When I ask most people what image arises when I say the word wisdom or ask them to picture a wise person, the most frequent characteristic is old age. This makes sense, because we assume by the end of a lifetime we will have seen and done enough to have wisdom. However, when I ask, “Is every old person also wise?” I get a much different response. Most people agree that not ALL old people are wise. This might be in part because the term “old person” is pretty vague and tends to change depending on the age of the person I am asking; tell a ninety-year old that you are seventy, and they’ll call you a youngster. It’s also because not everyone who has lived into their elderly years has actively sought wisdom. They may have a lot of knowledge and experience, but again is that the same as wisdom?
I say, no.
So, is age a necessary precursor of wisdom? Well, this is where it gets interesting. There are certain developmental stages that everyone goes through. Each stage tends to occur during a certain period of time or age. The stages of development are predictable; however, the exact age in which they are experienced is not, especially once we move beyond the physical and mental development of youth. The early stages of development in babies, children and teens are more predictable and consistent than those of adulthood. In adulthood, some people may develop and learn much more quickly than others. They move on to the next stage while others linger in a stage and experience it in different ways before they move to the next. Neither way is right or wrong; speed is not the goal. Everyone can gain wisdom throughout each stage of development by being conscious and deliberate in what and how they learn in any moment.
The goal is to witness and experience each stage fully.. Don’t assume you know. Instead be open to what you can learn. By seeking the learning of everything you experience, you absorb knowledge and build a process of being in a place of wisdom at every stage of your life.
Some might find it becomes easier to be in this place of wisdom after they have enough life experience to gain perspective on things. While others may find it more difficult to gain perspective, and therefore wisdom, because their thought patterns have restricted their views. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is indicative of the latter. Ultimately, the ability to gain wisdom comes from actively seeking opportunities in small moments in all stages of life, not just waiting it out until you go grey.
One of the best ways to be an active seeker is to think differently as to who you seek wisdom from. It is highly valuable to ask those who are a stage or two beyond you to teach you some of the things they have learned. Seek mentors to help guide your process; someone older (not necessarily “old”) who you idolize in some way, and learn from them.
However, if the majority of your time and effort is spent only with those who are older than you, who will still be around to attend your funeral? Meaning, what value do you both gain and offer to those younger than you? Consider mentoring someone who is a stage or two below you, as well. Our own learning is solidified when we teach it to others. The teaching process pulls information through the brain in different ways creating new brain patterns and reinforcing the knowledge.
And I wouldn’t stop there. As we agreed, wisdom is not synonymous with old age, and old age is not the only time to enter a state of wisdom. If all you ever do is look at those ahead of you for information all you will get is information about what they have seen and done. These experiences are guided in part by the generation they grew up in and includes the learning necessary to survive and thrive in that particular society. The experiences of each generation varies significantly. Therefore, placing your focus on learning only from those older than you risks creating a gap between you and those younger than yourself.
In addition, a past focus places you at risk for missing opportunities to learn about the current society in which you live and the one that will support you in the future. For example, how many elderly people do you know who don’t use computers or cell phones? In the technology age, things move and change extremely fast, so it is vital to keep up. And who better to teach you then someone who grew up with technology. In addition, young people have an energy and vitality that is contagious. Remember that circle of influence and the significant impact it has on the statistics of your life? If your circle is comprised only of wise, older people it might enhance your wisdom, but what does it do for your vitality? Your endurance? Your physique?
When I spend even just a few hours coaching my U-14 soccer team I leave feeling youthful. I feel more peppy and sometimes even giddy. The energy and enthusiasm they bring is wonderful to be in the presence of, and I absorb it fully so I can keep my own youthfulness alive and inspired. I love learning from them. They have a lot of knowledge and wisdom. I learn new ways to interact, communicate, connect and even new ways to learn.
SMALL TASK: Seek out two mentors, one younger than you and one older, who actively come from a place of wisdom. Set a date to visit with them. Decide what aspects specifically you want to learn from them. Notice what being around them does for you.