I spent the last week at the Philmont Leadership Challenge in beautiful Cimarron, NM. I had the chance to learn a bit more about servant leadership and work on my outdoor skills a little. I also had some time to reflect on an interesting question posed to me by one of the members of my crew.
He asked me, “You seem wise. How did you get so wise?” This caught me flat-flooted for a moment because I’d never really considered myself to be a very wise person. Experienced perhaps but not wise like Yoda or Gandalf. So I answered him as I thought more about it.
Intelligence is knowing what to do. Wisdom is knowing what not to do.
The more I thought about that quote the more I realized the importance of the distinction.
There’s another saying that people tweeted back at me when I shared the above quote. It’s used in the context of describing Intelligence and Wisdom for Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying:
Intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting tomatoes in a fruit salad.
It’s silly and funny but it gets right to the point and is a different version of my other observation. Intelligence is all about the acquisition of knowledge. Think about your certification journey. You spend all your time learning the correct commands for displaying routing tables or how to debug a device and figure out what’s going on. You memorize arguments so you can pass the exam without the use of the question mark.
Intelligence is focused on making sure you have all the knowledge you can ever use. Whether it’s an arcane spell book or Routing TCP/IP Volume 1 you’re working with the kinds of information that you need to ingest in order to get things done. Think of it like a kind of race to amass a fortune in facts.
However, as pointed out above, intelligence is often lacking in the application of that knowledge. Assembling a storehouse full of facts doesn’t do much to help you when it comes to applying that knowledge to produce outcomes. You can be a very intelligent person and still not know what to do with it. You may have heard someone say that a person is “book smart” or is lacking is “common sense”. These are both ways to say that someone is intelligent by maybe not wise.
If intelligence is all about acquisition of knowledge then wisdom is focused on application. Just because you know what commands are used to debug a router doesn’t mean you need to use them all the time. There are apocryphal stories of freshly minted CCIEs walking in to the data center for an ISP and entering debug ip packet detail on the CLI only to watch the switch completely exhaust itself and crash in the middle of the day. The command was correct for what they wanted to accomplish. What was missing was the applied knowledge that a busy switch wouldn’t be able to handle the additional processing load of that much data being streamed to the console.
Wisdom isn’t gained from reading a book. It’s gained from applying knowledge to situations. No application of that knowledge is going to be perfect every time. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to do things that cause problems. You’re going to need to fix mistakes and learn as you go. Along the way you’re going to find a lot of things that don’t work for a given situation. That’s where wisdom is gained. You’re not failing. You’re learning what doesn’t work so you don’t apply it incorrectly.
A perfect example of this came just a couple of days ago. The power in my office was out which meant the Internet was down for everyone. A major crisis for sure! I knew I needed to figure out what was going on so I started the troubleshooting process. I knew how electricity worked and what needed to be checked. Along the way I kept working and trying to figure out where the problem was. The wisdom I gained along the way from working with series circuits and receptacles helped me narrow things down to one wall socket that had become worn out and needed to be replaced. More wisdom told me to make sure the power was turned off before I started working on the replacement.
I succeeded not because I knew what to do as much as knowing what not to do when applying the knowledge. I didn’t have to check plugs I knew weren’t working. I knew things could be on different circuits. I knew I didn’t have to mess with working sockets either. All the knowledge of resistance and current would only serve me correctly if I knew where to put it and how to work around the issues I saw in the application of that knowledge.
Not every piece of wisdom comes from unexpected outcomes. It’s often just as important to do something that works and see the result so you can remember it for the next time. The wisdom comes in knowing how to apply that knowledge and why it only works in certain situations. If you’ve every worked with someone that troubleshoots really complex problems with statements like “I tried this crazy thing once and it worked” you know exactly how this can be done.
Intelligence has always been my strong point. I read a lot and retain knowledge. I’m at home when I’m recalling trivia or absorbing new facts. However I’ve always worried that I wasn’t very wise. I make simple mistakes and often forget how to use the information I have on hand. However, when I shared the quote above I finally realized that all those mistakes were just me learning how to apply the knowledge I’d gained over time. Wisdom isn’t a passage in a book. It’s not a fact. It’s about knowing when to use it and when not to use it. It’s about learning in a different way that matters just as much as all the libraries in the world.