In simplest terms, wisdom is knowledge in action.
Knowledge is a collection of information that you’ve learned and understand. Wisdom goes a step further by taking that information and applying it to a situation.
For example, you can read a hundred books on carpentry and have a thorough knowledge of it in theory, but only through practice can you gain the wisdom of knowing when to move a piece of oak on a lathe because of the way its scent changes.
Similarly, knowledge could mean understanding that your partner’s work is causing them stress and worry. Meanwhile, wisdom means that you’ll comfort them and try to ease their concerns rather than bringing up a grievance at that particular time.
In the few minutes it takes you to read this article, you’ll learn the most effective ways to develop wisdom and practice it in your life.
1. Get as much life experience as possible.
Wisdom isn’t something that can be taught. Unlike knowledge, which can be gleaned through study and observation, wisdom can only be developed via experience.
As a result, one of the best ways to gain wisdom is to get out there and live. You’ll glean a surprising amount simply by experiencing situations firsthand.
If you can travel, then do so as often as possible. Get involved in a foreign exchange student program if you’re still in school – preferably in a place that’s completely different from where you’re living now. If you’re out of school, consider applying for jobs in other countries. Or just go backpacking for a year or two and experience life on a few different continents.
Alternatively, if you can’t travel because of monetary or physical restrictions, then immerse yourself in different opportunities close to home. Volunteer with an organization outside your regular interests or take some classes to gain a variety of new, different skills. The broader your scope of abilities, the more you’ll be able to apply the knowledge you’ve accrued to every aspect of your life.
2. Spend more time reading than watching media.
Make a point of taking regular TV and social media breaks, and read as often as humanly possible. Furthermore, read a wide variety of books in various genres and topics. This type of active learning keeps you engaged and saves your eyes from the strain of staring at screens for hours on end.
Read about topics you love and those you’ve never heard about. Delve into history, biographies, non-fiction, and nature. Learn about ancient cultures and modern sciences, and familiarize yourself with as many different subjects as you can handle.
Bonus points if you can do this in more than one language!
When you have a vast amount of knowledge to draw from, you can adapt from countless sources in every aspect of your life.
For example, let’s say your car breaks down somewhere rural, and you’re stranded there overnight. Have you read books on wilderness survival? Are you familiar with local botany, so you know which plants are edible? Can you use objects and resources around you to stay warm and (relatively) safe until help can arrive?
You can retain an incredible amount of information from everything you read, and you never know when the tiniest bit of information can be put to good use somewhere down the line.
As a bonus, reading creates new pathways in the brain, thus lessening your chances of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.
3. Allow yourself to make mistakes and own up to them when you do.
None of us like to fail at an endeavor, nor do we want to be embarrassed when we flub something spectacularly, especially in public.
That said, this kind of aversion can hold people back from many life experiences. Sure, they might avoid messing up (especially in front of other people), but the only way to learn anything is through trial and error. Do you know how many times you landed on your backside when you were learning how to walk? Exactly – many times.
You can read as many books on a topic as you like and watch thousands of online tutorials, but you’re only going to hone your skills by doing them. That will include making a ton of mistakes.
The key here is to learn from those mistakes. Every time you mess something up, you learn a new technique to avoid that error in the future. Furthermore, you can pass that wisdom along to others, thus sparing them from potentially making those mistakes as well.
Also, keep in mind that owning up to your mistakes is another invaluable aspect of developing wisdom. If we don’t admit that we screwed something up, we can’t learn the right way (or ways) to do it. Additionally, if your screw-up led to something seriously not good happening, owning up to it shows an immense amount of integrity.
People will appreciate and respect you a lot more if you admit to your mistakes honestly than if you lie and try to weasel your way out of them. To err is human, and to learn from the errors with grace and dignity shows a lot of wisdom.
4. Listen more than you speak.
Are you familiar with the saying that “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens“? It’s a good one and is quite apt in terms of the difference between the two.
A knowledgeable person who lacks life experience will often be quite enthusiastic when talking about the topic they love the most. They might consider themselves to be an expert in the subject and cite a great many resources they’ve memorized. If this person has immersed themselves in academia, they might reference their degree regularly, thus proving that they know what they’re talking about.
