Where Does Wisdom Come From?

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What, exactly, is wisdom, and where does it come from? As to the first question, I would argue this: wisdom is a belief that’s not only true but that in the fact of our believing it leads us to feel and act in such a way that makes us suffer less or feel joy more. A common misconception is that wisdom is contained in words. But an exchange I witnessed years ago between a counselor, Darren, and a group of patients trying to quit smoking illustrates how wisdom really exists only in action:

“Does anybody here smoke?” Darren asked the group.

Harry said, “I do.”

“Me, too,” said Rachel.

“Anyone else?” Darren asked.

“I quit,” Clay offered.

The rest shook their heads.

“Who here thinks they understand that smoking is bad for you?” Darren asked.

Seven hands rose in response. Harry and Rachel looked at one another, smiling sheepishly, then raised their hands as well.

“Scott,” Darren said, “can you tell us why smoking is bad for you?” Scott was a psychology intern leading the group with Darren.

“Lung cancer,” Scott said. “Emphysema. Heart disease. Stroke. Impotence. Pancreatic cancer. Cancer of the bladder…”

“Smelly clothes,” Harry added.

“Yellow fingers. Dirty teeth,” Rachel added. “It’s like kissing an ashtray. I wish I could quit.”

“Have you ever smoked, Scott?” Darren asked him.


“Ever tried it?”


“Have you ever been curious to try it?”


“Why not?” Darren asked.

“Smoking is bad for you,” he said. He seemed puzzled by Darren’s line of questioning.

“Harry, do you understand that smoking is bad for you?” Darren asked.


“So what’s the difference between you, who smokes, and Scott, who doesn’t?”

“I don’t know,” Harry said, embarrassed. “He’s just smarter, I guess.”

“Really?” Darren said. “Which one of his points about the effects of smoking was unclear to you?”

“No, I understand all that stuff.”

“Then how do you mean he’s smarter?” Darren asked.

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I guess he’s smarter because he doesn’t smoke.”

“Ah. Yes,” Darren agreed. “That’s exactly right. He doesn’t smoke. It’s not that he’s smarter than you, Harry. You both understand the same facts. He just understands them in a way you don’t.”

“What way is that?” Rachel asked.

“He doesn’t just know intellectually that smoking is bad for him,” Darren said. “He believes it.”

Harry looked at Darren blankly.

“True understanding,” Darren said, “isn’t just knowledge grasped intellectually. True understanding is belief. If you really believed that you should stop smoking, you would. No matter how addicted to nicotine you may be. The person who deeply believes he shouldn’t smoke does not smoke. Not smoking is his understanding.”

Darren was trying to explain that we have different ways of knowing things. As I wrote in my very first post, Cigarette Smoking Is Caused By A Delusion, we aren’t motivated into action by intellectual understanding. We’re motivated into action by our beliefs.

But why are only some of us able to believe we should stop smoking, or using drugs, or gambling, or lying—or start exercising, or studying harder, or dating a different type of person—while others continue to act in a way that causes them to suffer? Where, ultimately, does wisdom come from and why do some seem to have easy access to it but not others?

I would suggest that wisdom lives in the same place all ideas do: beneath our conscious awareness. Consider: have you ever struggled with a problem whose solution you couldn’t find no matter how hard you searched for it, until the very moment you stopped trying, perhaps busying yourself with something entirely unrelated to your problem, and then suddenly seemingly out of the ether a solution popped into your head? And not just a solution but the solution: a solution that was so superior to the possibilities you’d been considering up to that point that you were stunned you hadn’t thought of it before while simultaneously mystified that you thought about it at all?

Where, in fact, do any of our thoughts come from? We all experience ourselves as the creator of our thoughts—after all, if not us then who?—but a few moments of careful examination of the contents of consciousness suggests that this feeling is an illusion. Though each thought we have arises in a way that makes us feel as if we originate it, our conscious minds are more observers of our thoughts than originators of them. All thoughts have triggers, whether a song, a book, or simply the thought that immediately preceded it. But as to why something triggers a particular thought? We really have no idea. But it’s certainly not our conscious selves doing the triggering.

