The Essence Of Wisdom

I remember sitting in a Sunday school class decades ago and hearing the story of King Solomon for the first time. More specifically, the story of the Judgement of Solomon was a profound and stark tale of an informed intervention that, for some reason, has always stuck with me. The fact that he had 700 wives also stood out somewhat, but that’s for another blog post…

As an impressionable young teen very involved in the church, I distinctly remember many of my prayers being for wisdom (just like Solomon). In fact I really didn’t “pray” for much else. I figured that if I could tick the wisdom box, other “important things” would slot neatly in to place.

Years later, many things have changed, but my interest in wisdom hasn’t. I have been privileged over the years to have had contact with some extraordinary people in my family, in my friendship circle, and in my professional network that exhibit that apparent super power that cuts through noise and complexity to reveal sense, reason and balance time and time again. Now, as a business person, I’m reminded daily how critical wisdom is in a commercial environment that places precedent on wealth, hierarchy, productivity, ego, aggression and many other potentially dehumanising characteristics.

In a business world where almost everything is commoditised, and it’s increasingly difficult for companies to compete on product or price, the ability to compete or differentiate on personality (or personability) is one of the few options left. Words like authenticity, transparency, openness, honesty and wisdom are appearing on the corporate agenda.

But what is the essence of wisdom?

Is it something inherent?

Are people just wise or, well, not?

Can you learn or attain wisdom?

I’m not sure we can “learn” wisdom. I’m also not convinced that it’s inherent – I see little correlation between intelligence and wisdom. But I think it’s possible to “practice” wisdom. And I think if we’re serious about practising wisdom, and I unpack the common denominators I see in those people that constantly surprise me with their clarity and perception, I think the following combination is a great recipe for cultivating sense, reason and balance:

1. Experience

The wise people in my life have paid school fees. They’ve been exposed to a range of situations, have met thousands of people, have invested in conversations, books, trips. They have a profound ability to speak into a complex situation with a simple story, analogy or metaphor. They avoid giving advice, because they know that you’re on your own path and are not arrogant enough to assume that their way is your way. They seem to extract some importan life lesson from everything they go through.

2. Empathy

The wise people in my life care. They can imagine life in my shoes, can identify with my pain and seek to understand before needing to be heard. They are honest, vulnerable and sincere. They listen more than they speak, and when they speak you know that they listened.

3. Empowerment

The wise people in my life seem to leave every human they interact with feeling lighter, smarter and more capable. They facilitate the discovery and emergence of truth as opposed to the prescription of it. The instinctively know how to build people up in an authentic, sustainable way and seek to do that wherever possible.

4. Enquiring

My friend Rich Mulholland has a tattoo on his arm that says “question everything”. When I first saw the tattoo, I was a little put off by it. It seemed deliberately contrarian. But over the years I’ve come to adopt it as a personal mantra too. I still don’t feel that I need to explain everything I think or feel, but I think it’s critical that I question and deconstruct the source of those thoughts or feelings. It’s possible that self-awareness is one of the key characteristics of the wise. At Cerebra, we spend a hell of a lot of time trying to ask the right questions – unpacking the legacy or root of a decision or train of thought more often that not reveals the hidden strengths and weaknesses in that practice.

To end, a friend and mentor who sadly passed away a few years back always used to say to me that life’s questions were so much more interesting than life’s answers. I think he was on to something.

Question everything.

Invest in experiences.

Care deeply about others.

Have I missed something? What do you think?


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  • Markus

    I think knowing when not to act is also an example of practicing wisdom. So even though it seems like you’re not doing anything, you are. For me wisdom can not exist without being practiced, because just thinking about stuff doesn’t mean anything.

    Agree on all points with you. It’s still the one thing I pray for most. Great post.

  • Henre

    You’d be one of the chaps I’d invite to dinner if I could take a celebrity. I like your thinking and I think talking life, business and everything in between would be fantastic.

    Henre Rossouw

    • mikestopforth

      Ha ha Henre that’s crazy bud. How about we have dinner as mates?

  • mbuguaCWG

    cultivating reason, sense and balance brings about or rather creates profound(ness) in every aspect…and it really is worth to make sense.

    thanks for that thought provoking perspective!
    i value empathy!

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