Growing Up, Growing Wiser

People tend to gain wisdom as they age. This is very obvious. Some people, though, seem to gain it faster than others. You can tell by looking at the difference between people of the same age. I posit that you can gain wisdom faster on purpose.

I would like more wisdom for a few reasons. I would like to be able to make better judgement calls and be a worthy moral authority. I want to provide value to the people around me. And I want to avoid painful mistakes. Not all mistakes teach us something. Then I can go about making more interesting mistakes.

Overall, someone who is wiser will have better life outcomes for them and the people they care about. In the long run, a wise aim will end up closer to the target than a naive or merely clever one. Then it will be more likely that our impacts on the world will be positive.

It’s up to everyone to decide if they want to focus on it or not. In the rest of this post I am going to assume that we value wisdom and would prefer more of it.

What is wisdom?

Intuitively we know what it is: a cluster of things that involve old age, a benevolent smile, koans… but that’s not good enough.

To find out what a characteristic is composed of, we can start to look for patterns and find a gradient. I made a list of people I knew well, and ended up binning them into three categories: Below, About, and Above.

The people in the “Above” category tended to have these characteristics:

  • A lot of diverse experiences and engagement in the world
  • Liked and respected, kind, good social skills
  • Extra introspective and self-aware. Thoughtful, reflective, intelligent.
  • Generally healthy. Not anxious or depressed. Grounded.
  • Values kindness and humanity at large. Lack of nihilism.
  • Something like taking the world and their role in it seriously
  • Something like “depth”
  • Older than me

When I did this exercise, I realized that I didn’t know anyone at all that feels very wise. This probably signifies an issue with my young social network, and is not a good sign. It also feels capped, somehow, like even the heights of wisdom are not yet so lofty.

After thinking about it a lot, I ended up with two models.

Model 1: The Cycle

This is how I started thinking about it. As time passes, people dash into the world at high speed and come away with pain that they learn from. This cycle is what drives the growth of wisdom over time, so by speeding up or improving parts of this cycle, one might have more wisdom faster.

The nice thing about this is it suggests a relatively short feedback loop and no limit to the amount of wisdom one may achieve.

Under model 1, the timeline for getting wiser seems to be on the order of years. This means that changes won’t be noticeable immediately, which forms a very slow feedback loop. A slow feedback loop is better than no feedback loop.

What I think is the trick is that a lot of things that don’t look like skills are, in fact, skills.

  • Faster cycles: Increase openness, seek true novelty
  • More cycles: Live longer, maintain good health, more observer moments
  • More experiences: Increase likability so as to get more opportunities. Increase the size of your world. Practice saying “yes” to more things, practice curiosity.
  • More challenges: Practice courage and approaching the things you fear (safely). Personally, I think the world has enough challenges out there without creating them deliberately.
  • Better integration: Increased mindfulness and reflection. Maintained intelligence by keeping in good health.

Model 1a: Adding and Subtracting

After reading Derek Siver’s blog, I want to add to this model.

It is important to learn to subtract and simplify when necessary and unlearn what was once enough but is now wrong.

Model 2: Blocked Wisdom

Thanks Qiaochu Yuan for help with this model

We all start out with a large well of innate wisdom that gets blocked off by dissociation, social incentives to ignore our own truth, trauma, and whatever else might have happened to us on our path to adulthood in a society. Once these blocks get dissolved, we might find ourselves with a great deal of wisdom.

This model could explain why I don’t see people vastly wiser than anyone else. Once everything is unblocked, that’s more or less the ceiling!

The particular nature of the blocks is going to be personal and vary a lot. Some of these blocks might be consistent across a particular culture, and working together with people like you might get you insight faster.

In general, working on embodiment, alignment, introspection, and psychotherapy-like work should help gradually with this process. Even if that’s not how you get wisdom, this seems like a very good thing to do!

Learn from others?

Paying close attention to people’s worlds and approaching them with honest curiosity seems like a great way to engage with the world fully. This won’t be easy. By empathizing and seeking understanding, you too will experience the variety of unique pain out there.

There is one dangerous situation to avoid: The false guru. You are the one that has to do the learning. No one can do the learning for you, even if you have a good guru.

Now What?

We generally want wisdom in order to use it. Figure out what you want it for: Communication, making calls in hard situations, helping others, teaching others?

And then practice using it. It will go poorly, but we can pay attention and improve.

“I’ve always intuitively understood that in order to gain wisdom, you needed to suffer.”

I Never Wanted to Be Wise

I don’t agree with the above quote. Suffering isn’t a requirement for painful experiences. But I do agree that to become wise is not an easy path.

I think the world would be a better place if we valued wisdom and made more earnest attempts to seek it out. My models might be completely wrong, but they’re a place to start on an important problem. Good luck out there.

Get out of the car

Build and breakdown are the two work-filled bookends between the fun of the week at a burn-style festival. Build is the chaotic ascension and creation; breakdown the strenuous push to clean up for a return to the default world. It is not easy, moving heavy objects in the sun and repacking after a week of poor sleep.

