In this age of information overload, finding a wise person can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack.
With all the gurus and life coaches— not to mention all the people in your daily life giving so much polarizing advice— you’ve likely asked, “Which one should I trust and follow?”
And “what makes a person truly wise anyway?”
Is it their age, life experiences, or problem-solving skills?
From ancient Tibet, Stoic philosophy, to positive psychologist’s research in the field of wisdom, here are 10 ways to know if someone is truly wise (or just full of it).
1) They pursue excellence and virtue at the same time
If they say things like “Fake it till you make it” or other cliches where the end justifies the means, that’s a sign of someone who is a bit delusional and full of themselves.
Worse, they could be a money and power-hungry narcissist.
Consider it a red flag and stay clear of them, and never take their advice no matter how tempting it may be because even though you might achieve your goal, you will likely trade your values (or even your soul).
A truly wise person considers people’s feelings, what is ethical, and not just the fastest and most efficient way to do things.
If they are able to solve problems, and still consider others, that’s a surefire way you are in the presence of someone truly wise.
2) They are aware that their opinions might be wrong
While some people may see this as a lack of conviction or lack of self-confidence, the truly wise never see themselves as all-knowing.
Rather, they have what psychologist and neuroscientist Elaine Fox calls ‘intellectual humility’ or the openness to consider viewpoints different from their own, and even change their stance once presented with new knowledge.
For the truly wise, intellectual humility matters because it makes us question our biases and acknowledge the limitations of our perspective.
Unlike people who just stick to what they know and won’t even consider anything that doesn’t support what they already believe, the truly wise spend even more time learning and trying to understand where other people are coming from.
3) They practice and rarely preach
“Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.”
It’s difficult to gain wisdom without experience and practice.
After all, books, videos, and even workshops can only do so much and often cannot apply to a lot of situations.
While some people get stuck quoting dead authors their entire life, the truly wise only quote and cite references they have tested in their own personal lives or career practice.
So before you get wildly impressed by someone’s encyclopedic explanation from a theory they read, make sure to ask:
“How did you apply this knowledge in your own life?”
With this question alone, you’ll be able to sift the truly wise person over the person who is good at memorizing and comprehending but cannot apply.
4) They know how to acknowledge their mistake (and apologize properly)
Just because someone is wise doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of making mistakes or inadvertently hurting people.
While all humans are capable of making mistakes, the truly wise have the ability to admit fault, take accountability, and give a genuine apology.
But if they give a faux apology and still refuse to change their behavior, or justify their actions, then you know that is someone who still needs to work on several components of wisdom.
While psychologists in the field of wisdom research have different rubrics, many of them agree that self-reflection, self-awareness, empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking are requisites for wisdom.
5) They don’t give generic, one-size-fits-all advice
While there is wisdom that resonates with a lot of people’s lives for common themes, the truly wise person doesn’t give generic one-size-fits-all advice for very specific concerns.
The truly wise also know that even their tried-and-tested techniques and tools may fail.
This is why they consider context and do their best to understand the other person before giving advice.
The truly wise have developed what is called ‘psychological flexibility’— the capacity to shift their mindset when what they know isn’t working, while still maintaining balance with their deeply held values and priorities in life.
So if someone just keeps explaining the same advice even though it clearly doesn’t fit your context, that’s may be a person who is too full of themselves or too stuck with being ‘on-brand’ to be helpful.
Rather than forcing your situation to fit their formula, focus your energy on developing your own psychological flexibility. One way to do that is by doing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
6) They are excellent mediators and can resolve conflict
Whenever there is conflict, we tend to be too focused on the arguments of opposing sides that we often miss the truly wise mediator in between.
Whether in ancient civilizations in times of war or misunderstanding in families and communities, the capacity to mediate and resolve conflict is the mark of the truly wise.
The truly wise mediate and resolve conflict not just by reconciling facts and numbers, but by having a sixth sense for hidden agendas, emotional dynamics, and even power imbalances in the situation.
When you think about it, having the discipline to remain calm amidst tension and remain unbiased, is a rare gift cultivated only by the truly wise.
7) They never see themselves as better than other people
It doesn’t matter if they’re a manager of a Fortune 500 company or they’ve traveled all around the world, the truly wise never see themselves as better than other people.
They are fully aware of all the things they do not yet know and can learn more of.
While other people keep competing to be better than others to bolster their self-esteem, the truly wise see all people as unique and different.
Rather than comparison, they focus on building connections.
And instead of judging other people for having different values, practices, or habits that are different from their own, they choose open-mindedness.
Rather than seeing themselves as better, the truly wise honor where people are in their journeys, knowing full well that all of us have both challenges and privileges that shape who we are now.
8) They can’t “just follow the rules”
The truly wise have zero capacity to “just follow the rules”—whether they’re made by the institutions or their family and friends. They have to know why those rules exist and whether or not they align to their values.
While other people can sound brilliantly smart spouting the minute details in legalese of laws and regulations, the truly wise have their own sense of integrity and ethics to follow.
It’s not that they will foolishly ignore the rules just because they’re stubborn, they just cannot blindly follow until the sense of it is fully clear to them.
After all, rules and laws change according to who is in power and that being a rule follower isn’t a sure measure of the goodness of a person.
So if you meet someone who follows the rules but can’t explain why, you’re better off listening to your own instincts than their advice.
9) They choose contentment
The truly wise have what Tibetan Studies professor Dr. Dorji Wangchuk calls “chokkshay”, the spiritual word that means “the knowledge of enough.”
While many are chasing money following the philosophy of “more is better”, the truly wise know that having contentment is a far more worthwhile goal.
They retain a sense of wholeness through radical acceptance of themselves, including all their feelings of anger, joy, or fear.
So instead of trying to remove “negative” feelings, the truly wise practice unconditional love for all of life’s experiences.
Rather than allowing external factors to dictate their happiness, the truly wise rely on their own inner wellspring.
10) They laugh at themselves a lot
Philosophers Seneca & Nietzsche, and even holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl believe that you should laugh at yourself.
Research shows a sense of humor and a high IQ go hand-in-hand.
But the truly wise actively do it for their sanity. To make life more bearable (and even enjoyable), they’ve developed the capacity to laugh at themselves and their circumstance even while in the midst of adversity.
When things go terribly awry, rather than keeping a grim perspective, the truly wise choose joie de vivre or the joy of living by finding reasons for delight.
In choosing to laugh, the truly wise release pent up tension, and let go of the rigid seriousness of life.
A good sense of humor is what gives the truly wise their emotional resilience.
So if you see someone who’s a bit too happy-go-lucky, don’t automatically assume they’re just foolish and lackadaisical. They could have more wisdom to share than the serious folks.
If you see all of these traits on someone, chances are that they’re genuinely wise and not just pretending.
And if you want to become wiser too, know that the choice is yours to make. There are as many pathways to wisdom as there are people on earth.
Just work on the things that are most aligned with your personality and principles.
It doesn’t really matter where you start, because when it comes to becoming a truly wise person, all paths intersect.
And we hope to meet you there.