03/05/2011 11:51 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Practical Wisdom: Mastering Life's Four Key Words

When we think about knowledge, we imagine a large number of facts, discoveries or understandings that increases in size with the passage of time. For instance, over the past century medicine has developed antibiotics, vaccinations and a host of technologies that keep us alive and well. Physics now includes black holes, dark matter, quarks and a variety of other unimaginable realities that have expanded our understanding of the universe.

Every category of knowledge continues to systematically increase in size except for one: wisdom. For unlike other categories, wisdom reflects our ability to live intelligently and find meaning and purpose. It's about seeing patterns and understanding consequences. And since the issues which we have to deal with don't change -- growing, relating, deciding, emoting, working, parenting, etc. -- how to successfully deal with all of this remains constant. Wisdom is mastering the art of living, and it will always be just that.

So with that in mind, the following is a primer for some elements of wisdom that are potentially useful. It's in the form of words that need to be understood and mastered to insure that the wheels of our lives don't come off too often. The four most important words in the English language are yes, no, hello and goodbye. They are, at once, the most commonly used words and the most profound.

Let's begin with yes and no. First and foremost they are the foundation of autonomy. They reflect acceptance or rejection regarding every choice we are every going to make. But how often do we have trouble deciding which of the two to employ in our day-to-day decision-making?

Ask yourself how many times you said yes to something when no was clearly the right choice. Or the reverse, saying no when yes was appropriate. Being assertive with yourself -- saying yes to the right things and no to the wrong ones -- as well as with others is an ongoing learning experience. Changing an incorrect yes/no pattern in your life is risky and takes courage.

Hello and goodbye is another pair of profound polar opposites. Knowing when to begin something and knowing how and/or when to end it is an essential skill for living successfully. While saying hello is a sophisticated skill which takes a bit of time to refine, saying goodbye is at the top of the list for degree of difficulty. The magnitude of a "goodbye" certainly varies, but the meaning is always the same: the end. Whether it's ending a romantic relationship, leaving behind friends due to changing schools/jobs/homes or, the ultimate goodbye, someone you love dying, coping with the emotional after burn is difficult.

But as painful as goodbyes are, they are essential to our growth and development. The vitality of our lives is predicated on new people, events, and challenges periodically occurring. Without goodbyes we can never have hellos. What keeps people from initiating the goodbyes they have control over (e.g. relationships) is a tendency to overestimate the amount of time that they will feel bad.

Fortunately, the brain, with its evolutionary wisdom hardwired for survival, has the capacity to reestablish emotional balance relatively quickly. The brain's ability to rebalance your emotional state allows us to begin looking at the idea of "quality" risk taking. Is it time to get out of that relationship or job that is stale or lifeless? Are there patterns of behavior that are not useful or productive that you know it's time to say goodbye to? Are you ready to say hello to skills you want to learn or places you want to see? Hello and goodbye reflect transitions, and it's at these moments in time when change is most available to us.

All of us have used the same rationalization strategy when we've made a wrong choice in the yes/no, hello/goodbye categories of mistakes. We con ourselves with some elaborate justification for our decision, hoping we can convince ourselves we really did make the right choice. Underneath, however, we know the truth and, hopefully, in retrospect we can look back and admit to making the wrong choice.

And in allowing ourselves a moment of existential truth, we begin to lay the groundwork for making the right choice in the future when the cycle of experience comes back around to a similar decision. There will always be another chance to make amends with yourself.