Given the age in which we live, it’s easy to equate intelligence with access to information. And, of course, information is a significant part of knowledge and intelligence. But it is not wisdom. You could collect information all your life, and still have difficulty every day at work or in social groups because you haven’t learned to derive from information subtle forms of wisdom.

This is particularly true of becoming politically intuitive. You need connections with people who have acquired knowledge beyond what they're told. You can’t read the "tea leaves," so to speak, to sense what is really happening around you if you’re never invited to "tea" — or constantly decline the invitation.

The farmer who senses it’s time to bring in the hay, the race car driver who seems to instinctively avoid an accident, the fisherman who knows when to head back to port, the batter who can identify a pitch the instant it leaves the pitcher’s hand, and the intuitive politician all share an ability to read cues that others miss or ignore. They possess a particular form of wisdom — one acquired over time.

When we advise young people to seek out mentors, we do them an injustice if we fail to separate information from wisdom. Being connected, as is so popular today, can be a useful way to collect information. It is not, however, the road to wisdom. That road often requires doing something that we, in our adoration of the novel and new, often overlook. It calls for being around people who are likely older, perhaps seemingly less interesting than their flashier colleagues, prone to tell stories, and who possess an uncanny, keen sense of their surroundings.

Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” He attributed much of his remarkable success as a scientist to having learned from the work of others. He was a synthesist, capable of drawing on the work of great minds. 

Synthesists achieve insights not from standing alone atop a mountain ignoring all that came before them, not simply by owning the latest technology, but by drawing upon the wisdom of others to take the next step. 

It’s useful to wonder whether our love of information and infatuation with connectedness is endangering wisdom. Add to this the tendency to dismiss people as they age. Culturally sanctioned fear and disdain of age places the very people who often possess what we need at the outskirts of society. 

We should all have a mentor whose hand is not so much on the pulse of innovation, but who has seen innovations come and go. We should seek out people who know from acquired wisdom what it takes to synthesize — to achieve understanding beyond the grasp of those who merely tinker with countless, shiny, titillating bits of disconnected information.


Kathleen also blogs here.

Photo: Brian A. Jackson/