Knowledge vs. Wisdom

I've been listening to Rob Bell's podcasts on the Wisdom Tradition lately. He makes the joke, "Have you every wondered why such smart people tweet such dumb things?" It's because they lack wisdom. They might know a lot of things or have great expertise or technical knowledge, but that's not the same thing as wisdom.

So much of my coaching and consulting work is helping my clients create pathways to wisdom, helping them nurture an inner environment that's hospitable for wisdom to grow. I've often wished I could just "DO" wisdom the way I do the dishes or create a workshop, but there's no such thing. It's cultivated through a lifetime of self-awareness, seeking feedback, and humble learning.

Here are some ways to sleuth out whether you're chasing knowledge or wisdom:

Knowledge can be memorized. Wisdom must be developed. Becoming wise is an adaptive challenge. There's nothing you can memorize that will make you better at it, no "Tips and Tricks" that can be cut out of a magazine or posted on Facebook. It's human nature to want 10 Steps to Betterment, but the path to wisdom is longer and messier. This is why having wise elders and mentors in our lives is so essential. They have been on the planet longer and are further down the path. (With some exceptions. Wisdom is always a choice, and we don't get it just because we age.)

Knowledge gets you a high test score. Wisdom doesn't keep score. I've read so many autobiographies of wise, influential people who say something like, "I was never good in school." (Most recently, renowned neurosurgeon James Doty's Into the Magic Shop.) If they had compared themselves to those around them and taken that as the last word, we wouldn't be benefiting from their contributions now. Comparison is the enemy of wisdom. It traps us in the non-essentials, drowns out our own voice. Grades us on a curve.

Knowledge wants to get it right. Wisdom wants to enter into mystery. As long as we're preoccupied with getting it right (I know this trap very well), we won't be in awe. We won't experience wonder, the delight of the unexpected, the crazy way that things can shift and change for the better. I see a lot of leaders trying to control change instead of asking, "What's trying to happen here? How can I get out of the way and get curious?"

Knowledge talks. Wisdom listens. In my work, I almost never encounter anyone who says, "I'm not a good listener." We tend to think we're good listeners. But listening isn't giving advice. It's not thinking about our response while something else is talking. It's not even nodding in agreement, scanning for sameness or connection. It's truly being curious about the other, being open to outcome, seeking to understand, being together in differences. Leaders who get this are almost unstoppable.

In an age of divulgence, mass media, and branding, wisdom is prudent, discrete, quiet, steady. And worth the long road.