Wisdom is earned. Wisdom is gained from lived experiences. I think being smart and being wise are often confused with each other but there are often glaring differences between the two.
Smart is knowing, Wisdom is understanding. Of course, this is an oversimplification so I will try to explain more about the personality traits of wise people. Maybe you’ll even find some traits that will ring true to you!
Anyway, here are some of them:
1) Wise people have humility
Putting this on number 1 because I subjectively think this is the most important. It’s related to a lot of the other points on this list, too: Wise people are humble.
I said at the start that wisdom is gained through lived experiences and you know what? Life lessons are rarely kind, if at all. It takes guts and grit to survive rock bottom, it changes people.
Wise people have been dealt bad cards in their lives, these are the people who hit rock bottom and then hit back. Or at the very least, learned. Their knowledge of life came from living it.
Months ago, I stumbled upon a clip of motivational speaker and author Lisa Nichols where she explained when it started changing for her.
Her version of rock bottom: She had $12 in the bank and had to wrap her son in towels for 2 days because she couldn’t afford diapers. She said, “I was willing to completely die to any form of me that I had been so that I can birth the woman that I was becoming.”
It’s a disservice to only share that one quote when she said a lot more food for thought. Here’s the video, in case you need the push today.
Anyway, going back, the point is that wise people gained wisdom from these lived experiences. It’s why I believe wisdom knows no age because our youth are as capable and strong. (Case in point: Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are on a very long list.)
So, wisdom is humble. It is quiet in its competence.
2) Wise people see the bigger picture
The details matter, of course, but knowing how the details will affect the bigger picture is something else entirely.
When you see the bigger picture, you are aware and concerned about how it will affect all the cogs so you plan and act accordingly. (This is important in leadership, by the way.)
You’re not just aware of the immediate repercussions of a decision but also of the subsequent effects it might have.
Seeing the bigger picture is also seeing situations in their context. It’s knowing that everything is connected one way or another.
Wisdom is knowing how to connect these ideas, situations, circumstances, reasons, studies, problems, solutions, etc. to arrive at the best possible conclusion for that time.
3) Wise people are aware of not being the smartest person in the room
“Every person that you meet knows something you don’t; learn from them.” – H. Jackson Brown Jr., American author
Humility comes into play here, too. You don’t claim to know everything (and this is connected to other points on this list, #7, #8, and #9 specifically) and you’re aware that someone is more knowledgeable than you in any given room.
I learned this the hard way in high school, I was a former gifted child in my younger years, you see.
Then I was put in a school with people much, much, much smarter than I am.
People who were so good in Sciences and Mathematics, ate-numbers-for-breakfast kind of people. Winning-regionals-and-nationals kind of people.
That was humbling. Utterly. That was a 4-year learning experience on humility. Since then, I’ve been hyper-aware that I’m never the smartest person in the room.
And what I’ve also learned is that, when you know someone else might have answers, you will learn to listen. You will be open to learning, that’s #7 here.
And because you’re already in these shoes of knowing you’re not all that, you don’t intentionally make anyone feel stupid either. That’s #4.
See how they’re connected? This entire list is just one big picture, after all.
4) Wise people don’t intentionally make anyone feel stupid
Better yet, you make people feel smart.
There’s this series of videos done by WIRED called 5 Levels wherein an expert in their field explains a concept to 5 different people: a child, a teen, a college student, a grad student, and an expert. It’s so fascinating to watch.
She adapts her speech so that a 7-year-old understands the concept of memory. And then she started adding more and more jargon depending on who she was talking to. It’s so brilliant.
My point here is, there’s a certain narrow-mindedness involved in making people feel stupid. It’s the “it’s not my problem if you don’t understand” thinking.
Which, to be fair, is how life sometimes works; but a wise person knows the bigger picture: that we learn better if we do it together.
We learn better as a community, and as a people. Knowledge transforms with collaboration, it gets better, it gets explored, and it adapts.
Wisdom is knowing that knowledge cannot and should not exist in a vacuum.
5) Wise people are patient
The first lines of the song Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley goes like this, “Wise men say only fools rush in…” And it rings true (and honestly just a lovely song, I wanted to share it, too. Ha.)
Wise people know it’s unwise to rush into things without knowing the entire situation. Wise people observe, then make calculated decisions. Wise people take their time.
Think back on your life. Think back if there are instances in your life that would look so different had you taken your time (hindsight is 20/20 after all).
