What Makes Us Wise II: The Defining Wisdom Project

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Julia Moulden Speaker, columnist and author, 'RIPE: Rich, Rewarding Work After 50'

"You Canadians!," my cabbie laughed as I climbed into the back seat and complained about the cold. "Always talking about the weather. In my country, we have two weather reports. 'Now it is the rainy season' and 'Now it is the dry season'."

That lighthearted exchange came to mind when I flipped my calendar to December. "Now it is the wise season," I thought. Is there another time of year when we reflect on what it means to be wise? So many cultures mark the Winter Solstice as a "coming of the light". Yes, we sing songs of joy and love, but we pray for enlightenment. For that "spark of the divine" as President Obama put it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Thursday.

You'll recall that I wrote about wisdom this fall - in a post titled "What Makes Us Wise?" In the weeks that followed, I heard from all kinds of fascinating people - including the folks at the Defining Wisdom Project at the University of Chicago (more on them in a moment).

First, I want to tally your answers to the questions posed in my September column, based on your comments and emails.

Virtually everyone said that wisdom is difficult to define. I received countless definitions, some of them really good and thoughtful. Natalie from Iowa wrote that the definition I included in the first post "Understanding what is true, right, or lasting" didn't go far enough. Here's her version. "Knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action."

Inside everyone.
About 75% of readers said that the potential for wisdom is innate.

Can be learned.
Of these, more than 90% said that we can develop this capacity in ourselves through self knowledge, learning, and life experience.

Perhaps one third of you said this is an essential aspect of wisdom: that knowing how little you know is part of being wise.

Who's wise?
One person mentioned her grandmother. Someone else, a child. Pretty much everyone else suggested well-known leaders and thinkers, such as Mandela, JFK, Martin Luther King, Joseph Campbell, Maya Angelou, and the Dalai Lama. A couple of people nominated themselves (perhaps they missed the lessons on humility...).

Some good ones (see comments on the original post). A special shout out to by Dr Bruce Lloyd, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management, London South Bank University, who sent along hundreds. This was among my favourites. "Old age takes away from us what we have inherited and gives us what we have earned." Gerald Brenan (a British writer).

Now, to Joy. Joy Wattawa, specifically. She emailed to say how delighted the team at the Defining Wisdom Project at the University of Chicago was to discover the HuffPo community engaged in a conversation about wisdom. And that the questions we were discussing span some of the topics people involved with the project are addressing.

So, naturally, I interviewed Dr. Howard Nusbaum, Department Chair, and Co-director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and a co-principal investigator for the project:

Julia Moulden: Is there a working definition of wisdom?

Howard Nusbaum: In a word, no. (He laughs.) The project that the Templeton Foundation is supporting is called Defining Wisdom. We started with the premise that we need some initial research to even start thinking about wisdom.

JM: In looking at your site, I noticed a photograph of an eye, which appears to belong to someone young. My immediate association is that wisdom comes with age, with life experience.

HN: The few people who've studied wisdom had a sense that it is associated with age and life experience. It's a common notion, whether you think of King Solomon or Yoda. I'm not convinced of that. If you think of wisdom as a set of criteria by which we judge a particular decision, it certainly depends on experiences, but one can have a density of experiences at any age that would be relevant to the thing we call wisdom.

JM: Why are people thinking and talking about wisdom more these days? And clearly interested in investing in it, as witness your project?

HN: It could be that as society ages, it becomes more reflective. But when I look at the rising interest in wisdom, I don't see it confined to older people. In fact, we had a debate when establishing the project. The Templeton Foundation suggested that we should be looking for junior faculty. We were concerned about that idea, because it seems like a risky topic for scientists and researchers to take on, given how little work there is. We were surprised by how wrong we were. We asked for proposals from junior faculty, and were amazed at the number and quality of the proposals.

JM: Why junior faculty?

HN: The project is an attempt to start a new field and the thinking was that younger researchers are going to be at it longer. We hope to have another round targeted at senior investigators.

JM: Beyond the definition, what are the goals of the project?

HN: To get people thinking about and talking about wisdom in a systematic way.

JM: Is there no study of wisdom now?

HN: No field of wisdom science. And in order to create one, we wanted to bring together all the interested parties - philosophers, classicists, historians, legal experts, people in medicine, psychology, biology - to get a conversation going that spans these disciplines. We had responses from every discipline. No aspect of academia is uninterested in this.

JM: So, will wisdom science belong to one academic discipline?

HN: It would be easy for philosophy, say, or psychology, to claim it, but I don't think that's in the best interest of developing a wisdom science. In fact, wisdom research is reflective of a change taking place in academia, where what used to be solo enterprises are now exploring other ideas and approaches.

JM: Where are you now with the project?

HN: We're in the second year, with 23 finalists working on their projects. Everything from data compression as a form of wisdom to studying aggression in ants as a form of wisdom. Some of the issues you raised in your post, "Is wisdom learnable?" and "Is it inherent in the individual?" are the kinds of things we talk about during our regular teleconferences.

JM: How can we keep tabs on the project?

HN: We have a website where your readers can learn more about what we're doing, and join in the conversation.

JM: When I heard about the project, I thought "of course!". Can't believe that no-one has done this yet - such an important idea.

HN: Important, but slippery. Which is why scientists have stayed away. One of the wonderful things about the Templeton Foundation is that they're willing to take on high-risk projects to develop scholarship that can help people.

JM: One final question. Now that you're doing this, do people expect you to be wise? Like, maybe, your kids?

HN: (He laughs, encore.) No, I don't think there's any expectation that I'm wise. And if there is, it only takes a minute for people to find out the truth.

Now it's your turn again, readers. Why are you interested in wisdom? And what do you make of all this? Also, how old are you (I'm curious to know if more older people are reading this). And do you think our prayers for enlightenment will help our leaders in Copenhagen? Please share your thoughts by commenting below, or by emailing me at JULIA (that familiar symbol) wearethenewradicals (punctuation) (COM).

Julia Moulden is on tour, talking about the New Radicals.