Monday, March 14, 2011

Knowledge is not Wisdom!

Our society's knowledge base seems to be expanding almost logarithmically! Never before has so much relevant data been available on so many subjects.

However, that doesn't mean that wisdom has increased in the world. On the whole, people don't seem any wiser now than they were 100 years ago. That's because wisdom and knowledge are two different things.

Wisdom can be defined as mature judgment in dealing with the problems in front of you. Knowledge give you the facts, but wisdom tells you how to weigh these facts against each other to reach a final behavior that works.

Simple example: driving a car. You can collect all manner of facts about cars, memorize the highway codes, know how a car works and where you are going—and still not be a good driver! Driving is a holistic, non-verbal skill that requires the weighing of many more factors than can ever be described. When should you pass other cars or cut into traffic? When can you "disobey" the traffic laws by driving over the speed limit? Sure, it's good to know the traffic laws and how a car works, but driving is more than that. It's an exercise in operational wisdom, and the proof of that wisdom is having fewer accidents.

Driving is a skill that can be gained only by experience, and you need time to get good at it. Time and experience don't guarantee wisdom on the road, but they are a minimum requirement for it. Furthermore, you can't say that drivers today are better than drivers fifty years ago. On the contrary, drivers today have too many distractions with all their incoming data and are probably worse!

The same applies to virtually any other real-world skill. Just because you have unlimited facts at your disposal doesn't make you a smart operator. You can read 100 books on management and still be clueless when thrown into a management situation. No matter what data you gathered on the internet, only real experience is going to teach you how to do it.

Society is currently intoxicated with information, thinking that information will solve everything. In fact, information solves nothing! The same problems of the world persist! Certainly, good data is important input to any decision, but data doesn't make the decision; wisdom does. If balanced wisdom isn't there, then the decision will fail no matter how much data you have.

Data, in fact, can be as much a burden as an asset. It can bury the truth in irrelevancy, so you "can't see the forest for the trees." It can also distract you from the real-world experience you need to make good decisions.

Before visiting a foreign country, you can read every available travel guide, analyse every map on the internet, look at other people's photos and read their accounts, and still get lost or tripped up when you visit the country. Instead of wasting all that time collecting data, maybe you should have just visited the country first! Actually experiencing something, rather than collecting data on it, is the best way to start putting that activity into perspective—to start collecting wisdom rather than information.

Many people think they don't need that. They stay at home, collect facts on the internet and think they understand something. Then when they do venture forth into reality, they get beaten up by it! No matter how much data you have collected about something, only reality can show you what really matters. If you rely only on the internet, then you end up preparing for the wrong thing and getting blindsided by the right thing.

Wisdom is balance that comes from experience. To a certain extent it can be taught—say, from parent to child—but only by direct interactive experience over an extended period of time. You don't pick up wisdom from a weekend seminar or even a semester course. You get it by direct experience and perhaps some nudging from someone who has already learned things the hard way.

Even in the internet age, wisdom today is gained as it always has been—by personal experience and personal relationships. Don't expect faster data streams to improve things. For the most part, that just helps us make stupid decisions faster!