What is wisdom? A common definition is that it’s something cultivated by experience over time.
It’s often said that experience is what you’re left with afterlife throws at you what you don’t want, the implication being that we learn from the setbacks: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and so on.
But if wisdom stems from accumulated experience over time, this would suggest that the older we get – the older everyone becomes – the more wise sages we would see in the world. Alas, even the most furtive glance around us quickly confirms this isn’t so.
“Aha!” some might exclaim, “wisdom is what’s cultivated by reflecting on our experiences over time.” That’s certainly a step in the right direction; however, if the reflection is skewed towards the belief that “Everything I’ve done today was totally awesome,” it deals a blow to the cultivation of wisdom.
In the best leaders, those resonant leaders who truly inspire and empower others through their own example, we find in their actions what true wisdom consists of authentic reflection plus deliberate contemplation over time.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.” Lincoln was known for his humble stoicism, and the respect he garnered – even from his rivals – stemmed from his tendency to better understand himself, how the world works, and where he fit into the grand scheme of things. Lincoln constantly sought to get a handle on himself, to understand what made people tick, and perhaps most importantly, was in pursuit of knowing the appropriate course of action in relation to any given situation.
Doubtless, he made mistakes – but he took those mistakes and used them as life lessons to help him change course and chart a new direction where necessary.
Whereas superficial reflection might say, “I messed up, there – I’ll try to do better next time, can’t win them all,” authentic reflection digs deeper and asks questions of ourselves that we do not wish to ask.
Let’s take a closer look at the three components of wisdom and how we can tie them together to better serve ourselves and others:
1. Authentic reflection is where we find the courage to ask ourselves, “Where could I have done better?” as well as “What did I do that I should carry on doing?” Just as we shouldn’t shirk from facing up to where we can improve, we should also have the courage to recognise and appreciate our strengths so that we might build upon them.
2 Deliberate contemplation is similar to reflection, except it goes beyond ourselves and explores the people, the environments, the dilemmas, and the challenges that exist externally.
We might ask, “Why does this challenge exist?” and “What are some of the possible solutions that could be put in place – how can I work with others to help alleviate the problem?”
Deliberate contemplation focuses on what’s significant or important in the immediate future – it’s what gives us the insight to get a sense of the most beneficial steps to take.
3 Time is what affords us the room to grow. It’s something we all share for a while. However, it is how we use the time we have that determines how we grow and develop.
It rolls on by whether it’s wasted or utilised – if we use it sensibly, we’re bound to get the most from it in terms of who we grow to become.
Reflection and contemplation
The 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard once said that, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
In leadership, reflection and contemplation are vital tools that allow us to chart the best course moving forward by understanding what has gone before.
In a Washington Post article, the late Eric Kail – former course director of military leadership at West Point – wrote, “Reflection requires a type of introspection that goes beyond merely thinking, talking, or complaining about our experiences. It is an effort to understand how the events of our lives shape the way in which we see the world, ourselves and others. And it is essential for any leader.”
Some people might contend that there is little point ‘dwelling on the past’ – that we should live in the present and build our future from the point at which we find ourselves.
While it’s true that aimless rumination offers little benefit, being mindful of what the past can teach us is a smart move in helping ourselves to progress: yesterday’s experiences can help us today in shaping what’s to come tomorrow.
Tying it together
Having said that, reflection doesn’t come easily to us.
We are, in general, adept at presenting a crafted image to the outside world precisely because we’re able to construct such a convincing self-narrative that justifies rather than investigates, conforms rather than questions, and sits in comfort rather than seeks to be curious.
The end of the year provides us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what has passed over the last 12 months.
Indeed, 2018 has seen a torrent of twists and turns and has undoubtedly left us all with much to ponder.
As with any 12-month period, what has been gone, and in its trail, we are invited to reflect, contemplate and ask ourselves a potentially life-changing question: “What’s the best way forward from here?”