On the other hand, thoughts don’t seem to trigger subsequent thoughts randomly. There usually exists a sense of cohesiveness between one thought and the next, a coherent and logical progression—especially when we’re trying to solve a problem—that delineates real progress toward conclusions and solutions. Just which thoughts our thoughts trigger next seems to depend, at least partially, on the fact that we’re putting our thoughts together in the first place for a specific purpose. That is, when we’re trying to solve a problem, the succession of thoughts that lead us to solutions build in a way that makes each one seem indispensable to the next. Take away even one of them and we don’t get to the solution; we get stuck. Yet if our conscious minds aren’t generating this thoughts, how are they being ordered in a way that leads us to the answers we seek? And if not generating these thoughts, what exactly are our conscious minds doing?

I have no definitive answer—only a theory. As Jonathan Haidt suggested in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, the conscious mind is like a rider and the unconscious mind an elephant. We can’t really control where our unconscious mind goes, but we can coax it—maybe even direct it—in the general direction we want. But it’s our unconscious mind that has all the power, the does the heavy lifting. If so, our unconscious mind clearly isn’t stupid. In fact, I’m arguing it’s far wiser than we (that is, our conscious mind) are. It’s simply the part of us that isn’t aware of itself. Thus wisdom—belief turned into action—isn’t something we create. It’s something we discover in ourselves. It’s something, in the end, we must activate. The real mystery, then, is why some people are so much better at activating it—at coaxing it from their unconscious minds—than others. But I knew the answer to that, I’d be the wisest person on the planet.

Next Week: Breaking Free Of The Past, Redux

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  • Did you read “Why We Make Bad Decisions?” in the NYT (yesterday)?

  • I think theres a fine line between Believing & Knowing. When you believe in something it still leaves room for doubt. When you know something, it’s based on facts & truth and therefore confidence follows.

  • When dealing with addictions, I don’t think it necessarily means one is not smart. Some of the smartest people I know are recovering addicts and alcoholics. I know about several religions, but I don’t necessarily believe everything about them to be true. I think wisdom comes from experience and questioning. The Buddha said question everything…even what he advocated. And then, what actually constitutes wisdom? Knowing facts? Being smart enough not to be suckered in by wolves in sheep’s clothing? I’ve known very intelligent academics who’ve made obvious mistakes and little backwood grannies with no education that had uncommon common sense. I think it’s mainly a matter of perception and perspective and how we may define “wisdom.” Very interesting subject matter in this post.

  • The illusion of unmitigated will only emphasizes the importance of external priming and how emergent realizations are based on repeated exposure to efficacious coping skills. This is why psychotherapy can’t help plant an “endogenous seed” that has, depending on the individual, an undetermined gestation period.

  • To me wisdom is the sum-total, not one thing, but a skill-set, if you will. Making applications, as you mention, Alex; the realization that knowing and doing are two separate steps upwards to where everything must converge; problem-solving in creative ways; refusing to stay stuck in unproductive patterns.

    You do not mention that as time passes, you tally up your opportunities to make meaning. Thus, we expect that as we age, we should become wise.

    Also, facing adversity, and developing resilience in the face of obstacles—this is a part of the sum-total.

    Though I am not very good at meditating, I know that if I did, many things would reveal themselves and come to the fore for me. This is part of wisdom.

    Rushing pell-mell is the enemy of wisdom, it seems to me. Too soft a lifestyle also works against being wise, I think. Just the right mix (for each individual) of being in the world but not of it, works, to my way of thinking.

    Just the right balance of yielding and pushing back does double duty—it shows you are wise and it makes you wiser.

  • An excellent starting point for a long train of thought. What is it “to believe”? What is it “wisdom”?

  • As Scott points up, there are a bunch of associations that come with “belief” that make it perhaps misleading in this application. Might “grok” be a better word?

    Grok /ˈɡrɒk/ is a word coined by Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, where it is defined as follows:

    Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

  • “Wisdom really exists only in action.” What a great quote, thank you. Reminds me of Shakyamuni saying,”If you know but do not do, you do not know.”