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Wise up

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In this feature The Good Life looks at the topic of wisdom and Professor David Rooney from Macquarie University shares his thoughts on the subject.

08 April 2022
Reading is considered to be one of the simple steps to wisdom.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

They say that with age comes wisdom, however there’s a lot more to being wise than just being older. In this edition of The Good Life, we look at what makes a person wise and some of the simple steps you can take if you’re looking to bring more wisdom into your life.

There is no simple way to define wisdom, yet somehow we know it when we see it.

“When it comes to defining wisdom, there’s one school of thought that says you can’t define it, and another that says you have to find a way to define it!” says Professor David Rooney from Macquarie University.

Prof Rooney explains one of the first to discuss wisdom in detail was Aristotle over 2000 years ago, who thought that ethics, and in particular virtue, was the core of wisdom. “You could say that a wise person is a virtuoso in life. They conduct themselves excellently in life. A wise person would be able to do the right thing, do it for the right reason, do it the right way, do it at the right time, and get the right outcome for the greater good. Funnily enough, the right outcome is referred to in philosophy as living ‘the good life’!”

For Prof Rooney, doing things ‘the right way’ is incredibly important when it comes to wisdom. Achieving a great outcome by doing something illegal or unethical would not be defined as doing things in the right way. It is also true, though, that on the flip side, people have fought against bad laws to obtain better life outcomes for everybody throughout history. “There’s certainly no room for selfishness in wisdom,” says Prof Rooney.

While some people are able to give very wise advice, for Prof Rooney, a truly wise person is someone who can give advice from past experience and reflection, but also has the ability to translate that advice into action (or assist others to do so). “Another step closer to wisdom is realising you don’t get to decide if you’re wise or not. All you really can do is focus on the things that would lead you towards being wise.”

Courage is also seen as an important element of wisdom. “There’s a saying that to be wise first you have had to have been unwise. You have to have the courage to exercise judgement knowing that you could be wrong. You don’t necessarily hide behind what is seen as ‘normal’ because sometimes normal is not the best thing. It’s not right just because everyone else is doing it. Sometimes it takes courage to do the right thing when everyone is doing the wrong thing.”

Research has found there is little correlation between intelligence and wisdom, and only a small correlation between age and wisdom. Instead, wisdom is driven by a person’s ability to reflect deeply on experience and their knowledge and then to change themselves when needed.

“Often, once people reach retirement age there’s a natural reaction to think about what a person can give back, based on all the experience and knowledge they’ve had in their life so far.

“Reflection is a conscious thing we need to do. People have to decide they want to be that kind of person, and having reflected on ideas, experiences and challenges, actually make decisions in their life in terms of what are the right things to do, what are the right reasons for doing them, what are the right ways of doing them, and what are the right outcomes.”

Figures such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi are internationally acknowledged as wise people who have made a big impact on the world and made the lives of other people much better than they would otherwise have been. Seeking to do the right thing for the right reason does not always equate to easy access to extensive resources, finances or power to initiate change, but wise people will push through these barriers to achieve the right outcome.

“Because we live in the real world and the real world tends to get in the way because there’s politics involved, a defining feature of wise people like Mandela and Ghandi is they still get good things done despite how difficult it is.

“But we can’t all be Gandhi!”

For Prof Rooney, a person’s path to wisdom is not necessarily about becoming Gandhi, but becoming wiser than you already are, which is achievable for everyone.

“Doing the right thing is entirely learnable. But you have to make a decision. Wisdom doesn’t just happen. It has to be developed. You have to make some choices in life about how you want to live and what sort of contribution you want to make to the world.”

And how do you get there?

“By taking small steps each day,” says Prof Rooney. “You can always be wiser than you were yesterday.”

Simple steps to wisdom

Prof Rooney says we can all take small steps forward in our lives to reflect, learn and make informed decisions on the road to wisdom, and these steps are simpler than you may think:

Walk: Walking can be a very contemplative activity that can help you reflect on situations, solve problems and make conscious decisions around how you want to live your life.

Meditate: Like walking, meditation and yoga allow for self-reflection, understanding and learning.

Mentor: Becoming a mentor, volunteer or teacher provides an opportunity to give back the experience and knowledge you have gathered across the years to others.

Listen: Listening to podcasts can help us learn from people who clearly present and communicate views based on sound evidence and sound analysis of that evidence.

Read: Consider reading about different approaches to different problems. Whether it’s a biography of an exceptional person, or a novel where you process every character and their relationships in your head, reading is good practice for developing emotional intelligence and maturity.

Travel: Travelling gives you the opportunity to interact with different people and different cultures to challenge you to consider new points of view and new experiences.

David Rooney is Honorary Professor of Management and Organisation Studies at Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University. He has researched, taught, and published widely in the areas of wisdom, leadership, the knowledge-based economy, and creative industries.

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