At Nowhere Burn 2018, no one was in especially high spirits. Breakdown meant our shade structure was going down as well, and the oppressive and unavoidable sun drained us all. Eventually, things were packed and we filled up our rented Peugoet to the brim with trash, tents, and people. Four of us in one car. Finally, we could be on our way out of the scrublands and back to Barcelona.

There was a 30 minute dirt road between the festival site and the highway, and after that, it was a clear shot. Barcelona was no more than a 3 hour drive, and there was an AirBnB full of friends waiting for us when we got there.

I sat in the front passenger seat, sleepily watching the road. As we went down the highway, the car was drifting, wiggling the lines more than normal and taking the turns with more style than necessary. And then the center line in the two-lane highway was crossed. For a second, it looked like the normal… if not premature… passing maneuver to get by the van in front of us. And then we kept going, leaving the center line behind and floating towards the left edge of the road when one of us yelled out but no, we kept going, drifting over the edge of the road and down the ditch and didn’t stop, at the steady clip of 110 kmh (70 mph).

GET OUT OF THE CAR.

I wasn’t scared of death, so much. It was horror: the pounding, the crunching metal, the smell of gasoline, the sound of my screaming. (If there ever was a time to scream, it was then.)

The car nosedived in the ditch and didn’t stop, flipping, every bump with the ground announced with noisy crashing and black smell of burning plastics (I can smell it as I type it). The bursting of the airbags, the ground as it crashed about somewhere, cracking windows and metal crushing—I couldn’t see anything but chaos out the window as the world turned.

Horror. Fear is for ordinary things. I could not believe what I saw around me, not as it happened.

The car heaved over, its momentum spent. It came to a stop.

I thought I would look over and find the person in the seat next to me dead, but I couldn’t see him at all. My fear and worry that he would be dead joined my terror of being trapped in the smoke and darkness, hanging upside down by my seatbelt.

GET OUT OF THE CAR

I couldn’t get out of the car. I didn’t know if I had broken ribs. In shock, I couldn’t evaluate that. I scrabbled at the door, at my seatbelt. My breath was panicked, too fast to think. Gravity was pulling me some way, and I couldn’t tell up from down. Relax. Evaluate. A few moments later I found enough breath and grounding to unbuckle my seatbelt, falling onto the roof of the car. The car door wouldn’t open. Trapped in the smoke and wreckage, upside down. I looked around for another way. No one was in the driver’s seat next to me, but there was a faint, crushed window to bright light and air.

This all took place over one minute, maybe. I don’t know how many times we flipped. It felt like the end, heavy and adrenaline-filled and alive. More alive than I’ve felt in a while, compressed into a lengthy minute.

There is one nice thing about car crashes. When I don’t die, I find myself more alive and awake than I have been ages.

GET OUT OF THE CAR.

I crawled out that window and onto the grass, screaming, clutching my abdomen, last one out of the upside-down car. An ugly rebirth.

We had flipped two or three times as we ran off the road at 110 km an hour. Somehow, we four in the car were mostly okay. One friend who had been sitting in the back had a face covered in blood that dripped from his forehead. He was okay. The other had a broken ankle. That will heal. Blood, not mine, got on my ripped clothes and skin. One friend was in severe neck pain and we held each other and shook in the horror of what had just happened to us. A compression fracture that recovered fully.

We were lucky. I feel awe when I consider the design process that brought such a relatively safe death machine into existence.

The shock took its time in fading. We sat on the grass next to the broken car, dreamlike. The car behind us stopped and helped us to the other side of the road. They called an ambulance. My copilot and I sat on the side of the road and cried together at the confusing pain and upending of our worlds, waiting for the ambulance to come. Its arrival was not the end of this story.

The trip to the hospital and the few days after were some of the most challenging days in my life. I got my first IV in a hospital where one or two of the staff spoke English. All of my stuff was stuck in the smashed trunk of the car. My phone was soaked with water when the firefighters sprayed the car to prevent it from exploding. They gave it to me anyway, dripping wet with the faint smell of petrol, and I got to watch it fizzle and die over the next hour.

My ankle swelled up to a balloon over the next day, and every step was pain. The burden of a backpack didn’t help—at least I didn’t lose that too. No phone, no money, and no passport or ID. All stuck in the smashed trunk of a car.

I didn’t choose these challenges, and because of that, things I faced damaged me further rather than built me up. Things like having to ask strangers for internet access, speak poor Spanish to doctors while choked with anxiety, or ask friends for euro. There was a lot of pain there.

I could barely walk. Getting pushed on a wheelchair through the airport to get back home was one of the most relieving things I’ve experienced. At home, I found out just how unfriendly my upstairs house was for a wheelchair. It was easier to just stay in one place, sitting on my mattress alone.

