Wisdom vs Intelligence

Are you wise ?

Are you trying to become more wise ?

What exactly does wise mean, anyway ?

When I was a teenager I used to play a game called Dungeons and Dragons (think World of Warcraft before computers). The basic idea was to play the part of a made-up character, perhaps a wizard, a warrior or an elf, and have fantasy type adventures – fighting monsters, solving puzzles, collecting treasure, and generally generally hanging out with your mates pretending to be Gandalf or Conan.

It worked through a complex series of rules, with dice rolls used to control various outcomes such as magic and combat, and also to define the various attributes of the character you play. For example, your character might have high strength, but poor charisma and dexterity. Two of the game’s other character attributes were intelligence and wisdom, and I was always a little uncertain about the difference between the two, and in particular what was meant by wisdom anyway?

Intelligence seems familiar and straightforward, it’s the ability to solve problems, understand complexity, make connections and recall relevant facts. We sometimes refer to different types of intelligence (such as spatial, verbal and emotional), have recognised ways of measuring it and understand exactly what someone means if they say we’re brainy or smart (or dumb).

Wisdom is harder to pin down.

We see it as being something to do with having good judgement, making good choices and consistently knowing the right thing to do. Various dictionaries define wisdom as incorporating deep understanding, insight, common sense or the ability to discern what is right.

Wisdom also seems to require a degree of self-knowledge, and the ability to control emotional reactions and impulses, and remain consistent with personal principles and beliefs.

There is another key quality to wisdom though: action. Wisdom is largely about being and doing – with outcomes, results and consequences all being an important component. Wisdom could perhaps be described as applied intelligence. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom, one helps you make a living, the other helps you make a life”.

The reason I’ve been pondering wisdom and intelligence this week is largely due to my reflecting on the Live Below the Line challenge I did recently . . . I’m intelligent and well-informed enough to know what I should eat on a regular basis in order to make myself healthier, save money and live more in-tune with my espoused principals regarding food justice etc, so why do I so often struggle to do it ?

I’m sure it’s not just me – we all have enough information at our disposal, but we don’t always put it into practice. We seem to have enough intelligence, but we often seem lacking in wisdom.

I don’t think this is a trivial issue.

Imagine if we had the collective intelligence to discover a cure for cancer tomorrow. Think of the premature deaths that would be avoided and the improved quality of life for millions. Many of the world’s best minds are working on developing a cure, with hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal every year, and I’ve no doubt we will eventually succeed in our aims.

There are other problems though that don’t seemingly require any more intelligence to solve – where all that’s holding us back is our lack of what could be described as wisdom.

Diet related diseases already kill more people prematurely in the developed world than cancer, and this is set to rise further in the coming years as the rate of obesity continues to increase further. Yet we all know what a healthy diet looks like, that exercise is good for us and what our ideal weight is. We have the necessary information – why can’t we sort ourselves out ?

The organisation TED (technology, innovation and design) was founded in 1984 with the aim of spreading and promoting good ideas. Every year they award a one hundred thousand dollar prize to what they consider to be the most promising and important new social project of the year. In 2010 the prize was won by the UK chef and food activist Jamie Oliver for his Food Revolution work. Jamie argues passionately in his TED presentation that we need to change the ‘landscape of food’ around us, to make it easier for us all to make better food choices.


How can we cultivate the necessary wisdom to change ourselves ?

Self-knowledge, self-control and self-development are incredibly important life skills, and we should ensure we are giving them our best attention. Undoing old habits and creating new ones is hard, and we can’t rely on our willpower and best intentions alone. Perhaps if we work to understand ourselves and create surroundings, circumstances and relationships in our lives that make it easier for us to make better choices, more in-line with our beliefs and convictions, then we’ll have more success – whether it’s with not eating too much junk food, reducing our carbon footprint, or being more sustainable and ethical consumers.

There is a well know prayer that asks for “the strength to change the things I can’t accept, the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

If you work out how to do this, then please let me know.

Photo by James Bowe, via Flickr

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  1. Thanks Debs.

    How we persuade/convince/motivate/trick ourselves/each other/society into doing ‘the right thing’ is an important issue.

    The current UK government favours the so called ‘nudge’ approach, where governments gently change the ‘choice architecture’ (what a great phrase) with things like small tax incentives etc, without resorting to regulation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge_(book)

    I’ll probably write something else about this another time.

    If you fancy writing something yourself just let me know :)


  2. What a fantastic, thought provoking and challenging article. It reminds me of two quotes I have heard recently: ‘Wisdom does NOW what it will be satisfied with LATER’, not necessarily what it feels like doing or what will bring quick results – and ‘We all want the freedom to make choices, but what we should be seeking is to make the choices that bring freedom’.

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