Wisdom seems so elusive. I remember encountering the notion of wisdom three decades ago in a philosophy course. I felt a strong pull at my heart to seek this out, yet also a sinking dilemma: How do you make a living using wisdom?
Much of my dilemma was rooted in unexamined socialized beliefs such as knowledge is power. Thus, I focused on gaining knowledge. Since then, I’ve come to a discovery: knowledge fills the mind; wisdom frees the mind.
Recently, I’ve read several articles bemusing the useless nature of wisdom: “What good is any wisdom we learned thirty years ago in today’s world?” This is an excellent question about knowledge, but it has nothing to do with wisdom.
Confusion about wisdom often comes from common myths:
- With age comes wisdom.
- Knowledge leads to wisdom.
- Wisdom comes from experience.
After reflecting on my studies and the experiences I’ve had with knowledgeable and wise teachers, I find it helpful to examine this topic. My view is not definitive, nor is it something I am claiming any special experience with. I find cultivating insight an ongoing practice and quite humbling to accept what’s revealed.
Still, the confusion about wisdom seems critical to examine and clarify. Moreover, the wise teachers I’ve experienced offered perspectives and space in a way that the smartest, most knowledgeable among my teachers simply could not.
Turning to Webster’s dictionary, I offer conventional definitions of wisdom:
- “Ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; insight.”
- “Good sense; judgment.”
- “A wise attitude, belief, or course of action.”
A fuller view of wisdom might include a sense of peace and clarity from a deep understanding and knowledge of the truth.
So then, what does wisdom mean today? Are there different contexts for wisdom? How might we cultivate it?
To sort through many of the qualities of wisdom, I’ve organized different models that I’ve observed into four paradigms/states:
Part 1 – Information Paradigm
Part 2 – Systems Thinking/Scientific Paradigm
Part 3 – Psychological/Pedagogical Paradigm
Part 4 – Philosophical/Spiritual Paradigm
Each part of this inquiry examines different aspects of wisdom.
Part 1 – Information Paradigm
The first paradigm is concerned with observing patterns. Here, we gather and sort data, correlate, and connect it to create information that we act on and evaluate to develop knowledge. Then, we reflect on our experience of applying the knowledge and, over time, deepen our understanding and insights.
In the movie Moneyball, <!—moneyball trailer-->Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, signs undervalued players to create a winning team. Baseball is a game of stats. Changing how we use this abundance of data and knowledge can offer new insights into the game’s human potential.
Beane hired data geek Peter Brand as a complement to his experience of the game. Together, they upended the baseball myth of big hitters by bringing new wisdom to the recruitment and selection process. They built a team based on data, not old beliefs tied to hitting stats, celebrity, appearances, or “personality.”
It’s important to note that Brand’s methods and theories were ignored or dismissed by others. Beane, however, recognized something. He reflected on his experience as a scout and his adversity as a player to question conventional assumptions. He could see something that not only eluded others but provoked resistance.
Integrating Brand’s theories, Beane wisely used science to illuminate a new game. This entire enterprise shift occurred inside Beane’s “seeing” something.
Thus, the lowest pay-per-player baseball team had a 20-game winning streak and won the 2002 American League West championship.
Key learning in this paradigm involves discerning patterns to add meaning. This process involves sorting data to contextualize information before then applying this knowledge to discern wisdom—commonly known as DIKW.
Fig-1- Technology in Tourism – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate (see reference below).
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Part 2 – Systems Thinking/Scientific Paradigm
The second paradigm concerns discerning systems by reflecting on conceptual thinking to realize deeper connections, relations, and new contexts. As an outcome, wisdom achieves elegance.
When we question past assumptions, reflect on experience and knowledge, and discover wisdom, we shift contexts, think differently, and see new relationships. We move beyond past-based constraints to seeing different systems.
Billy Beane’s and Peter Brand’s strategy didn’t just change the future of the Oakland A’s. It changed the game of baseball. Instead of paying for star power, and big hitters, baseball was now buying wins, no matter where they came from. After Beane declined a $12.5 million offer by The Boston Red Sox to be their GM (as highest paid GM in baseball), the Red Sox used Beane’s strategy to win the 2004 World Series.
Steve Jobs took a leap by conceptualizing the personal computer as a “bicycle for the mind.” He shifted paradigms in seven industries: computers, music, book publishing, television, telecommunications, photography, and apps. Apple indirectly impacted industries such as news/newspapers, transportation, accommodation, radar detection, dedicated GPS industry, and others.
Job’s wisdom came from discerning qualities: his incredible focus and decisiveness, legendary attention to detail, and deep understanding of the human connection between the humanities, arts, and technology.
Within months of Job’s return to Apple in 1997, his Zen-like precision and appreciation for simplicity and elegance reduced product lines by 70%, simplified operations, and let go of a nagging lawsuit with Microsoft. These streamlined priorities focused attention and surfaced new questions for a future that wasn’t possible a year earlier at a company hemorrhaging $1 billion.
