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What is Wisdom and How Do You Get It?

The soul doesn’t gain power over experience; it gains power through experience.


I recently wrote about the importance of having a firm “why” — a sense of purpose — behind what you do. Here, I’d like to offer a few additional thoughts on what connects meaningful activities across an entire life: wisdom.

David Whyte, writing in his book, The Heart Aroused, says that wisdom is “the only desire that is not fleeting.” In other words, if we set out to gain wisdom, to become wise, we’ll stand the best chance of being rooted throughout our lives, regardless of what life throws at us.

Whyte goes on to write that unlike personality, which aims to gain power over experience, wisdom lives in the soul, which gains power through experience. Cultivating wisdom, then, means being open to experience. This requires humility (i.e., I don’t have it all figured out) and presence (i.e., I am here now).

Wisdom doesn’t deal with planning or strategizing or setting goals; it deals with an attitude of growth and acceptance. This is not easy stuff. It means not deluding ourselves with rose-tinted glasses, not avoiding distressing situations, and not distracting ourselves from unsettling thoughts and emotions. It means making ourselves vulnerable.

Unlike personality, which aims to gain power over experience, wisdom lives in the soul, which gains power through experience.

What do we gain from this? Eric Greitens, writing in his book Resilience, draws upon the ancient Greek concept of “Phronesis” to define wisdom: “The ability to figure out what to do while at the same time knowing what is worth doing.”

Krista Tippett, in her book Becoming Wise, writes that wisdom “leavens intelligence, ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself…giving us the capacity to hold power and tenderness in a surprising and creative interplay.”

Wisdom doesn’t deal with planning or strategizing or setting goals; it deals with an attitude of growth and acceptance.

However much you might want it, wisdom is not something that you go out and get. It’s something that you must be open to receiving.

It’s often the experiences that you haven’t planned or desired that yield the most wisdom. You may not even know your gaining wisdom as you go through these experiences, and even if you did know that you were gaining wisdom, it wouldn’t make dealing with whatever you’re going through any easier. That’s OK. When you’re going through hardship your sole focus should be on getting through. But know that there’s good on the other side.

The flip side is equally true. If you’re thriving and experiencing great fulfillment and joy, don’t take it for granted or rush on it from it. Be there for it. Reflect on what makes it feel so great and how you can create more of it and share it.

Move through life with humility and presence and all situations — good or bad — become opportunities to become wise.

If you enjoyed reading and want to keep the conversation going…

Follow me on Twitter @Bstulberg where I love to share and discuss big and meaningful ideas.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine and author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

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