How Wisdom Differs from Intelligence

Here’s an interesting story I picked up reading about wisdom and intelligence and the differences between the two (Wisdom by Stephen S. Hall). The renowned psychologist and academician Robert J. Sternberg developed a comprehensive theory of human intelligence as a professor over more than thirty years at Yale.

In a nutshell, he proposed that successfully intelligent people possessed a suite of three crucial skills:

  1. The creative ability to come up with fresh ideas
  2. The analytic ability to decide which of those ideas were truly good
  3. The practical ability to convince other people of their value, thus allowing their implementation

However Sternberg began to recognize fatal flaws in his theory when he began pondering the question, “How is it that people who are certifiably intelligent do such foolish and occasionally evil things?”

He realized that people like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin satisfied his criteria for intelligence: they were imaginative, intelligent, socially shrewd, and had the will to turn their ideas into reality. They also happened to be monsters.

Sternberg looked at really great leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela and realized that they probably didn’t differ much in IQ from Stalin, Hitler, or Mao. What differentiated them was wisdom.

“The missing ingredient,” Sternberg admits, “was the ability to enlist all these elements of intelligence in the service of a common good. What matters is not only how much knowledge you have, but how you use that knowledge.”

Standard metrics of intelligence do not take this into account. Which is why narrow measures like IQ tests fail to predict lifetime satisfaction (or even college success). Our universities are part of the problem when they put all of their emphasis on IQ, GRE and SAT scores.

Sternberg was formerly Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. “We have constructed an educational system to produce people with skills to lead us in exactly the direction we don’t want to go.”

He ruefully admits that Tufts used to be part of the problem, its business school having bestowed on the world of finance both Kenneth Lay and Andrew Fastow, two brilliant graduates who led one of the greatest ethical scandals and collapse of Enron Corporation.

Which leads me to wonder if our business organizations do the same thing when they focus primarily on bottom line financial results. If that’s what counts and what gets rewarded, people will focus on the numbers, by hook or by crook.

What do you think about how wisdom is encouraged or not in today’s world?

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