In contrast, a wise person (or one who’s on a path to become wise) is fully aware that they still have a lot to learn about pretty much everything. Think of all those expert paleontologists who knew dinosaurs had leathery skin like lizards. Then the Sinosauropteryx was found in the mid 90s and showed that some species were feathered instead. The idea of feathered dinosaurs would have been mocked if anyone had suggested that before finding such proof.
Knowledge and truth are always in the process of growing and expanding. Thus, allow yourself the space and time to learn, and grow.
5. Develop critical thinking skills.
There are always several sides to a story, depending on who’s telling it. Whether it’s a tale being told by a few different people
The media is famous for “adjusting” information to provoke a reaction or response. You might hear a few different opinions about a situation or event from various news outlets reporting on it but conflicting information from everyday people who were present at those same events.
This is why it’s so important to develop excellent critical thinking skills. You can learn to differentiate between valid arguments and logical fallacies or between facts and emotion-based responses.
Over time, you’ll develop a keener sense of when something is true versus being sensationalized and how to react to it in the best way possible.
6. Keep a neutral, open mind to allow wisdom to flourish.
Immerse yourself in various situations without preconceptions or judgment, and just observe what’s going on. This can be difficult for most people, especially if they already have an emotional attachment to a technique, situation, philosophy, etc.
The key here is to try not to have a bias one way or another but to take in all information neutrally. Then you can take your time to consider how this information applies to your own life and what to do about it.
Let’s say you always tend your garden a certain way because that’s how your parents, grandparents, etc., have always done it. You’ve been raised to believe that this is the best way, and you know these plants (and how to tend them) inside-out.
Rather than arguing with someone who tends their garden differently, you can take a step back and learn what they do and why. You might discover some methods that would work exceptionally well in your own yard, methods you’d never have known about if you’d refused to acknowledge the possibility that there are other ways to do these things.
You don’t have to feel defensive or protective of the technique you learned because that’s your family’s technique, but rather see this information as building upon the foundation that your family gave you.
7. Immerse yourself in views and ideas different from your own.
Many people find themselves in specific “bubbles,” where information and experience are limited. They’ll spend most of their time immersed in subject matter that they like (or is familiar to them), interacting with others of like mind. Even their online search engines might yield results tailored to their personal preferences.
As a result, they can develop biases and perspectives based on limited information. They might not have access to what people from different walks of life think or feel because they’re only shown one side of the dice, so to speak. The only way to get past this is to take the initiative to find out what other people are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
8. Get comfortable with holding potentially conflicting ideas.
Scott Fitzgerald once said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
While this has often been used to encourage resilience in the face of cognitive dissonance, it also relates to being aware that two ideas may seem to conflict but coexist in the same space.
When confronted with opposing ideas that are both valid, most people get quite uncomfortable. Most prefer to ignore many valid points and arguments for one stance simply because they prefer the perception of certainty in one direction.
That said, being wise means acknowledging that two sets of facts may seem to be conflicting, but that doesn’t mean they’re neither valid nor truthful.
Let’s take the example of some missionaries who traveled to the Amazon rainforest to help the people there. They wanted to educate the children there, who were illiterate and therefore considered uneducated. That said, the missionaries realized that these kids didn’t just know the names of hundreds – if not thousands – of plants around them. They also knew which were edible, which were poisonous, which were medicinal, and which held fresh drinking water.
These children were illiterate, and these children were educated, just differently than what the missionaries had been expecting.
There are many ways to view different subjects, and the best way to gain wisdom is to acknowledge that different perspectives can be very real and valid. Furthermore, just because ideas or views are different doesn’t mean that they’re conflicting.
For example, Naziyah Mahmood is a leading astrophysicist and aerospace engineer who also happens to be a devout Muslim. For her, delving into these sciences is a way to understand the universe created by the God she adores. Or Dr. Matthieu Ricard was a famed molecular geneticist before becoming a Buddhist monk. He can see the parallels between Buddhist philosophy and science and how meditation has a startling healing effect on mental synapses.
Just as science and faith can intersect and live harmoniously in the same space, so can seemingly opposing views coexist within oneself.
9. Learn not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Modern “cancel culture” is very fond of demonizing people and wanting to ruin their lives for perceived missteps. This is particularly true for those in the public eye who live under microscopes and have their every action analyzed and picked apart by fans and naysayers alike.
