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  • Writer's pictureSarah Rose

Wisdom vs. Smarts

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

A new study has found that the average human has more than 6,000 thoughts per day. Another study out of the University of Oregon found that most people can only entertain four separate thoughts at once, and this number was not dependent upon the simplicity or complexity of each thought. The number of thoughts we have says little about our intelligence or capacity for critical thinking, although there is some research backing the notion that overthinkers may be more creative and intelligent than people who don't overthink, so long as their overthinking does not spiral into anxiety.

Anyway, the reason I've been interested in thinking and thoughts is multifaceted. First, the origin of thoughts is murky at best. The originality of thought is contested. The paralysis experienced by overthinkers is a widely agreed upon and known phenomenon. People who seem to have very few thoughts have always intrigued me: "what's going on up there?" I wonder. And when I ask, the answer "not much," always seems unbelievable. There are so many things to think about that I can't understand the lack of thought. My propensity to think a lot or very deeply or obsessively says less about my intelligence and more about my thinly-veiled neuroticism, but I digress.

The reason I'm writing about this particular topic is twofold: one, because I have been grappling with the difference between being smart and being wise for over a week now and two, because writing about unanswerable questions always seems to lead to a somewhat satisfactory answer, at least for now. So let's start with some definitions, yes? When comparing words, it's best to utilize the same form of each word. In this case, I'm utilizing adjectives, because that seemed to make the most sense.

Smart: adjective \ ˈsmärt \

smarter; smartest 1 having or showing a high degree of mental ability : INTELLIGENT, BRIGHT



Wise: adjective

\ ˈwīz \

wiser; wisest 1. marked by deep understanding, keen discernment, and a capacity for sound judgment 2. evidencing or hinting at the possession of inside information; SHREWD

3. aware of or informed about a particular matter —usually used in the comparative in negative constructions with the [he was none the wiser about their plans]

People often talk about street smarts vs. book smarts, which can best be condensed to this: a book smart person is intelligent and well educated academically. A street smart person knows how to handle practical situations in everyday life, but may not be inherently educated or gifted academically. Both are valuable, and each does not exist in a vacuum. You might be one or both. What does this have to do with wisdom? Well, I've come to believe that street smarts, much like wisdom, are gained through experience. Let me explain.

It's easier for a wise person to gain knowledge than for a smart person to gain judgment. Being smart is a process of learning while being wise is a product of experience, which is why most people who are very wise are not also very young. It's possible for a young person to gain wisdom through experience, if their lives are tremendously painful or uncommon just as it is possible for an old person to be unilaterally unwise. Experience does not guarantee the fostering of wisdom, just as studying does not always produce a smart student.

The obvious next questions is: which is better? Is it more useful to be smart or to be wise? Barring any contextual disparities, I've come to the conclusion that it is more often more useful to be wise. Wisdom is harder to measure, more difficult to gain, and less binary than smarts. There is no IQ test for wisdom, no good way to derive a point system to tally experience and person growth. Wisdom is at once highly valued and highly neglected-those who hold perhaps the most wisdom have the least interest or ability to dispense it because imparting wisdom requires a receptive listener. And if we continue to dismiss the wisdom available to us, we'll prove ourselves not only unwise, but also not very smart.

Patrick Bet-David, an entrepreneur and investor, identified some interesting differences between those who are smart and those who are wise, including but not limited to:

  1. Logic versus emotion. Smart people tend to process information logically, while wise people are logical and emotional, able to understand nuance and subtleties. Smart people solve problems. Wise people can inspire others to solve problems, too.

  2. Willingness to learn. A wise person knows the there is an endless pit of knowledge that they will never fully understand. Wise people and smart people are always looking to learn and grow, but wise people normally avoid claiming that they're smart.

  3. Knowing versus doing. There’s a big difference between knowing things and knowing how to use what you know. Reading a book about how to improve your health is a waste of time if you don't put into action the things you learned. All the knowledge in the world is useless if you do not use it.

Probably, we'd all like to be a little bit smart and a little bit wise. Like anything, acquiring acumen and wisdom takes time and discomfort; failure and experience. Growth occurs in places of profound discomfort, and (I think) the only way to gain intelligence or wisdom is to become incredibly comfortable and curious about the unknown; to drop any resistance to newness, the leave the flagrant wisps of ego behind, and to recognize that surety is hard won at best and infallible at most.

P.S. Read more about the difference in being wise and being smart here, watch a video on the differences between smart/intelligent/clever/wise here, or read The Wisdom of History, by Prof. J. Rufus Ears.


Sarah Rose

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