Growing Wiser

People tend to gain wisdom as they age. This is 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.

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