Wise and Intelligent

Now and then, it happens that I come upon a phrase that sticks with me. I find my thoughts returning to that phrase, again and again. Like a puzzle piece, it clicks into place bringing disparate ideas and experiences together in a new way.  Earlier this week, I happened to read a selection from Deuteronomy (4:6-8) in which Moses exhorts his people to live by the statutes he has taught them, and thus the world would see that ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.

Full disclosure: I don’t know much about scripture, particularly the Old Testament (nor, in all honestly, do I regularly read it). With that in mind, I don’t wish to talk about the scriptural context or meaning of this passage. Instead, speaking as a lover of words and their nuanced meanings, what caught my attention was this:

Wise and intelligent.

Hold the phone! They’re not the same thing?

Ok, so I actually do know that these words have different meanings. But, like most people, I get a little lazy with my language. The danger in doing so is that, when you start allowing one word to connote the same as another in your conversation, you start to mistake one for the other.

In our modern culture, we have a problem with conflation of concepts. (I’ve written about this before – for example, conflating celebrity with authority. ) So it is no surprise, really, that we tend to assume that intelligence equals wisdom. How many times have we heard someone say, “Smarter people than me say/have agreed/decide…”? Maybe they are smarter than me, but does it automatically follow that they are wiser? On the cultural or societal level, valuing intelligent above wise – or assuming they are equivalent – can lead to huge errors in judgment or into rough ethical waters. But what does it mean at the personal level? For my life?

In my professional life, much of which has been spent on college campuses, this has been a big thing. The mind reigns supreme in that environment. The highest compliments, and often the most respect, accrue to those seen as the most intelligent. Conversely, I’ve often heard a colleague lower his or her voice and say, with mock kindness, “I’m sure she’s very nice. I’m just not certain she’s very smart.”  If we stop to ponder, though, we can all cite examples of highly intelligent people making unwise choices or decisions – as well as people whose intellectual prowess may not be lauded who make excellent decisions.

For those of us in leadership roles, it is vital that we make the distinction between intelligent and wise, although we often fail to do so. We are invested in our own self-image (and the world’s perception of us) as intelligent. We get used to thinking of ourselves as smart. Because of this, we begin to think of our first perceptions, our quick and ready solutions, as wise. But sometimes, as the British would put it, we’re too smart by half. Our hubris leads us astray, into equating expedient with right. Into thinking that we are wise, and that those around us are less so. The result of this type of flawed thinking can be disastrous to our organizations or institutions, prematurely cutting of discourse and collaboration. In the worst cases, it can lead to a betrayal of our mission.

In my personal life, not making appropriate distinctions between wisdom and intelligence has sometimes caused me to cast my allegiance with smart people of questionable character. It has sometimes led me to assume wisdom where, perhaps, only persuasive rhetoric actually existed. More important, it has occasionally caused me to devalue others – assuming myself as superior in intelligence to that individual and, therefore, wise enough to listen only to my own voice. It is humbling to admit the truth of that – I have been dismissive of others all the while believing myself to be wise.

So, what does it look like to be both wise and intelligent? How does one become both? Is there a link or some kind of causal relationship – are we born intelligent and made wise? In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks cites the philosopher, Montaigne: “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” Brooks continues: “That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.”

Figuring out a way to handle my ignorance, uncertainty and limitation? That sounds hard. It sounds like a task which requires a lifetime of reflection, introspection, of self-interrogation. If I think about it that way, wisdom becomes a life path, not a quality which can be applied to me or anyone else. To be truly wise, we must be ever on that journey. Luckily, Brooks asserts that “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside – from family friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars, and, for believers, God. We all need people to tell us when we are wrong, to advise us on how to do right, and to encourage, support, arouse, cooperate and inspire us along the way.”

If we are smart, we will surround ourselves with others who offer such “redemptive assistance” to us. If we wish to be wise, we will actually listen at the deep level of our souls to the lessons they offer to teach us by their presence in our lives.

In so doing, we may actually manage to be both wise and intelligent.

I’m With Stupid



There we were, gathered around the granite-topped island in Molly’s kitchen: four women at the end of a long day. We each had stories to share, requiring listening ears and commentary from our girls. We were all very aware that my four year old goddaughter, Kate, was happily ensconced on a tall chair at one end of the counter and adjusted our language accordingly. Or so we thought until Colette was interrupted, mid-sentence, by a reprimand. “Colette!,” Kate chided. “That’s a bad word!”

