Beware of false wisdom and those who peddle it

“I’m not sure I can answer that,” I replied, “without sounding self-important.” I was talking with a friend about life and he surprised me by asking if I considered myself a wise person. It reminded me of the Zen paradox about enlightenment: the moment you think you’re enlightened, you’re not. I told him I thought wisdom was a journey and not a destination.

“Beware of false knowledge. It is more dangerous than ignorance.”

— George Bernard Shaw, Irish author and playwright

“I’m not sure I can answer that,” I replied, “without sounding self-important.”

I was talking with a friend about life and he surprised me by asking if I considered myself a wise person. It reminded me of the Zen paradox about enlightenment: the moment you think you’re enlightened, you’re not. I told him I thought wisdom was a journey and not a destination. He considered my comment then told me I hadn’t answered his question.

That said, do you consider yourself a wise person? Before we go any further, let me define wisdom (for the purpose of this piece) as the blending of accumulated knowledge and experience with insight and awareness. I think most of us would like to think we are wise. The idea of wisdom sounds noble and goal-worthy. But it isn’t easy to tell if we have really achieved it.

On the surface, wisdom seems clear-cut, but it’s a rather subjective assessment. You might consider a particular politician, religious figure or spiritual leader wise. Others might disagree. You might find the words of a certain writer or media personality inspiring and consider them wise. Others might scoff at such an assertion and declare them to be fools or liars.

I’ve listened to and read the words of purportedly wise individuals and found myself bewildered. Their wisdom seemed demonstrably false to me, and I naively thought I had coined the term “false wisdom.” Research proved the term to be well-worn. The notion of real and false wisdom has been bandied back and forth in religious and philosophical circles for years.

As for me, I have yet to meet someone whose wisdom was all-encompassing. Many people are wise with regard to a specific aspect of life. Often, it’s an area of expertise such as managing people or building a house. These same people may have little if any wisdom in other areas. I knew of a man once who was a brilliant manager and motivator yet had three failed marriages. I’m not judging him but simply noting his wisdom did not extend to all areas of his life.

I can admit that I have not always been the wisest individual. Over the years, I have made many poor choices with regard to finances and career choices. It’s hard to be wise when you’re afraid, and for much of my life, I was terrified of responsibility, conflict — you name it. It wasn’t until I started working on my self-esteem that I can claim to have developed any wisdom at all.

It is said that true wisdom comes from experience but I was too afraid to try anything new. My world was small and getting smaller. I had circled the wagons and hunkered down to hide. Any real wisdom was unattainable as I was always catastrophizing — expecting the worst — frantically trying to avoid conflict and confrontation. No real change occurred until I stopped running, took a long and honest look at my life and began to make some deep changes.

To me, true wisdom comes from our capacity to learn, listen and integrate. It is derived from our ability to take information, convert it into knowledge and incorporate it into our daily lives. It also comes from acknowledging our own ignorance and lack of understanding, and working to transcend it. And despite what you might have been taught, wisdom isn’t necessarily tied to age. I know far too many foolish old people and brilliant young people to think otherwise.

The truth is, when you feel good about yourself and you’re expressing from a place of love (as opposed to fear) you’re more willing to experience life and to reflect, ponder deeply and to learn. You’re also more likely to share your insights and help others along the path of life.

I think a vital step in the direction of acquiring wisdom is to acknowledge that you don’t know everything. The fact is we can only begin learning when we can admit that we have much to learn. This requires that you drop the ego’s need to always be right rather than happy.

If you’ve decided to embark on a wisdom-seeking mission, congratulations! Here are some ways you might begin. Start by talking with people you consider wise, and be willing to hold your concept of wisdom up to the bright light of reality for a closer examination. Seek alternative points of view and look for congruency in the words and behaviour of those you admire. I keep a list of “wise” words on my bulletin board in both my work and home office: read, observe, experiment, reflect, teach, listen, copy and learn. Keep an open mind and an open heart. Remember that wisdom is knowledge integrated. This is a lifelong process.

Of the wisest people I have met, there appears a recurring theme. Wise people:

l Demonstrate harmony between their words and actions;

l Possess the moral qualities of compassion and courage;

l Are most often sincere and direct with others;

l Tend to have a great deal of self-knowledge;

l Are motivated and able to motivate others;

l Passionate about what stirs their souls;

l Are disciplined and goal-focused;

l Have focus and personal power;

l Seek the wise counsel of others;

l Happily share what they know;

l Strive to achieve their dreams;

l Correct course quickly.

“Wisdom is the right use of knowledge,” wrote British Particular Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. “To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.”

Am I a wise person? I’m working on it and I hope you are, too. Reflecting back, perhaps it’s not the journey that makes you wiser though it does provide you with experiences that can be turned into knowledge and with some time and effort, integrated into wisdom.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at

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