledge, and it’s measured by intelligence, seems to be a core problem many individuals, and society as a whole seems to have.  The question is then, how do we change this?  Here are a couple of ideas:

Apply Critical Thinking More Broadly

While we are taught about critical thinking in school, it is often focused on problem solving in mathematics and the sciences.  It would be beneficial to apply that kind of thinking to other areas, and also situations in life.  When solving a science or engineering problem, we are taught to think about it from different angles, try different approaches, and look at the results of each.  These basic ideas can be generalized to work in other subjects, and also in situations in life when dealing with people and society.  Think about applying multiple approaches and looking at one’s own problems from different points of view.  Examine how society will present something, and question whether that is best, or if it could be better in a different way.  This all might sound vague, but it is meant to be applied very generally.

It can be difficult to examine something from a different point of view.  Sometimes people don’t realize that something could be different.  Often people become emotionally attached to a point of view, or are afraid of what might go wrong if things were done differently.  One way around this problem brings me to my next idea:

Try To Be More Empathetic

One way to see something from a different point of view is to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.  What would you do in a given situation?  What do you have that others don’t, and vice versa?  Can you understand why some people feel a certain way about something that you don’t?  These are often difficult questions, but important to be able to take a more critical approach to other people and society.

It’s also important to listen to other points of view, even when it can make you uncomfortable.  At the end of the day, when you have a good grasp of a differing point of view, it can help you understand what motivates people to act a certain way in a given situation.

Be Introspective, and Concluding Thoughts

Part of being more empathetic and able to think critically is introspection.  By reflecting on events, situations, decisions, and viewpoints, one expands one’s wisdom.  After all, if wisdom is the ability to exercise good judgement, and that skill comes largely from experience, that experience is only useful if it is reflected upon and examined.  Growth and adaptation are some of the defining features of being human, so we are all capable of it, we just need to engage in it.

This post is pretty vague in its suggestions, and to really offer meaningful suggestions isn’t feasible in a single blog post.  That will be one of the goals of this blog.  To help the readers, and myself, expand in wisdom.  I hope you’ll be willing to share in this journey with me.

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