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Wisdom is simply putting your knowledge to work

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Author: Phillip Skinner


How to Build Wisdom and Prosper in an “Information Age”
by A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.

You always hear it said that we live in an “information  age.”  But what does that mean, and how should we understand the challenges of the so-called “information  age?” More importantly, given that we are all flooded with more information that we can possibly process (have you ever wanted to run screaming from your television, radio or email box?), how can you turn the special circumstances of this “information age” to your advantage? You’ll have to climb the “Wisdom Ladder.” Here’s how:

Bottom Step on the Wisdom Ladder:  Data
“Data” means raw counts of things.  Data can be useful or not useful.  In and of itself, data has no meaning.  If I count the number of cars  that stop at the stop sign on my block per hour for a week, that’s data.  It may be useful or not, depending on the context.  It has no meaning until it is placed in a  context.  Data can be accurate or inaccurate.  It can also be reliable or unreliable, valid or invalid.  What’s the difference? Imagine a target at which I shoot arrows using some machine.  If I shoot ten  arrows and they all cluster around one spot in the lower left corner of the target, I have a reliable machine, but not a very accurate (“valid”) one.  If I shoot ten arrows that scatter all over the target, but whose hit points all average out to the  middle, I have a pretty accurate (“valid”) machine, but it’s not very reliable.  When we collect data, we want  to use instruments that are both reliable (they get consistent results within a reasonable spread of error) and valid (they really measure what we intend them to measure).  The differences are subtle, but important for anyone who collects - and seeks to interpret - data.  Data is only as good as the measurement device we use to collect it: and if I fall asleep watching my street corner, I’m not a very good data collector!

Second Step on the Wisdom Ladder:  Information
When you put a whole lot of data together that is related toone subject, it can be collected to yield information.  In other words, (sets of data) + (collection of related data sets) = information.  Let’s say I want to buy a car.  I can collect a lot of data about makes of cars, performance ratings, prices and so on.  Once I do that, I have a lot of information about cars and the auto market.  Until I think about this collection of  data - this information - and put it in context, it is “dumb.”  By that I mean it has no meaning.  This is what we are flooded with every day.  On the Internet, we can find lots and lots of information - dumb collections of data.  Some of that information may be useful, and some of it may be accurate.  But  living in an “information age” means we are flooded all the time with access  to more information than we can possibly have time to put in context. We don’t have time to decide what it means, and it comes at us so fast!  The amount of information available to anyone in the world today is absolutely staggering, given  historical standards.  It is truly, lierally mind-boggling.

Third Step on the Wisdom Ladder: Knowledge
Once you spend some time interpreting and understanding a  body of information, then you have knowledge.  This takes time.  While technology has greatly reduced the cost involved in assembling and storing data, and in transferring and storing information, technology has not done anything to make the process of creating knowledge any quicker or cheaper.  Creating knowledge still takes brains, thought and time - especially today when there is so much more information available to wade through.  People can become knowledge experts for a  given subject, which, in an “information age,”means they really are just advanced, perpetual students for that  given subject. We rely on these people to help us bypass the costly process of wading through large bodies of information ourselves. As a result, the credibility of knowledge experts is that much more important (and often hard to assess).  On the one hand, we have to be able to trust them to give us honest, valid and reliable knowledge, and on the other, we lack the subject specific knowledge to know whether or not they are really as reliable and credible as we need them to be.  It’s a  catch-22:  if we had the knowledge with which to judge them, we would not need them in the first place!  So what’s the solution?

Top Step on the Wisdom Ladder: Wisdom
Wisdom is precious - and worth paying for.  It comes from the ability to synthesize various streams of knowledge - even seemingly unrelated bodies of knowledge - enough to be able to make  informed judgments about various ideas and propositions that may lie outside  of our own direct areas of expertise.  Certain patterns in nature repeat themselves, no matter where they may be found.  Wisdom entails having  enough experience and perspective to spot such patterns and trends so that various bodies of knowledge can be put in context, combined and applied appropriately. Inevitably, wisdom requires a deep,  perhaps intuitive understanding of human nature - of ambition, styles of  intelligence, human motivations, etc. - enough to allow the possessor of wisdom to make judgments about representations of knowledge that lie outside of his or her own expertise.  This is  how we can escape from the dilemma of the need to make judgments about experts who posses bodies of knowledge that we lack.  Wisdom amounts to something more than “street smarts,” but the sharpness of judgment implied by the phrase “street smarts” is encompassed by wisdom.

Your grandparents may perhaps have been short on book smarts (“knowledge”) but long on wisdom.  In an “information age,” technology cannot confer wisdom:  wisdom takes more time to  develop and cultivate than even knowledge does (how many people do you know  with advanced degrees who lack wisdom or wise judgment?).  For this reason, wisdom is at an even higher premium, perhaps, than it has ever been, and when you find a good, credible source of wisdom (a person) who can help you make good judgments and grow your own store of wisdom, that’s a relationship to build and hold  firm.  This is why really good  mentoring is so valuable, and why the most effective executives and leaders  are extremely adept at understanding other people. Wisdom combines the seasoned experience of connecting and reviewing bodies of  knowledge, together with a genuine grasp of human nature and the ways of the  world, to allow for the proper use of data, information and knowledge.  Wise people, therefore, cultivate connections with other wise people or reliable knowledge experts, because this is the ost effective way to leverage and benefit from vast stores of knowledge in this “information age.”

Copyright (c) 2003 A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.
Permission is granted to copy this article as long as the following
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Dr. A. J. Schuler is an expert in leadership and organizational change. To find out more about his programs and services, visit or call (703) 370-6545.




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