The thing is, every single person on the planet has done something they’re not particularly proud of. It’s more than likely that you’ve said or done some things in the past that you regret. That said, it’s also possible that you learned some valuable lessons from those experiences. Some of our most intense growth happens when we learn from our mistakes.
As you can imagine, others can experience the same thing.
We can acknowledge that people can do rather terrible things, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t redeemable. Nor does it mean that other good things they’ve done have been nullified by their questionable behaviors.
Some people refuse to have books in their homes written by authors who have behaved badly. These writers may have been abusive towards their families, taken part in illicit activity, or held viewpoints others see as wrong. But do those behaviors cancel out the work they’ve done?
Furthermore, when it comes to authors, artists, and others whose work we enjoy, we may not be aware of factors that contributed to behaviors that we find despicable but fuelled their work. This goes along with the conflicting information example above.
Ernest Hemingway was a brilliant writer and a despicable person, and he also suffered from severe depression, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and other illnesses. Since we never met him in person, we don’t know firsthand how much his struggles affected him and influenced his behaviors. That doesn’t excuse them, but goes a long way towards explaining them.
Just because you appreciate someone’s work doesn’t mean you think their actions are acceptable. Wisdom allows you to acknowledge that, yes, you like this particular work, but that doesn’t mean you share the creator’s point of view or support their behavior.
If we only allowed ourselves to read books and watch films created by those whose personal track records were impeccable or whose ideals matched our own completely, we’d spend most of our time staring at blank walls.
10. Allow yourself to change your mind.
As new information arises about a topic or situation, you’ll develop a greater scope of knowledge and awareness about it all. Then, after you’ve pored through all the new information you’ve acquired, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of all of it and how to apply it to your own life, the decisions you’ll make, etc.
When you’ve gained more perspective and knowledge, you may discover that your previously held opinions and beliefs have shifted. As a result, you may change your mind about said situation or topic – either slightly or radically.
This doesn’t mean that you’re fickle or lack moral fiber in any way. Instead, you’re aware that when new information comes to light, we may have to adjust our stance and opinion.
Think of this like a court case in which a verdict is handed down based on presented evidence. If and when new evidence comes to light, it may shift perspective on the case exponentially and require an entirely new trial.
Consider how much you’ve changed from early childhood to now. Whether through school-based learning or experience, chances are you have different preferences, ideas, and perspectives now than you did when you were seven years old.
Being an adult doesn’t mean that you stop learning or that your stances are set in stone. Quite the contrary; we continue to learn throughout our lives, and the broad scope of awareness of how to put that knowledge into action is why elders are consistently consulted for their wisdom.
Revisit your views, question them constantly, and allow yourself space to change and adapt as you learn throughout your lifetime.
11. Be discerning about the actions you take.
Not just knowing the right thing to do, but when to do it.
Even whether to do it at all.
It’s essential to have the courage of your convictions and certainty about what you love and believe in, but it’s just as important to recognize the right time to stand up and fight for those things. And when not to.
Let’s say you have a beloved pet who’s diagnosed with a terminal illness. You know that there are treatments available that can prolong its life, but those treatments will be painful and difficult for your animal companion. Ethics come into play in this situation as well.
Yes, your pet will likely live longer due to the available medicines, but this is where knowing yourself and your motivations are important. Would you be extending their life to benefit them, or you? Are you allowing your fear of loss to take precedence rather than letting them go peacefully and painlessly?
Every action has repercussions, and it’s important to anticipate what the long-term ramifications would be for every action. Or lack thereof.
Wisdom is accrued throughout a lifetime, so it’s important to acknowledge that it’ll take time to develop it. However, the most extraordinary thing about it is that nobody can ever take wisdom away from you, and you will likely have the opportunity to share it with others at some point. Then they can pass that wisdom on in turn.
Simply put, gaining wisdom as individuals helps the collective on every level. If that isn’t an incentive to wise up as often as possible, then what is?
You may also like:
- Wisdom vs. Intelligence: What’s The Difference?
- 22 Things Curious People Always Do (But Never Talk About)
- 10 Traits Of A Deep Thinker
- 10 Signs Of A Sheltered Person (+ How To “Un-shelter” Yourself)
- 18 Things Independent Thinkers Do (But Don’t Talk About)