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How to Become Wise

8 suggestions and 1 exercise for cultivating wisdom.

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We associate wisdom with old age, the accumulation of knowledge that comes by encountering the trials and tribulations of life; but obviously, not everyone who is old is wise. Wisdom is not just the result of sorting out a lap-full of experience. It is also a product of learning essential ways of viewing your life and the world around you as you move forward.

Here is my list of both the characteristics of wisdom and the steps to its achievement. As you move through these, think what you might add.

Be honest with yourself

A simple statement that is more complicated than it seems; there are actually a few elements under this heading. One is having a certain level of self-awareness: realizing and being able to define your emotions; knowing your values — your own priorities of what is important in life and what it means to be a “good” person; knowing what you want — being able to use your gut reactions and instincts, rather than just the rules in your head, to let you know what you need.

And if that is not enough to work through, the next step is using this self-awareness as a foundation for realizing when you make a mistake and admitting that you did; taking full responsibility for your decisions and actions, rather than blaming others.

Be honest with others

Self-honesty is the foundation for being honest with others. Why? Because being honest with others is about revealing yourself, and to that fully you obviously need to be able to articulate what that self is.

But many people are able to get through step one, but then hit a bigger hurdle: Even though they know what they think and believe, they can't step up and speak up. Instead, they feel unsafe, they worry about other’s reactions, and so they sugar-coat their complaints to their colleagues at work, they bite their tongue and don’t tell their partner what they are upset about, or what they want him to change. They hold back.

The danger in doing this is that you begin to feel isolated because no one really knows you; the problems that bother you back-up over time leading to explosions or depression. The antidote is overriding your old coping style, developing the courage to step up even though your instincts say to step down.

Focus on process rather the outcome

While the first two suggestions are about having a truthful dialog with yourself and others, this step is more about your behaviors and how you approach tasks. Outcome is obviously about the result, the goal, the end. We tend to think of process as merely the means to reaching that end.

But those considered wise flip this equation and make process an end in itself; this is focused on mindfulness, the secret to enlightenment. Instead of focusing on the outcome, put your attention and energy on the process itself; let go of expectations. By doing this you are able to stay focused on the present, rather than living in the future — the possible outcome. Not only is the present where life is, but the present process is the only thing you can control, the sages say. The future, the outcome is beyond your grasp.

Those who only focus on the outcome often feel frustrated or driven. They develop tunnel-vision that obliterates what is happening now; they lose sight of the everyday pleasures of running their lives, fail to appreciate the doing-process itself. Instead, they easily wind up measuring their happiness by measuring themselves against others, and what others say about them, and by doing so, give up their power and self-esteem.

Listen to the changes within yourself

If you are driven and focused on outcome, if life is a forced march from one goal to another, not only can you miss what’s good about everyday life, but you also miss those subtle changes that are naturally evolving inside you. What I often see in people who take this forced-march approach is depression or an eventual crisis — they suddenly come to realize that too much of themselves has been compromised and left on the side of the road, that their lives are one-dimensional — all because those inner voices were drowned out by their myopic focus or their fear of others.

The obvious antidote is periodically slowing down, taking stock of the state of your life, paying attention to those quiet internal voices that tell you that your needs are changing, and then having the courage to speak up.

Learn from mistakes

Embedded in problems are lessons to learn. Once you learn the lesson that the problem is trying to teach — that you shouldn’t rant at your boss or partner, that you need to check the oil in your car — the problem goes away; if you don’t, the problem keeps coming up. Older people and particularly wise people generally have an easier time running their lives because life is a process of problem elimination; they’ve learned enough lessons from them that there’s a smaller batch left.

Where it is easy to get stuck is not taking this approach. Instead, you see life or others as attacking you; you blame, feel like the perpetual victim, and so instead of learning the lesson that the problem can teach, you are always only left with the same one — that others can’t be trusted and out to hurt you, that life is unfair. Or no, you don’t blame others, but instead blame yourself and see mistakes not as lessons but endless sources of regret, guilt, self-flagellation. Not only does this keep you living forever in the past, which in turn colors the present, but abuse of yourself destroys self-esteem and leads to depression.

Have a sense of humor

Maybe humor is too strong a word here — we’re not talking about doing stand-up. But what is applicable is that well-known definition of comedy: tragedy plus time. What this translates into is an ability to step back, put what seem like big problems and events into perspective, sort out priorities so that not everything feels so important and overwhelming — to see a first-world problem as a first-world problem. It’s also about realizing that what feels so important today, this month, this year is likely to change over time — because, like it or not, you will change, because of the power of time itself.

Believe you have a contribution to make

A core existential issue that all of us need to wrestle with in our own way is: What is the purpose of my life? Without a sense of purpose, life is only something to get through, a mere grind, a treadmill you forever walk until you die. Your purpose may be shaping the life of a child as best you can, making some small difference in your community, starting a company that changes millions.

But the “what it is” doesn’t really matter; what matters is having something. And the starting point for having this something is having the blind-faith, a raw belief that you do in fact have some purpose, that there is something you are here for, that you have unique talents that can make an impact, however large or small, on others and the world.

Be kind to others

Yes, this sounds like the platitude that everyone knows. But what is behind it is not only about how you treat others, but how you see the world. Kindness is a byproduct of seeing you and others as connected in some way, realizing that though we are different, we all are struggling in our own ways; with this filter in place you can be empathic. Without it, life is about competition, a hunger game where others can’t be trusted, where it’s every man for himself. Sure, you may be the one to come out on top, but it comes at a cost of a life filled with anxiety, paranoia, loneliness.

And the short exercise

Here is a quick guided-imagery exercise that may help you uncover what you already know about you and your life. You can have someone read the instructions to you, record them yourself, or simply memorize them:

Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Take several deep breaths to help you settle. See if you can imagine yourself at that time in the far-distant future when people see you as not only experienced but wise. One or two people come to you and ask: What is it that you’ve learned most from all your years of living?

Listen to what you say. How do you react to what you heard yourself say?

Again, this is my list and you may have others to add. But the threads that run through all of these suggestions are the notions that wisdom comes from culling the best of life’s experiences and learning from them, from focusing on the doing rather than outcome, from periodically stepping back and seeing how well your outer life represents your inner one, from putting into place your own, and often hard-earned, values about how you treat yourself and others.

Wisdom is not something that comes to you in later life or not. It's a way of living your life right now.