Playing back Colette’s sentence in my mind, I couldn’t even find a bad word. All eyes turned toward Kate, who could tell from our blank faces that we weren’t sure which word was the “bad one”. She half whispered, “Stupid. It’s a bad word.”

Oh, yeah. THAT bad word! The toddler equivalent of an extremely nasty epithet. Colette dutifully apologized, and our conversation continued. If any of us doubted that Kate was listening intently to our adult chatter – jobs, co-workers, family issues – we were quickly disabused of that notion as she regularly corrected our use of that “bad” word.

Stupid. I was struck by several thoughts as our conversation continued. First, that most of us were consciously watching our language selection, self-censoring what we considered expletives and replacing them with more acceptable alternatives. Second, it was disconcerting how frequently the word we settled on as a replacement was “stupid”. The stupid meeting. The stupid guy. The stupid idea. Finally, I arrived at the realization of something that all parents and preschool teachers already know: allowed unchecked, use of the word “stupid” (and variations such as stupidhead), will proliferate at an alarming rate. It is arguably the first, and for many one of the most potent, put-downs we learn.

Almost immediately upon learning the word stupid, and discovering its value as an insult, we are taught that it is impolite and inappropriate to apply the word to others. That’s how powerful the word is: parents and educators work diligently to keep us from using it as a weapon with which to bludgeon others. Unfortunately, we are rarely taught not to apply it to ourselves.

As I thought about Kate’s adamant correction of our conversation, it called to mind the many ways fear of the word stupid – and my willingness to use it against myself – have negatively impacted my life. Not wanting to appear stupid has kept me from asking questions, from trying new things, from approaching people I admire for guidance and/or mentorship. It has prevented me from putting my work out into the arena (in the Teddy Roosevelt sense), kept me from daring greatly (in the Brene Brown sense). Fear of “stupid” has kept me playing small.

This fear of being seen as stupid has kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken. In some cases, it has  been misinterpreted by others as quiet strength, as understanding rather than confusion. It would be a lie to say I hadn’t encouraged that sort of misunderstanding in order to preserve the illusion (possibly only existing in my own head) that I knew or grasped more than I did. Anything to prevent them seeing my stupid!

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to agree that children should be taught that to call someone or something stupid is inappropriate. And being a grown-up doesn’t suddenly make it alright. So I’m going to work on striking it, as much as possible, from my vocabulary. If the conversation at Molly’s is any indication, that won’t be easy for me!

Equally important, we should also be taught not turn that weapon on ourselves, either. We (I) need to stop fearing it will be used against me, and I need to stop hurting myself by using it as a self-accusation. “Stupid” is another trigger to exploit our vulnerabilities and reinforce the notion that we must be perfect before we venture to put ourselves, thoughts, skills or talents out into the world.

I try to imagine what my life might be had I been less afraid of “stupid”: had I been willing to give voice to my questions, to publicly proclaim my ideas, to publish (or even submit) my written work for review and critique. The world may or may not have been a different place because of it. But I’m fairly certain that I would be a different person had I not been avoiding “stupid” at all costs.

“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make. Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.” 

― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead


Finite Math

At 5:15 a.m. my neighbor begins making breakfast. A strange trick of acoustics in this building means that, in my upstairs bedroom, I hear every rattle and bang in their downstairs kitchen. I roll over and attempt a return to slumber.

Some days, that works. Some days I stretch my sleep-sore muscles and fall gracefully, gratefully back asleep. But not today. Today, I stretch and wonder about that heaviness in my leg – is it a sign? Should I see the doctor? From there, the worries and anxieties held at bay while I sleep come marching forward, a neurotic, necrotic parade.

Knowing sleep will not return at this point, I get up. In my kitchen, I begin the morning ritual of making my double shot Americano. Add hot water and the finely ground espresso becomes the rich loamy soil in which I will plant a new day. Whether it will be a good day, productive and interactive – or not- is often determined in this moment.

My friend Wendy has spent the last seventeen years telling her children that they have a choice – if you don’t like how you feel in this moment, choose to feel differently. Happiness isn’t a destination, its a choice you make in every moment of action or reaction. I watch her girls, all teenagers now, and see them apply this choice. It is like the sun emerging from clouds, that moment.

