What it means to be wise

Journey of discovery: Wisdom accrual is a gradual, lifelong process influenced by experiences, introspection, education and personal growth. – 123rf.com

Examining wisdom, a concept deeply interwoven into our understanding of human nature, is integral to appreciating its essence.

To comprehend wisdom, we must differentiate it from its closely associated terms –knowledge and intelligence. While all three are indicators of cognitive ability, they bear distinct characteristics.

Knowledge signifies our understanding of facts and information while intelligence represents our capacity to apply this knowledge through mental and intellectual faculties.

Wisdom, however, transcends these concepts, utilising accumulated experiences, knowledge, and intelligence to formulate insights into life’s complexities.

For instance, learning the 26 letters in the English alphabet signifies knowledge. Constructing sentences using these letters showcases intelligence, enabling explanation and comprehension.

And when Shakespeare penned his famous line “to be or not to be” in Hamlet, using just six letters as a philosophical introspection of life, that encapsulated wisdom with knowledge moving from what to how and then to why.

Need to reflect

Wisdom in societal reflections surfaces through institutions, cultures and traditions. In traditional societies, the elders, due to their wealth of life experiences and lessons, are often perceived as being wiser.

Wisdom can also be seen in philosophical doctrines, religious texts and cultural narratives, all contributing to the evolution of a society’s moral and ethical norms.

Wisdom is crucial in both individual and collective decision-making, fostering a profound understanding of larger contexts, potential outcomes and the ethical implications of decisions.

Leaders, decision-makers, and social activists leverage wisdom to balance competing interests, resolve moral dilemmas and tackle socioeconomic issues.


Wisdom considerably influences our personal lives, shaping our decisions, world views and interpersonal relationships.

Those blessed with wisdom often excel at managing their emotions, understanding other viewpoints, and navigating life’s uncertainties and hardships.

Wisdom aids in self-realisation and personal growth. It’s a transformative journey that enhances self-awareness, empathy and emotional maturity, instilling resilience, fostering acceptance of life’s imperfections, enabling the handling of setbacks, and nurturing courage to embrace change.

Consequently, research increasingly acknowledges the association between wisdom and life satisfaction.

Cultivating wisdom

Wisdom accrual is an ever-evolving journey, shaped by our joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, and the myriad experiences that define human life.

Experiential learning greatly facilitates the development of wisdom. We learn more about ourselves and the world through our mistakes, explorations and direct exposure to life’s realities.

However, wisdom doesn’t merely stem from maturity or life experience.

It also demands a readiness to learn, question, reflect and adapt. It necessitates humility, courage to acknowledge our flaws, openness to change our perspectives, and accountability for our mistakes.

To impart wisdom to young minds, a holistic approach is required. It involves fostering an environment that promotes questioning, scepticism, empathy and introspection.

Implementing various strategies like critical thinking, emotional intelligence, reflection, decision-making skills and experiential learning, and modelling wisdom, humility and perseverance, can aid in this endeavour.

Western and Eastern traditions

Distinctive features and viewpoints in Western and Eastern wisdom traditions offer insightful perspectives on life and human nature.

Eastern wisdom traditions emphasise interdependence, harmony and practical wisdom.They advocate inner peace, mindfulness and a harmonious balance of opposing forces, stressing intuition, personal insight, empathy and civic participation, stemming from their belief in universal interconnection.

In contrast, Western wisdom lays greater importance on ethical reasoning, empirical research and scientific inquiry, where existentialist philosophies emphasise the significance of personal experiences and individual freedom.

Thus, the ontology (how we interpret the world), epistemology (how we interpret knowledge) and axiology (how we interpret values) of Western and Eastern thinkers provide multiple perspectives, which offer a comprehensive understanding of wisdom in our journey for truth.

Nature vs nurture

To conclude, wisdom results from a complex interplay between genetic predisposition and life experiences. This debate enhances our understanding of wisdom’s complexity and fluidity.

Research indicates a connection between wisdom, mental health, happiness and life satisfaction, thereby substantiating the need to nurture wisdom early on for long-term emotional well-being and contentment.

Prof Datuk Dr Paul Chan is the co-founder, vice-chancellor and president of HELP University (Malaysia). The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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