Key learning in this paradigm involves discerning patterns to add meaning that connects and develops relationships. This often entails moving from analytical, focusing on what has happened, to creative analysis to generate new openings (future possibilities).
Fig 2– Thanks to Karim Vaes for expertly detailing the process of wisdom at the systems level.
Fig 3– Thanks to Karim Vaes for detailing the process of wisdom at the systems level.
Part 3 – Psychological/Pedagogical Paradigm
The third paradigm concerns the experience of being by deepening one’s understanding of self-knowledge.
Wisdom emerging from the previous information-systems paradigm—by observing fact patterns, thoughts, and applying knowledge—differs from the wisdom within a psychological paradigm, which includes the interior landscape. The “experience of being” involves feelings, sensations, emotions, and meaning beyond fact patterns.
Before developing these next two paradigms, I offer some terms we often conflate.
- Introspection is “the process of attempting to directly access one’s own internal psychological processes, judgments, perceptions, or states.”
- Self-reflection involves the “examination, contemplation, and analysis of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.”
- Insight is “the clear and often sudden discernment of a solution to a problem” [seemingly unsolvable tension].
Our Inner Compass
The nature of wisdom through this psychological-pedagogical paradigm involves deep learning that expands our awareness. By examining emotional afflictions, we develop self-knowledge and intuition to gain perspective and discernment.
Steve Jobs relied on his intuition to guide his choices. This paradigm hones our inner compass and the obstacles that can undermine us. In this article from Psychology Today detailing 10 Sources of Wisdom, the first three are critical: 1) openness, 2) empathy, and 3) self-reflection.
A subsequent article using Jeste and Thomas’ “San Diego Wisdom Scale” introduces seven (psychological) components of wisdom. Known as SD-WISE-7,  it measures four elements in seven categories: 1) decisiveness, 2) emotional regulation, 3) self-reflection, 4) pro-social behaviors, 5) social advising [discernment], 6) acceptance of divergent perspectives, and 7) spirituality.
In both of these articles, the quality of self-reflection ranks high.
I mentioned Self-Reflection above. This HBR article reveals how resistant clients can be to reflection. It reveals some impediments and offers some tools to cultivate this practice.
Openness/Open-Mindedness involves questioning our beliefs, assumptions, and views. With practice, we cultivate humility, becoming clear that we cannot know everything. Better questions develop curiosity. Openness allows and accepts new experiences and invites different perspectives to stretch and reveal our limits.
Empathy results from openness and emotional regulation. Emerging in the nineteenth century, the concept of empathy was about “projecting one’s own imagined feelings and movements into objects.” Its roots in imagination challenged us to conceive of another’s experiences beyond our own. A wise person can conceive of another’s world: ideas, perspectives, suffering, and hopes.
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A Way of Being
1970s TV detective Lt. Columbo had a way of being. With his probing questions and fumbling curiosity to “tie up loose ends” with “just one more question,” he peered beyond appearances to lure his suspect into a trap of their own making. Invariably, he’d scratch his head, pause and prop his forehead with his hand to cogitate — playing out the crime scene by tuning into human nature.
Columbo’s humility, openness, and relatable nature, combined with his attention to detail and intense needling, always revealed the culprit. In Random for a Deadman, Columbo devised a ruse to catch the killer<!—A Lack Of Conscience Was What Gave Her Away | Columbo-->, using her psychology against her:
“You have no conscience, and that’s your weakness. Did it ever occur to you that there are very few people that would take money to forget about a murder? It didn’t, did it; I knew it wouldn’t. No conscience, limits your imagination.”
Columbo aficionados know all his crime-solving techniques. Yet, Columbo is more than technique. The disheveled lieutenant’s decisive wisdom involves sustained inquiry: a discerning openness and playfulness to see beyond the obvious.
Key learning here involves a deeper understanding of self-knowledge and principles through increased self-awareness. This often entails emotional regulation, empathy, purpose, introspection, and self-reflection.
An outcome of this paradigm can be contemplative learning as an inner-reflective knowing cultivated to help us trust our inner wisdom.
CLICK TO ENLARGE
Part 4 – Philosophical/Spiritual Paradigm
The fourth paradigm comes from the root of “philosophy” or the “love” (philo in Greek) of “wisdom” (sophia). It cultivates an interdependent awareness to deepen insight, adding a moral component to achieve a fuller truth and greater wholeness. In my experience, those who demonstrate this wisdom have a relationship with adversity, emerging from it with greater insight.
This <!—wisdom school of life video -->
wisdom paradigm seems an aspirational practice, yet glimpses emerge from time to time. A primary difference between the psychological and philosophical paradigms is the clarity to see beyond how things appear — an ability often cultivated in spiritual traditions.