This morning, as I sip my coffee, it feels like a herculean task, that reframing of mindset. I’m not sure I’m up to it. I turn on my computer, and find Parker Palmer’s weekly “On Being” blog post, this week called “Poetry as Sacrament: Disentangling from the Darkness”, in which he meditates beautifully on Mary Oliver’s poem “Landscape”:

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive.

So far, I think (using the calculator function on my phone) that is 19,726 mornings. I google the question, “How many decisions per day?” and read:

According to multiple sources on the Internet, the average amount of remotely conscious decisions an adult makes each day equals about 35,000.

690,410,000 decisions and counting. My first thought is “No wonder I don’t want to decide where to have dinner or what book to read for book club.” I think of texting my younger friends and letting them know they haven’t used theirs up yet, so from now on they must choose – my decider is worn out from overuse.

My next thought, “How many of those ‘remotely conscious decisions’ were good ones? How many were ‘the right’ ones?” No function on my smartphone could ever calculate that number. This I know: it falls somewhere between 1 and 690,410,000.

That’s as far as math will take me; there’s no point in attempting to calculate the incalculable. There’s no point in lingering over that parade of worries that began its march through my head while I was still in bed this morning. Of the approximately 35,000 decisions I will make today, some will be good ones. Some will not. Mistakes will happen. Anxiety in advance and obsessive second-guessing afterwards won’t change that reality.

Like Wendy’s girls, I have a choice. I can hold the doors of my heart open so that my choices can be made from the place of infinite things (like mission, like compassion, like gratitude). Or I can close those doors, out of worry or indecision or just plain inattention, and be “as good as dead”, rendering my choices lifeless as well.

When I think of it this way I say: let my inevitable mistakes be life-affirming ones; let my errors of judgment emerge from seeing the best in others; let me work to stay centered enough that my infinite humanity, rather than my finite ego, decides. Choose; then move on.

19,726 mornings. And every morning, so far, I am alive.




Bellyflops vs Swan Dives: Splash over Depth

Three things I’ve read this week have really got me thinking: the first is a story, believe it or not, about Madonna; the second is the transcript of a speech about justice; and the third is an article about why we Americans deserve Donald Trump as a candidate in the presidential race. The premise of each is similar; namely, that we tend to substitute the easy thing or the splashy thing for the right thing – and then hail the one as if it were the other.

In a piece published in The New York Times titled “Growing Older with Madonna”, Jancee Dunn reminds us that Madonna is known as the queen of reinvention. Certainly, she has tried many styles and set many trends. In her mid-50s now, she looks great. But her latest video feels somehow not right – she struts around, falling down “drunk” with her skin-tight dress riding up to reveal her underwear, declaring that she’s going to party all night and kiss who she wants and no one is going to stop her. Really? I remember that attitude from when I was 19, but then I grew up. The article asks a probing question about Madonna as an artist: “Yes, she is constantly reinventing herself, but is she evolving?”

The next instance of a sort of cultural “mistaken identity” or transposition of concepts comes from Anand Giridharadas’ address to the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum. “The Thriving World, The Wilting World, and You” . In it, Giridharadas discusses the difficulties of questioning the status quo when “…This community was formed by stalwarts of American capitalism; today we sit in spaces named after Pepsi (as in the beverage) and Koch (as in the brothers); our discussion of Martin Luther King and Omelas is sponsored by folks like Accenture, David Rubenstein…” He goes on to say that as they seek solutions to the great disparities in the world, they never quite manage to address the root causes. He calls it the “Aspen Consensus”, in which “the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.” As a result, they are (in his words), trying “to market the idea of generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice.”

The third, a Frank Bruni op-ed from The New York Times, discusses the confusion we’ve created between politics and entertainment, stating “…of this I’m certain: We now utterly conflate entertainment and politics, routinely confuse celebrity with authority and regularly lose sight of the difference between a cult of personality and a claim to leadership.”

Reinvention instead of evolution; generosity instead of justice; celebrity instead of authority, personality instead of leadership. If these various journalists are correct, we as a culture are routinely replacing values and ethics which require maturity, depth of conviction, and the courage of character with things that have a similar appearance, but which never take us below the surface into the realm of thoughtful and right action.

In some ways, the two photos (below) encapsulate this idea. The first photo is of someone engaging in a belly flop. At the pool, belly flops are an easy way to garner attention. They are loud, splashy; they require that people pay attention – even if only to avoid getting wet. Anyone with the desire to garner attention can pull off a belly flop. When well-executed, onlookers are delighted.