If those same things happen to you again, how would you approach it now? Now that you have more lived experiences, what will change?
And even if you could change it, would you?
6) Wise people can see things from a different perspective
“A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows the public opinion.” – Grantland Rice, 20th-century American sportswriter
It is said that there are two types of people in the world: those who see the glass as half-empty or half-full. But what about the outliers?
Those who ask why is there even a glass? What is inside the glass? Who poured it? Why did they stop halfway? Why can’t we be both people at the same time?
Perspective, by its barest definition, is the way we view things, be it literally or figuratively. Are you someone who’s capable of seeing all angles of a problem?
If need be, can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and look at a situation from their point of view?
I’m pulling a quote straight from this article on the Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences website. It was written by MBA student Hanna Abdelwahab and titled Perspective Matters.
Perspectives do matter – to you and to the people around you. To a man stranded on a desert island, seeing a boat is a sign of hope for him to be rescued and returned to his homeland. To a man who has been drifting in the boat for days, seeing land for the first time is a sign for food, life, and civilization.
A wise person understands that different people lead different lives and can formulate opinions and decisions without judgment or bias.
Another question for you: Can you think back on an instance in your life where you managed to find a solution to a problem by looking at it from a different perspective? How did looking at it differently resolve the problem?
(A small note from the author: I’m inserting questions here to make you reflect on your life. I personally think so many people are wiser and more capable than they first thought. We often see ourselves in such an unkind light and it only takes a small push to remind us that we’re much more than we think we are. That’s all. Onward we go.)
7) Wise people constantly educate themselves
“The fool wonders, the wise man asks.” – Benjamin Disraeli, Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
As I said above, #7, #8, and #9 are connected and this concerns the matter of learning. Wisdom is knowing that you don’t know everything.
It sounds silly to put those words together but it makes the most sense in this context. Wisdom is constantly aiming to educate yourself.
This goes beyond book smarts, by the way. Some of the wisest people I know are some of the most humble, most diversely smart people I’ve met.
Learning goes beyond the classroom or the workplace, goes beyond books, even. We can educate ourselves to be better humans, better members of our community, better partners, better parents, and just… better.
My question for you for this round is this: When was the last time you allowed yourself to learn something new? I ask this because we encounter new things every single day but we’re not always open to learning them.
So, when was the last time you did?
8) Wise people can admit their mistakes
Have you ever had a boss who refused to admit their mistake? Same. I’m not sure why people think that it’s better to look infallible when that’s unrealistic and unsustainable.
You’re human and you make mistakes, big deal. What will separate a wise person from the rest is the capability of admitting said mistakes. The accountability that yes, I don’t know this or yes, I got it wrong.
Or my favorite, “I don’t have an opinion on that.” Ah, such a breath of fresh air. Especially in the age of social media where everyone has or feels the need to have an opinion on everything.
Wise people will admit shortcomings, but it doesn’t stop there.
9) Wise people treat failure as a learning opportunity
It’s easy to freeze when you fail. To take the failure as just a failure, take it out of your to-do list and try something else where you could win.
But you see, you don’t grow where you’re comfortable. Growth takes place when we need to persevere, adapt, and learn new things.
Growing from failure is one of the hardest things to accomplish. I may be throwing these words around but even I admit this is a whopper of a feat to achieve. (If you’re on this boat already, congratulations.)
Personally, I’m trying to get better at this. My mother would always tell me when I fail at things to just “charge it to experience”. She’s right, you know?
So if you’re up for it, I have another question: When was the last time you failed or you thought you failed? Have you reflected on it? If so, what have you learned?
What can you take from that failure? And knowing what you know now, would you try again?
10) Wise people have empathy
“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
The thing that connects all of these? Empathy. Wise people have empathy.
By its definition, empathy is understanding the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another individual regardless of whether or not it also applies to them.
It’s the capability to emotionally connect, human to human as if the wound is shared.
Wait, I don’t think this sounds anything like me…
If this is how you’re feeling by the end of this article, it’s okay. None of us were born wise. I will even go out on a limb and say, it’s a lifelong pursuit.
Just because you don’t feel wise now doesn’t mean you’re a fool either. You’re already here, seeking answers after all.
But as I said, wisdom is gained from lived experiences. The silver lining here is at least you don’t yet understand certain kinds of pains and obstacles that made other people learn.
However, you can definitely start embodying most of the items on this list. You can have more empathy, be more humble, educate yourself more, admit your mistakes more, and then learn from them.