Wisdom, Properly Understood

Someone who’s “book smart” might be able to prattle off many different facts and ideas about, say, theoretical physics — but remain utterly incapable of plugging in his DVR. A person who can single-handedly repair giant marine diesel engines may nevertheless not know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. And we’ve all met folks who advance because of their charm, not their competence.

Aristotle taught that wisdom falls into two categories — theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom. The former addresses principles and facts and abstract knowledge; the latter real-world techniques for getting things done. Neither is better than the other — the world needs both. A person who excels at one isn’t better or worse than someone who excels at the other.

Modern psychologists suggest another distinction: The idea of emotional intelligence. Someone with a high EI knows how to work with people to achieve a goal even if he lacks both theoretical knowledge and practical good-sense. Which, I guess, explains Congress.

The world’s a funny place. When you take the three three major realms of wisdom — book smarts, street smarts, people smarts — and push them against each other, it’s tempting to rank-order them. Usually, this sequence is self-referential: You tend to either over-value what you have, or over-value what you think you lack and therefore feel bad about your perceived lack of self-worth.

A perfect person might have high scores in all three categories. No one’s perfect, though — not even me. (Hard to believe, I know.) Instead we all have varying skill levels in each category. Each person’s mix tells the story of who he is — and this story is neither good nor bad. Only a jackass thinks himself better than someone else because he’s got more book smarts or better practical skills or is more suave in a social setting.

The world needs a mix of wisdom levels. And people need to be pared with people who fall at different wisdom levels. The whole is stronger than its parts, so a couple or a group that offers different levels of wisdom is stronger than a group that consists of two or more of the same thing.

Wisdom seeks its compliment, not its mirror image.