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What Makes Us Wise?

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Is thinking about wisdom part of getting older?

Lately, I've been wondering what wisdom is. Here's how my dictionary defines it, "Understanding what is true, right, or lasting." I've been living with that definition to see if it seems, well, true, right, and lasting.

I also want to know what makes us wise. Is it something we can actively achieve? Or does it grow as a result of experiences well digested? Is it something, therefore, that comes with age? Or can the young be wise, too? Can you take a course? What's the best way to learn?

And is wisdom a label we can attach to ourselves? Can we say - to anyone other than the mirror - with a straight face and no trace of hubris, "I am wise"? Or must others confer it?

While thinking about all of this, I started a separate brain file on "genius". It seems comparably tricky to assess, acquire, and pin to our chests. Unless the Nobel committee or MacArthur Foundation come calling, that is. (Which means, of course, that they've thought about this a lot - are there organizations that are thinking about wisdom, too? And does anyone give out a Wisdom Grant?)

Here's one of the items in this genius file-in-my-head. A number of years ago, Oprah had Paul Simon on her show. She asked him if he thought he was a genius. I winced at the question, but my jaw dropped when he replied, "Yes." (Maybe if he'd ducked his head or scuffed the toe of his shoe on the carpet when he said it, I'd have been less distressed. He seemed so sure.)

Has wisdom been in your mind, too? And what do you do when you're looking for an answer to life's big questions? Do you Google? Talk to people? Read the latest books?

The essayist Anne Lamott would advise writing queries like this on a little piece of paper and tucking them away somewhere - in the glove compartment, say, or in your sock drawer, or, if it's handy, the Wailing Wall. And then waiting for an answer. (If you don't know Anne Lamott's work, you're in for a treat.)

I'm still wandering around thinking about it, so it's time to turn to you. (Consider this as a little survey. I'll collect your responses and publish them in a future column.)

1. What is wisdom? How do you define it?
2. Who do you think is wise? Is it as grand as the Three Wise Men? Or simply your nana, the guy who sells papers in front of the subway, or your three-year-old godson? Which leaders/thinkers/writers seem wise to you? And why?
3. Is wisdom inside of us, waiting to be kindled? Can we set out to acquire it? Does it require a lot of work? What kind of work? Can anyone help? (And is 'wise woman' [or, dare I say, 'wise Latina'] a career option - could you hang out a shingle, 'Wisdom, 5 cents'?)
4. What else is important to think about re: wisdom and its value in our modern world?

Please share your thoughts by commenting below, or by emailing me directly: julia_AT_wearethenewradicals.com.

Julia Moulden wrote We Are The New Radicals: A Manifesto for Reinventing Yourself and Saving the World. She also gives speeches and writes speeches for the world's most visionary leaders.

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