When I was 25, I was convinced of my own wisdom despite all evidence to the contrary. Firstly, I didn’t believe that I was an alcoholic. I had a job. Two degrees. I operated within society structures. Had a great wardrobe. People who told me to ‘snap out of it’ or supplied other inane advice didn’t understand that I liked drinking and that regular hangovers were a small price to pay. It wasn’t that I couldn’t stop, it was that I didn’t want to. I was wrong (of course). The first night after 5 years of drinking that I tried to go to sleep without the aid of alcohol, I lay on my bed thinking
‘How on earth do other people do this?’
I had forgotten how to get to sleep you see… because in my world, you just passed out. When I woke up the next morning, I thought.
‘So this is how it feels to wake up without a hangover.’
The world seemed mighty odd. Clearer, brighter… and more depressing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had no idea about life and no idea how to cope with it, without alcohol. I had been wrong about everything (it took me while to admit that though). I also realized that although I was 25, in emotional terms I was still a child.
With each passing year as I tried to navigate my way in the world, finding path that seemed to make sense, another job, another degree, another relationship in the pursuit of wisdom. Would I ever make it to adulthood? Would I ever be wise? Every birthday I thought,
‘Look how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve come from last year. Now I must be an adult. Is this what wisdom feels like?’
And whilst I thought this I would cringe with embarrassment when I remembered how wise I thought I had been the previous year. Every year without fail, I would be in a totally different place to the one I had predicted, my original plans had come to nothing but I’d gained some great life experience along the way. I had been wrong most of the time. Nevertheless the fact that I had learned stuff and gleaned some knowledge contributed to my belief that I was still headed towards wisdom.
Then I had children. I was back in same place I had been when I was 25 wondering
‘How on earth do other people do this?’
I understood that although I knew a whole lot… in this new experience, yesterday’s knowledge was largely irrelevant. Worse still, I could learn everything there was to know, but as my world continued to change I would often feel like I did at 25… totally bewildered. I wasn’t growing wiser, I was only realizing that I didn’t know very much at all even as the amount of knowledge I had was increasing.
Last month saw three of my articles published in various online magazines. They went viral. Suddenly, people thought I was wise. My actions were aligned with my ethical beliefs. I had self-knowledge. I was direct and sincere. People started coming to me for advice. But whilst these might be the classic signposts of so-called wisdom, but they are not wisdom.
From what I can ascertain what they thought might be wisdom were the case studies I had filed away in my head. I sometimes use these case studies for other experiences in my life as I come across them, but more often than not I have to develop brand new ones. Brand new experiences need brand new approaches because life is not like a laboratory and there are simply far too many variables to do any ‘control’ experiments. Trying the same approaches for new problems, is not wisdom and will not bring you happiness.
I can show them my own case studies, but when I tell them that I am constantly wrong, that I constantly make mistakes and that my own experience with few exceptions shows more plainly what not to do, they shake their head wisely and say ‘Ah, only a truly wise person would say that.’
Wisdom is not a goal, because the very fact of making it a goal is the opposite of wisdom. And believing yourself wise, a sign of ignorance. But it doesn’t work the other way round. If you believe you’re ignorant, well you’re probably right. That doesn’t make you wise.
During all those years of experimentation and research, I never once made a discovery. All my work was deductive, and the results I achieved were those of invention, pure and simple. ~ Thomas Edison
When you start to make an impact on others, there is a risk you start believing what others tell you. Why else would they come to you if you are not wise?
Maybe because they like me, believed that knowledge is a path towards wisdom and that it can be taught. Maybe because I have a meticulous and copious portfolio of documented case studies which they think might work for them and don’t believe in their ability to develop their own. They do of course have the ability, just not the confidence. But if past examples rarely work for me, there’s little chance they will work for anyone else. The path to wisdom is not like a light bulb. There is no ‘one’ way for everybody.
Wisdom is something that happens occasionally when you realize the more you know, the less likely you are to be wise, because you are more likely to depend on past experience to solve your problems (which most probably won’t work).
So if there is anything I can say about wisdom at all, it is that wisdom involves having a truly open mind to recognize that we are wrong at every turn (and that this is a good thing). That our past experience might mean more knowledge, but if anything this detracts from remembering that we know very little.
But there’s a difference between knowing a number of good approaches and thinking you know the answers. If you think you know how something will turn out, you will invariably be wrong. If you are not by a million to one chance, you cannot predict how you or others will feel about it or indeed the further impacts of your actions. You cannot possibly predict all consequences because there is no such thing as knowledge in the future. You cannot know, and thinking you do know is really really… well, not wise.
But there are methodologies you can use to try and achieve the end result you think you desire (whilst being open to the possibility that they will not always work either). The approaches – recognizing you are not your emotions, using direct communication, being compassionate, embracing difficulty, stepping out of fear – are part of what wisdom means to me. These can be taught and learned. Doing your own experiments with these tools and changing your approach with each result, along with the willingness to embrace being wrong even though you know the social fallout might be severe.
I thought that creating an online business for financial analysis would bring me freedom and happiness. So I started a business and sunk a lot of money into it. I enjoyed building the website and I enjoyed writing the content. Then I started to get contracts for financial analysis. I achieved what I wanted and it sucked. Turns out I didn’t want to be a financial analyst after all. I also – very publicly – let a whole bunch of people down who had invested their time and energy. Wrong.
The next year I decided to build websites and start blogging about online business. It was the part of the business I had liked (I thought). It didn’t involve others. I tried to teach some how to build websites too – there was money to be made in it so everyone told me. But my heart wasn’t in it because online business as it turned out, wasn’t my passion. It didn’t make me happy and I was wrong about that too.
The year after, I started writing only about topics that interested me. Embracing my ‘wrong-ness’ and doing something differently, meant at least I was happier and more fulfilled. I wrote, more and more every day. And loved it. Postmodern Woman became a portal for personal development; ironic for a person who had just realized that she would never be wiser than she had been the day before… because life changes constantly.
Once I wanted my articles to be a testament to lessons we all go through. A fixed body of work.
But much of what I have written even if true for me yesterday might be plain wrong today. New knowledge, new perspective casts a different light on everything. I update my past posts with this new knowledge, something which is not common in the blogging world. Some people think I am wrong to do that and who knows? Maybe. They told me never to reveal these inconsistencies. They said I would lose my audience. I would lose my unique selling proposition. I would lose my position as an expert.
But that same majority believe that wisdom is knowing the answer to all things and that changing your mind a sign of weakness. I don’t know the answer to all things and I often revise my theories. Is this wrong? Given my past history there’s a good chance it might be. Luckily, I’m older and just wise enough… to know that if it is, it’s still okay.