Is Your Cleverness Getting in the Way of Your Wisdom?



It’s great to be smart, but it’s also important to be wise. We all know that, but what exactly do we mean by wisdom?

This isn’t at all an obvious question. This New York Times article, for instance, delved into what reams of research and a variety of experts had to say on the subject, as well as why we tend to get wiser as we get older. One of the clearer and more useful definitions of wisdom came from Columbia University psychologist Ursula Staudinger:

“True personal wisdom involves five elements… self-insight; the ability to demonstrate personal growth; self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history; understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and an awareness of life’s ambiguities.”

Wisdom, then, is the ability to know what we don’t know, to accept ambiguity and limitations, to look at situations from a variety of perspectives, to respect others as they are. Clearly, it’s a key characteristic for real leadership and closely related to humility — another trait that defines truly great leaders.

Too smart for wisdom?

If leadership and wisdom are positively correlated, might cleverness and wisdom sometimes be negatively correlated? Can striving too much to be smart actually make you less wise?

That’s the suggestion of a thought-provoking post by author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg on On Being (hat tip to the blog of entrepreneur Caterina Fake for the pointer). While Salzburg is talking about the tension between wisdom and smarts in her own meditation practice, her insights are worth considering for executives and entrepreneurs as well as students of mindfulness

In the piece Salzburg confesses that as a young mediation student, she would often sit down to meditate and instead spend all her time worrying about how to meditate, which practice or tradition to use. This sort of doubt, she explains, “is the fifth of the five hindrances to insight in meditation teaching.”

Doubt, she goes on to say, often crops up when we’re striving to be clever. It’s when we’re focused on being smart that we ask ourselves, ‘Is there a better way to do this? Am I optimizing this experience? Am I missing a catch in the deal?”

Of course, there are plenty of times that it’s a fabulous to be skeptical, to focus on improvement and comparison — maybe most of the time. But not always. Sometimes what’s called for is the humility, the wisdom, to accept the immediate answer, to slog out the path in front of us rather than looking for a shortcut or workaround, to embrace the situation (or person) as is rather than looking for a fix.

“Doubt,” Salzburg writes, “often disguises itself to us as something skillful, like a brilliant thought.” Or to put it another way, what seems like cleverness or thoughtful comparison (aka doubt) might just be just waffling — avoidance of what what we know we should do.

“Doubt makes us move away from intuition, our internal sense of what’s true. So we’re left with scrutiny and comparison: like all those times when I was trying to figure out which meditation to do,” she says.

Constantly focusing on being clever is a symptom of our times, she adds. “It’s an ironic age. The common belief is that cynicism proffers strength, or so we think. Really, it just leaves us stuck, unwilling to take risks and try things for ourselves,” she cautions. Put simply, being smart is sometimes an impediment to being wise.

It’s a subtle point, but one leaders — programmed as they are to constantly to question and strive for cleverness — could probably benefit from pondering. Here, for example, is Fake’s takeaway from thinking about Salzburg’s piece: “Brilliant thoughts are often the crafty method used to avoid difficult things such as acceptance or understanding.”



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