This level of practice involves the strongest relationship with reality (realism) to develop discerning questions (introspection) that develop humility (not knowing) and insights (clarity) to cultivate spaciousness (openness) for perceiving truth and emerging wholeness (morality).
I’ve discovered that understanding the philosophical paradigm requires knowledge and awareness beyond our Western philosophy and benefits from including Eastern perspectives. In brief, this paradigm departs from previous models in two core areas: dissolving the ego and cultivating interdependent awareness.
1- Ego Identification
First, dissolving the ego is key. This loosening of our holding on or clinging, ego identification, and attachments cultivates spaciousness resulting in insights. We begin to see that anything we identify with is also subject to change. We free ourselves from such fixations.
Spaciousness dissolves our reflexive defenses. We can easily ask any questions, see the truth emerge, and apply the knowledge that best fits the whole situation. We can discern which beliefs and concepts to discard. We become decisive.
The fragmented mind lacks spaciousness and is filled with beliefs, concepts, and discursive thoughts: judging, comparing, calculating, anticipating, strategizing, ruminating, and doubting ourselves. We tend to be elsewhere.
Our fragmented view of reality fractures attention, splits focus, and cannot allow the present moment to arise fully without grasping, striving, fixing, or controlling it. The need to control what’s wanted and avoid what’s unwanted drives our attention.
Fig- 5 Information’ Knowledge, by “gapingvoid,” Jordi Cabot, Bob Marshall
2- Interdependent Awareness
Second, spaciousness also cultivates an interdependent awareness. That nothing exists independently. Each thing involves many other things.
The human body (part of our being), for example, is mutually dependent on the wind, sun, oceans, plants, and animals. Each offers us the vitamins and energy to breathe in and out of our cycle of life.
Interdependent awareness recognizes a deep connectedness, a morality of wholeness rather than a rule-based, dualistic virtue system.
In Buddhism, wholesome suggests a union of body, speech, and mind to realize clarity for beneficial actions rather than (unwholesome) fragmentation, separation, delusion, or confusion caused by our ego identification.
Such an understanding can discern the causes, conditions, and consequences of each action, interaction, and situation.
In this paradigm, the wise act wisely not because of authority, rules, or good appearances or as an act of faith. The wise can see wholeness. They possess a moral understanding of the consequences and repercussions of actions and clear insights into the interconnected nature of existence beyond our dualistic views.
This moral understanding finds the wise to be disciplined, careful, thoughtful, and prudent. With greater patience, they become aware of what they can and cannot control and how to use knowledge.
With wisdom, one perceives causal relationships and understands reality beyond appearance. This understanding cultivates humility, nuanced questions, and thoughtful inquiry.
The key learning in this paradigm involves a deeper understanding of wholeness and interconnectivity. This often entails deep practices of openness and patience to cultivate interdependent awareness that deepens self-knowledge. We allow fluid experiences to embrace paradoxical or contradictory tensions. From spaciousness, there emerges a “seeing,” insight, or discernment beyond (subject-object) appearances.
Limits of Knowledge
Our American philosophy of pragmatism reduces wisdom to information or knowledge—to what is practical and useful now. We valorize cleverness or “smartness” as wise.
The clever and smart can be knowledgeable. Yet wisdom is another leap that involves an understanding beyond concepts or even experience. As philosopher and scholar John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
To appreciate wisdom requires coming to terms with the limitations of knowledge.
To be knowledgeable is to learn and apply knowledge to synthesize meaning.
- Knowledge involves rational/conceptual knowing. People learn about a subject by reading, researching, and memorizing the parts: facts, evidence, and concepts. Knowledge emphasizes intellectual and cognitive abilities and prioritizes cultivating expertise and concepts via research and study.
To be wise is to question knowledge and unlearn beliefs and assumptions to cultivate clarity and insight.
- Wisdom involves clear seeing. Wise people develop an abundance of perspective and the ability to make sound judgments about a subject. Wisdom emphasizes intuitive self-knowledge and clarity. It prioritizes cultivating spaciousness via practices that increase discerning insight.
Developmental psychologist Susanne Cook Greuter offers the following framing:
The basic limitation of knowledge is that we can never know everything, especially given that the nature of knowledge is dynamic, not static. Wisdom accepts this premise and relies on self-knowledge to achieve clarity, not certainty.
As a brief example, consider the Architect (pure rational knowledge) <!—The Matrix Architect scene 4:46 -->and the Oracle<!—The Matrix Oracle Reloaded scene 4:58 --> (intuitive wisdom) in the original Matrix Trilogy. Recall the Oracle’s explanation<!—The Matrix Revolutions - The Oracle scene 3:01 --> of the difference to Neo (Matrix: Revolutions).
