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.

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