What could be worse than a know-it-all? You know what I mean. A know-it-all is someone who has memorized a lot of information and loves nothing better than sharing it with others, whether they’ve asked to hear it or not. The know-it-all shows up at parties, or in classrooms, or in the workplace, or worst of all, sitting beside you on a long airplane or bus ride. They’re fountains of information, and they’re never wrong – at least in their own minds. And maybe they do have a lot of accurate facts to share. Maybe they’re very intelligent, and maybe they’ve been excellent students, and maybe they’ve been successful in their fields. But are they wise? Can someone so annoying possibly possess the quality we identify as wisdom? Personally, I think not. The way I see it, wisdom would (if nothing else) give one the sense to know when to keep quiet and when to speak. But that’s just my point of view. Wisdom is a topic that’s been subject to different opinions over the centuries. I encourage everyone to voice opinions, and to challenge the scholars on their notions about wisdom. That said, it’s vital that we pay close attention to what others have to say before we make up our minds. Doug Larson, an American journalist, would no doubt agree. He once wrote, "Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have preferred to talk." Have You Ever Met Someone Wise? Have you ever met someone wise? Moreover, if you were to meet someone for the first time, do you think you could judge whether or not that person possessed wisdom? Would you require a lengthy relationship in order to make this judgement? What qualities would tell you that someone was wise? How would you distinguish wisdom from eloquence, or sophistication, or compassion? I ask you to consider these questions for a reason. Before we begin discussing wisdom as a quality and as a feature of the human experience, we need to make sure it’s something that we can identify when we come across it in our daily lives. Defining Wisdom We’ll come back to this question later. But for now, let’s turn our attention to the matter of defining the word “wisdom.” When we look at dictionary definitions, we find that the concept boils down to the type of human behaviour that’s admired and encouraged in societies throughout the world. The Oxford Dictionary, with its typical restraint, defines wisdom as “The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement.” Merriam Webster’s definition is similar: “Knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; knowledge of what is proper or reasonable; good sense or judgment.” It’s interesting to note how Merriam Webster sets the bar higher than Oxford. Merriam Webster states that wisdom is a natural ability, which implies it’s something that can’t be easily learned. Merriam Webster includes “knowledge of what is proper or reasonable” – that is to say, knowledge of virtue, or morality. Significantly, it stops short of saying that wisdom involves acting on this knowledge. Rather, “good sense or judgement” suggests that the wise are able to avoid making bad decisions. When I consider these definitions, I sense that something is missing. To my mind, wisdom also includes a demonstrative, emotional element. To my mind, wisdom is found not only in words, but also in deeds. Moreover, wisdom might be developed collectively, and exist through the actions of a cohesive group. This type of community wisdom could be unintentional, or it could be something the group deliberately tries to develop, as is found in the World Wisdom Alliance. But even this could fall short. Some go even further and include their relationship with the natural and spiritual world as key to becoming wise. Humility So what is wisdom? Wisdom is difficult to define when we limit ourselves to abstract, philosophical descriptions. Although theories abound, those who do research on wisdom study peoplewho exhibit the qualities of wisdom. They study people who have lived in a way that demonstrates wisdom. But how do you find someone to study? Well, sending out a questionnaire and asking people if they’re wise wouldn’t work well at all. For one reason, a frequently noted quality of the wise is their humility. Not only do they refuse to proclaim their wisdom, but they’re aware of the measure of their own foolishness. The wise can observe themselves objectively, honestly, and with an uncommon amount of insight. Across all cultures, humility is considered to be a quality of the wise. The wise aren’t braggarts, no matter how accomplished they might be. From this, we could conclude that conceit or arrogance indicates the opposite of wisdom, which is foolishness. By way of example, think of the occasions when you’ve had to endure the company of someone conceited. Perhaps it was a dinner guest who dominated the conversation, not realizing (or caring!) that they were boring everyone. Regardless of how much knowledge and skill they might have possessed, if they lacked the sense to acknowledge the others around them, they were acting foolishly. Their judgment was poor. By contrast, those who are humble know that to stop listening means to stop learning. Those who are humble accept that there is always more to know. Whenever discussion turns to humility, I’m reminded of my experience as an undergraduate student. Although arrogance wasn’t actively encouraged, neither was it discouraged. In my memory, we began our journey toward arrogance by omitting one small phrase from our vocabulary. My professors never said it, and the students certainly never did. This was the phrase, “I don’t know.” Personally, I’d heard that phrase a lot in my public high school. To my mind, “I don’t know” was often the correct answer. Not only did I lack an answer to many questions: much of the time I didn’t even understand the questions my teachers were asking! Unwillingness to admit ignorance – unwillingness to be humble – could be understood as a sign of underdeveloped wisdom. Perhaps if teachers were more willing to admit their own gaps in knowledge, students would follow suit. Too often, students and teachers unwittingly conspire to support a culture of arrogance. It might be a small crime in the history of learning, but repeated over time, it can lead to a habit of intellectual laziness, assumption making, and inaccuracy. And this practice can have disastrous consequences on society. For Discussion: What is your definition of wisdom?