In many respects, the second photo looks much the same as the first. However, the second photo is of a swan dive. The swan dive begins with the same wholehearted, arms-spread-wide posture. However, at the last moment, the swimmer pikes and actually dives into the water. Swan dives result in a clean entry to the water, very little noise, almost no splash. They require practice, skill, an urge toward perfection of form. One can perform a swan dive in a crowded aquatic center with very little notice, especially at first. When well-executed, onlookers need to actually be paying attention to notice. However, when paying attention, onlookers are often wowed.

Another difference between the belly flop and the swan dive is that many of us, witnessing the two, firmly believe that we might be able to pull off the belly flop ourselves. But we don’t think we are capable of the swan dive.

Which brings me back to the ideas discussed in the articles I’ve referenced above. Reinvention is relatively easy. Many of us change things about ourselves, re-order the ephemera of our lives with some regularity. If we stop to think of evolution, of truly and deeply becoming the person we are capable (even meant) to be, we grow immediately wary. Or weary. We don’t really think of ourselves as having the fortitude to work that hard on our own growth and development. Often, we rely on life events to propel us in new directions, rather than being willing to undertake self-improvement or self-empowerment, or our own transformation. Yet we are spiritually called to this, I believe. We feel an inner pull toward evolutionary change, but we are unsure or overwhelmed by the prospect of how to proceed. And we – out of laziness, or fear, or unwillingness to upset the apple cart of our lives – settle for cosmetic change.

Generosity in place of justice is another easy substitution for most of us. And the difficult thing here is that generosity is, in itself, a good thing. I would never argue against it. All too often, though, we stop at generosity when what our communities and our world require is justice. We tell ourselves justice is the province of extraordinary souls – the Ghandis, Mother Theresas, MLKs of this world. We feel this way because justice requires deep change. It requires a willingness to root out the systemic causes of injustice. It calls us to act in ways, and with regard to issues, that are complex and difficult to sort out. We could be wrong. We could be facing much more powerful people and forces than ourselves. Most discomfiting of all, we may need to live with ambiguity and uncertainty and still stand our ground. Generosity feels so good. Justice is often just plain uncomfortable.

Finally, we engage in the fascination of celebrity. It is fun to follow the lives of the rich and famous. But somewhere along the line, we have confused noteworthy with newsworthy when it comes to the well-known. More disturbing is the idea permeating our culture that, somehow, celebrity status serves as shorthand for deserving, smart, accomplished, and admirable. Somehow we allow ourselves to think that those whose personalities loom large in our media are also more knowing and more creative. Have better ideas. Are more thoughtful. Here’s the thing: just because someone has a forum doesn’t mean they actually know anything – nor does it mean that they are right-er (smarter, better, or more deserving) than the rest of us. But we’ve been led to believe (and allowed ourselves to accept) otherwise. So Chloe Kardashian’s butt sets our agenda, diverts our attention from the starving butts, the homeless butts, the butts without clean water – the millions of persons suffering from lack, systemic inequalities, racism. We sate our interest in the wider world, the world outside ourselves, with celebrity brand junk food. We fall for the splash and not the depth.

Why am I going on and on about this? Especially when the writers of the articles I’ve cited have made their points more eloquently (and more succinctly) than I? Because each of them touched on a slightly different facet of what I see as endemic in 21st century American culture – the willingness to settle for the big splash because we lack the will, perhaps the self-discipline, to reach for the swan dive. To work toward the fulfillment of our own potential as well as toward the creation of a world in which all people can potentialize. I, personally, need to work at maintaining a focus on right instead of easy, on deep instead of the kind of broad that comes from the “squirrel? squirrel?” distractibility of modern life. I feel that longing for the clean dive that takes me well below the surface, and I believe I am not alone in that.

Yesterday, I heard a quote on the radio as I drove (and because I was driving couldn’t jot down who said it), that we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can do something about it. It terrifies me to think that we are a generation belly flopping our way to oblivion. More than that, it saddens me to think how we continue to squander the miracle, the absolute gift, of life in this incredible, amazing, generative Universe. So I am going to work hard to evolve, to leaven my generosity with action for justice, and to call forth my own leadership skills instead of letting those with larger personalities hold the field. I’m going to practice diving for depth.