Intelligence vs. Wisdom: What’s The Difference?

“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you to make a living; the other helps you to make a life.”

So said clinical psychologist, Dr Sandra Carey, neatly summing up the difference between these two often confused human qualities.

This insightful observation would suggest wisdom is an important element in achieving life satisfaction. And yet these days, it seems that the big focus is on the acquisition of knowledge and developing intelligence.

Everyone is hell-bent on pursuing their education to the n-th degree in the hope of landing that dream job, together with the social status and financial reward it brings.

Wisdom is left behind in the race for the top.

It turns out the loser in this quest for academic excellence is good old-fashioned wisdom, which has slipped down the rankings of desirable qualities in a knowledge-obsessed and target-driven world.

How many job descriptions have you read citing wisdom as a requirement for applicants?

Yet, time was when this noblest of qualities was highly prized. Those with sagacity and deep understanding of a broad range of life experiences were sought out to dispense advice and to deliver the pearls of wisdom people craved.  

Now, though, it’s all about grades and acquiring the next set of qualifications to boost us up the salary rankings – not forgetting the bluster and self-aggrandizement which goes with pursuing success.

You put in the hard graft, you earned your reward – job done and you’re set for life, isn’t that so?

Well, maybe not. Being intelligent and hardworking isn’t everything.

Yes, your excellent academic achievements show that you’re capable of logical thinking, understanding concepts, and are equipped with heaps of determination and grit when it comes to getting down to work.

Admirable qualities though these may be, research indicates that intelligence is not an indicator of well-being.

It seems that our obsessive pursuit of knowledge has been to the detriment of cultivating wisdom. That in turn has resulted in a diminished overall life experience.

So, what IS the difference between wisdom and intelligence?

It’s not always easy to define abstract qualities such as these, but a quick refresher on the dictionary definition of each may shed some light:

Wisdom: The ability to use your experience and knowledge in order to make sensible decisions and judgments.

Intelligence: The ability to think, reason, and understand instead of doing things automatically or by instinct.

Distilling these definitions down to the bare essentials, the key difference would seem to be that wisdom uses the perspective gained from life experiences, whereas intelligence is down to the acquisition of empirical facts and knowledge. 

Applying the nature/nurture debate is another way to distinguish between the two:

Intelligence is generally accepted as being something you are born with to some degree (although it also requires nurturing to fulfil its potential).

Wisdom, on the other hand, is not something innate, needing time and experience as well as observation and contemplation to develop and ultimately blossom.

Another way to discern a difference is to say that intelligence is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing if and/or when one should do it.

Intelligence may mean knowing how to hack into your work’s computer network, but wisdom is understanding that that is probably a bad idea!  

What does it mean to be wise?

Unsurprisingly, the list of quotes on the subject of wisdom is long and enlightening. Here are just a few, so you get the gist:

Pierre Abelard: “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Albert Einstein: “Wisdom is not a product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

Marilyn vos Savant: “To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.”

Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.”

Benjamin Franklin: “The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.”

Confucius: “To know what you know and to know what you don’t know. That is real wisdom.”

There’s a common theme running through these wise words and that is humility, a somewhat alien quality in our society right now, where trumpet-blowing is what it’s all about. But more on that later.

Right there among those gems you may well find the inspiration needed to encourage you to develop your inner ‘sage’ with the aim of becoming a wiser and deeper-thinking individual.

Later we’ll look at ways you might do just that, but first let’s investigate why this particular quality is so life-enhancing.

What can wisdom do for us?

In our frenetic and challenging existence, never has it been more important to be equipped with the wisdom to make the right choices; the wisdom to cope with the unknown; the wisdom to observe; the wisdom to deal with emotions; the wisdom to understand; and the wisdom to see beyond face value.

According to the study mentioned above…

“…wise reasoning is associated with greater life satisfaction, less negative affect, better social relationships, less depressive rumination, more positive versus negative words used in speech, and greater longevity.”

Another study found that wiser people experienced less loneliness.

The research identified a number of components of wisdom:

  • Compassion
  • General knowledge of life
  • Emotion management
  • Empathy
  • Altruism
  • A sense of fairness
  • Insight
  • Acceptance of divergent values
  • Decisiveness

There is also evidence that wise thinkers’ ability to view things from a broader, open-minded perspective results in a more optimistic standpoint.

Whereas someone who is more close-minded, defensive and negative would typically, in the same situation, see only gloom and doom.

Another positive that goes hand in hand with wisdom is greater tolerance and a more balanced emotional response.

The self-awareness that comes with wisdom promotes self-control and keeps the lid on negative emotions like anger and frustration.

It’s the inner voice which advises against punching someone’s lights out or screaming obscenities – never a wise choice. Extreme examples, but you get the gist.

What also comes with wisdom is the ability to view situations from a fly-on-the-wall, distanced perspective; an all-important factor in making better decisions.

Self-distancing in this way puts the situation in a broader context, achieving a more balanced and satisfactory outcome.

The result isn’t just an intelligent decision, it’s a wise decision and these are the ones that generally lead to the greatest happiness.

All this evidence would indicate that, in addition to cramming in as much knowledge as possible in order to fulfil our potential and be the best we can be in our chosen field, it’s also important to cultivate wisdom to achieve emotional well-being, to make ourselves more rounded, complete, and fulfilled humans.