Several months later, I was still having trouble walking. I fell into a numbness and depression of several months, being incapable of doing all that I had before. Walking several miles a day is key to my health and emotional wellbeing, and I was unable to find a replacement for it but numbing and video games. During that time, I was not as nice a person as before. I was not a happy person.

Usually, I find that pain contains important lessons. This pain though kept going and going, without offering much learning to squeeze out of it at all. I had to accept that the amount of learning and the amount of pain do not go hand in hand.

Today is the one year anniversary of my car crash. My ankle injury is minor in the scheme of things, but it continues to limit how I live my life today.

I could have prevented the car accident by speaking up when things felt unsafe. I felt disgusted at myself for that even after I almost died, I still had trouble speaking up for myself. More, actually, in my weakened and depressed state. Self-disgust, though, isn’t an effective motivator.

I’m happy to say that as I healed, I have gained the capacity to speak up more, especially when in cars. It is frustrating that it took so long.


Somewhere, mid-somersault of the car crash, I realized that yes, I do want to be alive. I knew that before, and I know it more now. I would have done so much to avoid that moment of realization as we hung in the air between one bounce of the car and the next crunch. At first, I worried a lot about alternate universes where I died, such as if I had grabbed at the steering wheel and shunted us into a more dangerous sideways roll.

I feel for the tragedy of those timelines. Only later did someone point out that the accident followed classical mechanics, and there was likely less uncertainty and branching than how it felt. To my human mind, though, I feel I could have made choices differently. To physics, it always would have been the same.


(Poetic inspiration goes to Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person)

Levels of Players

In the big infinite game, our lives in the world, there are many levels of influence one can have. I tend to track it in 6 stages, originally inspired by the White Wolf RPG stats of Gnosis / Arete.

What I mean by influence is the amplitude and reach of a person’s goals and energy. This can change over time. I count the level someone is at by their latest projects or output over the last few years.

Why use this framework?

This is about tracking what’s going on in reality, not about making people feel bad about where they are. This is useful for de-celebritizing people at a higher level than you. Don’t get jealous, get motivated. Study them. They have knowledge and skills that you want.

This isn’t to cast moral judgements. People are at different places in the game. Don’t judge yourself, either. If you don’t like where you’re standing, take action and move up.

Impact 0: Your existence or nonexistence is basically irrelevant

Everyone starts here! The impact at this level is mostly limited to just you, but does slightly affect the people close to you as well.

Interventions that are aimed at making your existence not matter are Impact 0. Not doing things, like not having a carbon footprint and not having kids, are good examples.

Examples: Go vegan, write persuasive comments on Facebook, get married, go to a protest, vote, get good grades, commit petty crime, join the HOA, vote with your feet

Impact 1: You’ve had some local impacts, on a scale of a small town or community

Many jobs that have moderate responsibility will put you in this category. To reach the people around you, there has to be at least some actions that are one-to-many. This can be on a small scale, like face-to-face in a classroom or with a group of friends.

Examples: Throw a big party, perform improv in your city, save lives as an EMT, teach elementary school children, manage a few people, have children, Instagram fame

Impact 2: You’ve had some substantial impacts, on the scale of a company or city

This can be done single-handedly with the right skills, but at this point it is more likely that organizations or small movements are needed to assist. One-to-many-to-many (some virality).

Examples: Help form a movement, get your idea patented, become a popular musician in your country, become mayor of a city, give a TED talk, coin a new word

Impact 3: You’ve had some major impacts, on the scale of a nation

Usually has the leverage of at least a small team of people helping maximize the magnitude. Good understanding of cause and effect and what they’re doing in the world.

Examples: Speak at a Senate hearing, invent and market a new type of meat replacement that some people use, create a new genre of music, write an inspiring bestseller

Impact 4: You’re one of the key players in some large subdomain of the world

Probably have a very good grasp of the big picture, or they wouldn’t be here. Likely to be highly intelligent: Domain smarts plus world smarts.

The inaccurately-named list, TIME 100: Most Influential People, mostly contains people in this category.

Examples: Found or steer a major company, play a role in designing the internet, help allocate billions of dollars as a part of a government, write of new bills in a major country, create of a major cryptocurrency

Impact 5: No doubt about it, you’re one of the key players period.

They’re rare. Getting to this point is not an easy task, so many of them are older and have strong teams and a lot of resources.

The people we view as the Great Movers of history. Their actions ripple across the world and into the future. They understand the world well, have an ambitious vision, and have the means to implement it.

Examples: Create a country or religion, lead a revolution, build a rocket, determine global policy, build software that changes how we all live

Other considerations

Is the power borrowed or owned? Borrowed power is like if you were the acting arm of a larger institution or helping a more powerful person. While their impacts are high level, they might be a replaceable cog in a larger machine of agency. Idea from Samo Burja in Borrowed power vs Owned power.

Is the impact on target? The amplitude of an intervention is no promise of its benevolence or ability to strike a target. Whatever level of impact someone is at, they should make sure it’s a positive one before trying to move up to more firepower. Direction isn’t guaranteed, and one must take care to have good aim.