The Wise and the Smart

Wise is defined as a deep understanding, and sound judgment. While smart has more to do with being knowledgeable, having many facts tucked away in one’s memory banks. A wise person would likely not do as well on Jeopardy as a smart person, but probably would have a larger bank account. Of course, it would be best to be smart and wise, but if one could choose only one, which would be better to possess?    Smart people do dumb things.  For example, Bobby Fisher, probably the world’s greatest chess player, gave away much of his fortune to the Worldwide Church of God, which predicted that the world would come to an apocalyptical end in 1975, but then didn’t. Wise people are less prone to dumb mistakes.  So, if I could choose I would go for being wise rather than smart.  Unfortunately, we cannot choose and often we get a mix of both wise and smart, but not necessarily in the same domains. And unfortunately, we all have a few dumb genes, some more than others, that raise their ugly DNA, often just at the wrong time.  Also, our wisdom could be limited to just a small corner of the brain, for example we could be wise with finances but not so wise in romantic choices.

To be a doctor requires knowing a lot of stuff, that would make the person that possesses an MD or PhD smart, but not necessarily wise.  Doctors who are also pilots are notorious for losing their life flying airplanes.  In my relatively small circle of doctors’ acquaintances, I have lost four friends. They tend to ignore weather conditions, they overestimate their abilities, and have an aura of invincibility that lures them into death traps.   When I was in my third decade of life, I took up flying and was close to getting my pilots license when I broke my leg skiing.  Being in a cast prevented me from operating the foot pedals that was required to fly an airplane.  When I finally got my cast off and returned to my flying lessons four months later, I had forgotten most of what I had learned.  I had an ah-ha moment and realized that if I got my pilot’s license I would likely kill myself, and wisely left the flying to professional pilots.

Wisdom gives the individual the knack to weigh known facts and yet unknown presumptions and make a guess as to future outcome of a particular postulate.   Yoda, the mythical character in Star Wars, was the perfect creature that possessed that wisdom.  Too bad that he is a myth.  There are, however, people that come close.  In the financial world it would be the Genius of Omaha, Warren Buffet.  If King Salomon were a true historical person, he may be counted among the wisest.  His solution of which woman was the real mother of the baby, by dividing it in half, was sheer genius.  It is hard not to rate Socrates, who proclaimed himself as the wisest man. He said, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”  He believed that asking was more important than answering.  That has become the Socratic method of teaching.

The wise person can see the obvious that is in front of all of our eyes, but only the possessor of wisdom sees it as the obvious that should not be ignored.  Abraham Lincoln was such a person.  He fought the most costly war the US has ever fought for the principle that, “All Men Are Created Equal”, an idea that was written down for us in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.  He saw the obvious, that a country with such a doctrine as a founding principle, could not have slaves!

If it is better to be wise than smart, then how can we garner some of that wisdom for ourselves, and also become wise?

Wisdom comes with age.  Age would be a surrogate for experience.  The longer we live the more experiences we have.  Youth and inexperience have a place, but not as far as gaining wisdom is concerned.  With that large basin of experience to draw from we must let those experiences sink in, and we must find the pearls.  We then must gather those pearls, and hang them around our neck so we can see them all the time, and use them to help make the next decision in our lives.

Like Abraham Lincoln, we must recognize what is right in front of us that everyone knows, but we must look deeper than our fellow human, and seek the true meaning of what seems superficial and meaningless to the unwise.

Reflecting on our lives and experiences, looking at alternative explanations, examining ourselves and our thoughts will give us a new outlook.  As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living!”

Learning from your successes is valuable, but learning from your failures is invaluable!  Why was today such a bad day?  What did I do to contribute to that failure?  How can I do better given the same scenario next time?  Einstein defined stupidity as asking the same question over and over and expecting a different answer.  Learn from your mistakes!

Accepting dogma is very dangerous! Regardless of where you learned it, be it your professor, your imam, your grandfather, or your fortune teller.  Be tolerant of others.  As the old Indian saying goes, “Help me Great Spirit, never to judge another until I have walked in his moccasins!”  In fact, question everything!  What was thought to be irrefutable truth has so often turned out to be wrong in about every field of study, be that medicine, physics, history, philosophy, geology, astronomy etc. etc. I can attest to my experience in the field of medicine.  I graduated from medical school in 1967.  I have practiced that science, art, and profession for half a century plus one year.  Much, if not most, of what I learned in school is either totally or partially wrong.   Question everything, above all question yourself.