6 Ways To Become A Wiser Person

Wisdom isn’t the preserve of the older generation; a shock of gray hair and a lined face that reads like a roadmap isn’t a prerequisite for being wise.  

There are some active steps you can take to develop your inner ‘sage,’ which in turn will broaden and deepen your own life experience, making the effort worthwhile:

1. Take it easy.

Burdening yourself with constant busyness and working hard to compensate for your perceived (likely nonexistent) inadequacies, may impress the bosses.

It won’t, however, make you wiser.

Make sure you set aside time each day to be still and calm, allowing yourself to rest and step away from the stresses of life for a while.

Using your free time to read or even watching documentaries will be far more beneficial than filling the vacuum with c**p TV or video games.

Better yet, a hike in the woods will allow you time to relax, breathe, reflect, and expand your mind.

During these periods of calm, spend time reflecting on your inner self. It’s not possible to appreciate the thoughts and motivations of others if you don’t have a handle on what really makes you tick.

Learning the art of meditation is one of the best ways to develop an ‘inner eye.’

You’ll find that new perspectives open up to you when your mind isn’t skewed by the clamor of frantic activity.

2. Think before you speak.

There’s a time-honored aphorism which says: “Knowledge is knowing what to say. Wisdom is knowing whether or not to say it.”

Rather than giving in to the urge to respond instantly, try giving yourself space and time for reflection before speaking.

Be receptive and listen attentively, but don’t always feel you need to air your opinion straight away, or even at all.

3. Say goodbye to ‘black and white.’

Try not to make instant judgments. Few things in life are actually black and white.

Instead, try to evaluate what’s going on by looking between the lines for the gray areas. Sitting on the fence for a while will give you a chance to look at things from a broader perspective.

Taking an overview which considers the potential uncertainties rather than black and white facts will enable you to offer more circumspect advice, if it’s required.

Any related decisions are likely to be better ones.  

4. Develop an inquiring mind.

You may already have reached the end of your formal education, but learning doesn’t stop there.

If you stop feeding your mind with new experiences – broadening and deepening your understanding – it will atrophy.

Philosophical author Anais Nin put it this way:

“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.”

To become wiser, you need to open your mind, activate your natural curiosity, and be prepared to experiment.

Be hungry for new viewpoints and fresh experiences. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, but they are part of the process.

The key is to acquire as many different experiences as you can. Each one will add to the breadth and depth of your understanding.

A key Buddhist principle is the concept of the ‘beginner’s mind,’ one that is filled with wonder of discovery.

Think of a child’s sense of awe upon seeing the power of the ocean for the first time; that’s the kind of approach to life you need to cultivate.

With each experience approached from this childlike perspective will come a little more wisdom and understanding.

5. Read, read, read.

Read on your commute, read in bed, read on the toilet. Read books, magazines, and newspapers. Read blogs, read social commentaries, read comics, read the works of the greatest philosophical thinkers. Read novels or crime fiction. Read about your hobbies or your professional field.

Join the library or read online. Just read.

But be sure to reflect on whatever you read, form opinions and, if possible, talk about what you’ve read with friends and colleagues.

Whatever you read, it will help build an invaluable raft of knowledge (knowledge that goes beyond mere classroom facts).

Along the way you’ll learn how others have dealt with adverse situations that you may face yourself.

There’s a whole lot of truth in the saying: “We lose ourselves in books; we find ourselves there, too.”

6. A little humility goes a long way.

As can be clearly seen from the quotations of great thinkers above, acknowledging how little we do actually know is the cornerstone of true wisdom.

And yet our culture is all about self-promotion. To land that peachy job, a full-on sales pitch is needed. And it’s tempting to exaggerate, boosting a perfectly adequate skill set into something way beyond your real comfort zone.

That’s not to say that you need to abdicate your self-worth in any way. Painting a true picture of the real you, rather than some paragon of business virtue, will ultimately gain you more respect.

Accepting your own limitations is an important step on the road to greater wisdom. In turn, a bit of humility will allow you to respect and appreciate the abilities of others instead of fearing them.

What will I gain from this?

Let’s return to the difference between intelligence and wisdom.

There’s little doubt that making the most of the IQ we were blessed with at birth and cramming factual knowledge into our over-burdened minds can bring financial rewards and material success.

But in terms of overall life satisfaction, wisdom is the winner every time.

Possessing wisdom makes for a more rounded and certainly more fulfilled human.

You’ll be better equipped to handle life’s ups and downs and also to empathize with the struggles experienced by your family, friends, and colleagues.

As the ancient philosopher and poet Rumi wrote:

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

And if you do heed his wise words and change yourself, these life-enhancing improvements are within your grasp:

  • Better decision making
  • Greater empathy
  • Better ability to cope with adversity
  • A more optimistic outlook
  • Less likely to experience loneliness

To bring us back to where we started, with Dr Carey’s sage words, wisdom really is the key to living the fullest possible life.

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About Author

Working as a freelance copywriter, Juliana is following a path well-trodden by her family, who seem to have 'wordsmithing' in their DNA. She'll turn her quill to anything from lifestyle and wellness articles to blog posts and SEO articles. All this is underpinned by a lifetime of travel, cultural exchange and her love of the richly expressive medium of the English language.