5.14.2006

A Theory of Wisdom

In my previous post I described the theory of theory. Now show its usefulness with an application—another theory. The central question I want to address is why do we do things that we will regret? Have you ever ate too many potato chips, drank one beer too many, or bought something that you later wished you hadn’t?

First of all, let’s rule out circumstances we couldn’t possibly control. Like if you walk out to get the mail and a stray dog attacks you. Since you didn’t choose, with full knowledge, to put yourself in that situation, it doesn’t count.

On the other hand, if you eat a whole carton of ice cream and then have a belly ache, that does qualify as what I will call a failure of wisdom. Let me define it.

Wisdom is knowing how you’ll feel afterwards.

Notice that acting on it isn’t necessarily part of the deal. You can be very wise and not act on the wisdom in this definition. If that’s not a useful definition for you then change it (see previous post).

So a wise person would fully understand that a bellyache is going to follow when the ice cream carton has been scraped clean of its last spoonful. If said glutton goes ahead anyway, we can say that he or she acted unwisely. You can be wise and act unwisely.

So we’re talking about a simple skill here—just understanding your own emotional makeup enough so that you realize before you send that flaming email to your boss, that you’ll regret it tomorrow. The positive aspect of this definition is that wisdom is then something that can be developed. In fact, I use these ideas all the time to vet courses of action. But you need a little more to actually have a useful tool.

To appreciate the role of wisdom, it needs to be distinguished from imagination. Let’s take an example.

Tatianna likes to fish. She stops by Bubba’s Big Boats one day after work and admires the sleek bass boats. She imagines herself whizzing across Lake Dioxin in search of the perfect fishin’ hole. And because this is just fantasy—she hasn’t invested anything but a bit of her time—there are no negative thoughts to intrude. In her internal movie, the boat doesn’t spring a leak, nor the engine sputter and quit. So in this state of isolation from harm, her emotions are bound to be good ones. Thus she’s likely to think positively about dropping 12 grand on a boat.

Notice the role imagination plays. What wisdom does is add to the picture a truer sense of the emotions we feel after making the decision. Although Tatianna can’t force her mind to alter its emotions, she can analytically think about them. I guess you could call wisdom a kind of emotional imagination. I’ve done no testing whatsoever, but I imagine some people are better at it than others.

So if Tatianna takes a moment and searches her memory for other times she’s spent a big chunk of money, and remembers how that felt. Or perhaps remembers what it’s like to own a boat. These bits of information are important to distinguish between the NOW emotional setting and the AFTERWARDS one.

If you apply this technique consciously, you may be able to avoid doing something unwise. It’s saved me countless times. I guess I should be embarrassed to admit that—I’m not quite sure. Anyway, that’s the theory. It might be useful to you or it might not. I don’t claim that it says anything at all about the objective universe (if there is one).

One last note. A wise person can be helpful to someone else, under this definition, by helping the other understand his or her own afterwards-emotions. This is something that parents can do for their kids, for example.

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