In The wisest one in the room, renowned psychologists describe the most useful insights from social psychology that can help make you “wise”: wise about why people behave the way they do, and wise about how to use that knowledge in understanding and influencing the people in your life.
Words of wisdom are easy to find.
They are offered in books of quotations, desktop calendars, daily planners, and even bumper stickers. Advice is given to us, often unsolicited, by friends, relatives, and colleagues. We can look to sages for counsel about how to manage our personal finances ( Neither a borrower nor a lender be. William Shakespeare) or how to proceed in our careers ( Be nice to those on the way up; they’re the same folks you’ll meet on the way down . Walter Winchell). People who aspire to power can seek guidance from a Renaissance Italian diplomat ( It is wise to flatter important people. Niccolò Machiavelli), and those who have the more modest goal of “winning friends and influencing people” can find similar advice from a bestselling twentieth-century author ( Be lavish in praise . Dale Carnegie) or a U.S. National Medal of Freedom winner ( People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel . Maya Angelou). We’re given guidance about how to achieve our goals ( The best way to get what you want is to deserve what you want . Charles Munger) and, from the Sufi poets of old, advice about how to deal with difficult times ( This too shall pass ). We can even find all-encompassing prescriptions for the meaning of life and the path to personal fulfillment ( The meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose of life is to give it away ) from sages whose names have been lost to us. Insight and skill in dealing with human conflict have long been seen as particularly important elements of wisdom. We see this in the Old Testament tale of King Solomon resolving a custody battle and in the success of Nelson Mandela, two and a half millennia later, in achieving a bloodless end to apartheid.
There are many different kinds of wisdom, as these quotations attest. Some people are Buddha wise, others Bubba wise, and still others Buffett wise. It is telling that Webster’s dictionary distinguishes three types of wisdom:
(1) knowledge , or accumulated philosophic or scientific learning;
(2) insight , or the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; and
(3) judgement , or good sense.
Wisdom and Intelligence
A critical difference between wisdom and intelligence is that wisdom demands some insight and effectiveness around people. Intelligence does not. A person can be “smart” without being smart about people, but it makes no sense to say someone is wise if the person has no feel for people or no understanding of their hopes, fears, passions, and drives. You can be a savvy investor or an accurate weather forecaster even if you aren’t particularly savvy about people, but you can’t be a wise person if you aren’t wise about people. Montgomery’s preinvasion briefing may have been more intelligently crafted and more skillfully delivered than any that Eisenhower ever gave. But it was Ike’s understanding of the needs of his officers, and his deftness in attending to those needs, that testify to his wisdom.
Wisdom also requires perspective, something that runs through all three components of Webster’s definition: knowledge, insight, and judgement. A wise person is able to put individual events in perspective and take a broader view of the issue at hand. Eisenhower was able to get beyond his concern with the overall scope and success of the mission and connect with his men on what was at the forefront of their minds—their safety, their families, and what the first hours of the invasion might be like.