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Gaining Wisdom May Require More Growing Pains Than You Think

Research shows adversity is often a prerequisite for wisdom.

 Cassandra Ortiz/Unsplash
Those with wisdom possess knowledge about the essence of the human condition.
Source: Cassandra Ortiz/Unsplash

The most beautiful people I’ve known are those who have known trials, have known struggles, have known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. —Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

What comes to mind when you think of wisdom? Perhaps you see a pleasant man with white hairs along the sides of his head, wrinkles lining his skin, calmly departing his life lessons on those who will listen. He’s kind. He’s patient. He seems to have this deep understanding of what is important in life and what isn’t.

I think of Morrie Schwartz, a sociology professor and subject of the book, Tuesdays With Morrie. Before dying from ALS he said,

So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way to get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives your purpose and meaning.

When faced with death, he became even more devoted to sharing what love he had left to give. His words live on through his legacy. His message touched the hearts of many trying to find their own meaning in life.

Perhaps when you think about wisdom, you think of Martin Luther King Jr, Harriet Tubman, or Randy Pausch, author of "The Last Lecture." Maybe you had a wise teacher who believed in you or a coach who inspired you.

What is Wisdom?

Many people come to mind when thinking of wisdom, but what does it really mean to be wise? Researchers distinguish between three types of wisdom:

  1. General Wisdom. Those with general wisdom understand the fundamental pragmatics of life. They possess knowledge and judgment about the essence of the human condition and the ways and meanings of planning, managing, and understanding a good life.
  2. Personal Wisdom. This type of wisdom is having perspective on the self. People with personal wisdom also develop deep personal relationships and helpful coping mechanisms for difficult circumstances such as humor. They have tolerance for others’ values and lifestyles as well as self-acceptance.
  3. Self-Transcendence. This component of wisdom is developed in people who develop their spirituality and have a great sense of connectedness with past and future generations. They increasingly rely on internal rather than external definitions of the self.

How Does Wisdom Develop?

When you ponder on someone who exhibits wisdom, it’s expected that they’ve had a lot of life experience. They’ve likely overcome great obstacles and have grown stronger from them. Adversity has a way of clarifying what is important in life and allows empathy to flourish. Experience and hardship are often precursors of wisdom.

Samuel Martins/Unsplash
Just as a muscle must break down before it grows stronger, so too does the human spirit.
Source: Samuel Martins/Unsplash

Wisdom Requires Life Experience. As researchers Paul Bates and Ursula Staudinger said, “like any expertise, the acquisition and refinement of wisdom involves an extended and intense process of learning, practice, and a well as the motivation to strive toward excellence.” These researchers found that those in a field such as clinical psychology had greater wisdom compared to controls. People with professions that consist of engagement with questions of life planning, life management, and life review, have a greater chance of developing wisdom. This gives evidence that wisdom is a skill to be learned and practiced, not a genetic lottery for a select few.

Wisdom Requires Hardship. Though experiencing struggle or trauma is rarely intentionally sought out, it can have several upsides (read more here about compassion). One of which is the potential to develop greater wisdom. Reflect on a difficult time in your life. How did it change your perspective of meaning and purpose? How did it cause you to reflect on who you are and your perceived role?

Researchers have found that difficult life events force people to rethink how they see themselves in the world. Their self-perception changes. Their life philosophy transforms. Haruki Murakami delicately illustrated this when he said:

Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Obstacles are so often seen as the stumbling blocks that keep us from what we want. They may knock us down. They may rob our hope or optimism. Yet, those who have overcome great difficulties are frequently the ones worth listening to.

Just as a muscle must break down before it grows stronger, so too does the human spirit.

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