Neo: The Architect told me that if I didn’t return to the Source, Zion would be destroyed by midnight tonight.
Oracle: Please… You and I may not be able to see beyond our own choices, but that man can’t see past any choices.
Neo: Why not?
Oracle: He doesn’t understand them – he can’t. To him, they are variables in an equation. One at a time, each variable must be solved and countered. That’s his purpose: to balance an equation.
Neo: What’s your purpose?
Oracle: To unbalance it.
In times of volatile change and growing complexity, rational/empirical or “objective” knowledge cannot do the heavy lifting required of wisdom. Knowledge without wisdom can create harm. Believing in our conceptual understanding of reality, we mistake static concepts and stultifying beliefs for a dynamic experience. We lose touch with our own experience of being.
- We’ve forgotten who we are and what we are. We’ve lost the intuitive and sensory connection to our interdependent nature with others and the earth.
- We forget to ask why we do anything and become blind to our motivations.
This is the “triumph” of science. It creates predictability, giving us a sense of control that makes us arrogant, reinforcing the ignorance of our unique wisdom.
Today, people have lost connection with the earth, the soil, how food is grown, and how we nutritionally support ourselves. We “know” food labels but have no wisdom about our environment and how we are connected to and shaped by it.
Sadly, our culture ignores wisdom in favor of talent, wealth, appearance, and “cleverness.” As Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein pondered, “I haven’t yet seen any magazine cover dedicated to the wisest person of the year.”
Cultivating wisdom requires a deeper understanding to determine which facts are relevant in certain situations.
Buddhist philosophy defines wisdom as deeply knowing or understanding the truth. Cultivating wisdom involves increasing awareness to use our intellect and experience to absorb knowledge.
Awareness is critical to wisdom. The Buddha observed, “Those who are mindful do not die, but those who are negligent are as good as dead, even while living.” Prajna, or wisdom, is the product of increased awareness, as follows:
1- “Stabilizing awareness” via the intellectual level through hearing: How we receive information and knowledge. Openness and acceptance support our ability to learn in the face of confusion.
2- “Reflective awareness” via the experiential level through contemplating: How we act on and experience knowledge. Clear intentions and deep inquiry stimulate our experiences and sustain our interest.
3- “Recognizing awareness” via direct realization through meditation: How we question and reflect on our experience of applying knowledge. Introspection, reflection, and discernment support gaining insight.
This continuous learning cycle, regardless of the initial focus, supports the entire cycle. And it all begins with listening.
So, let’s apply our exploration of wisdom to these notions from our introduction. We can see that each of these myths is incomplete.
With age comes wisdom. Only if we have learned from experiences and are willing to reflect on our experiences.
Knowledge leads to wisdom. Only if we embrace the paradox that we can never know something fully.
Wisdom comes from experience. Only through questioning and reflecting on our experiences and releasing old assumptions.
To cope with disruptive change and increasing complexity, humans must integrate knowledge, scientific inquiry, and wisdom.
Wisdom provides the lens through which we can discover insights among glibness, discern options amid distractions, understand and accept ourselves, develop sound judgment, and be at peace.
In a world of increased meaning-making, only wisdom can recognize what matters most. Philosopher Eric Hoffer offers wise advice:
“In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.”
Reading Time: 13 min. Digest Time: 17.5 min.
1- View our related blogs:
- Contemplative Learning to Access Innate Wisdom
- The Confusion between Certainty and Clarity
- Clear Thinking Cultivates Wisdom
2- References (for figures used in this piece)
- Fig-1: Technology in Tourism – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate.
- Fig 4a: How human memory works. Image source: Weebly.
- Fig 4b: Reference: Big Data, Digital Marketing and Trendwatching – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate.
 “Introspection.” (n.d.) In APA Dictionary of Psychology.
 “Self-reflection.” (n.d.) In APA Dictionary of Psychology.
 “Insight.” (n.d.) In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from
 The SD-WISE-28 is a published and validated 28-item San Diego Wisdom Scale. Brief scales are necessary for use in large population-based studies and clinical practice. The present study aimed to create an abbreviated 7-item version of the SD-WISE.
 Aestheticians first introduced the concept of empathy in the mid-19th century. They used the German word “Einfühlung” to describe the emotional “knowing” of a work of art from within by feeling an emotional resonance with it. At the end of the 19th century, psychologist Theodore Lipps expanded this concept to mean “feeling one’s way into the experience of another” by theorizing that inner imitation of the actions of others played a critical role in eliciting empathy.
 Gaining knowledge is a rigorous pursuit that involves epistemology. Epistemology is often defined as a philosophical inquiry into the nature, conditions, and extent of human knowledge. At its best, and outside of an economic context, Science is an open inquiry into epistemological discovery, which benefits from wisdom.
 Dhammapada Verse 21-23 (The Heedless Are Like the Dead)
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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.
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