I have been asked a lot of times, “How did you get so wise?” I really don’t know why I’ve been asked that. I don’t think I am particularly wise (I think I am opinionated, and pretty good at explaining my opinions, more than I think I am wise). But there are a things I do that might make me seem wise, so I figured I would share them with you.
After a few people asked me how I got wise, I thought about it, and figured out my answer:
When I was in junior high, one of my Sunday school teachers was talking about James 1:5 – “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, … and it will be given to him.” My Sunday school teacher said that wisdom is the only thing the Bible guarantees that God will say “yes” when we ask. So every day for 3 years, I asked God for wisdom. If I have any, that’s probably why.
That’s a true story. I don’t know if wisdom really is the only thing that the Bible guarantees that God will give you, but I know at least that it is one thing. Plus there is the story of Solomon in the Bible, too – when God told Solomon that anything he asked for, God would give him, Solomon chose to ask for wisdom, and God was happy with that request. After all, you may lose riches, beauty may fade, and if you have power, someone else may overthrow you. But nobody can take away your wisdom. I figured if God was that happy about wisdom, I should ask for it.
I started a prayer list in middle school. Pretty soon, it got so big that I divided it up by day, so I had something different to pray for every day of the week. But at the top of my prayer list, I had things I prayed for every day, and wisdom was one of those things. I figured why not? It couldn’t hurt, and it didn’t take long. “God, please give me wisdom” – that’s it.
And here is what I think happened: if you believe in God, then you believe that God granted me some wisdom because I asked for it. However, if you do not believe in God, you might still believe that because focused so much on wisdom, that is what I picked up. It’s called “The Law of Attraction,” and the concept is that you attract the things you think about. After I started praying for wisdom, I started really enjoying reading wisdom and advice that other people gave. Just the other day, I watched a TV show where people who are at least 100 years old were answering the question, “What advice would you give to young people today?”
Well, either way, whether God gave me wisdom, or I attracted it because I thought about it a lot, I wanted wisdom, I asked for wisdom, and here is what I have figured out so far about wisdom.
Wisdom is Subjective
We’re going to take a detour here and talk about the words subjective and objective for a moment, because it’s important for the rest of this letter.
Subjective means that each person gets to decide whether or not something is true for themselves – it is an opinion. For example, beauty is subjective, so you may think something is beautiful but I do not think it is beautiful, and the truth is that it is beautiful to you but not to me. We each get to decide because it is subjective.
Objective is the opposite of subjective. Objective is when a thing is absolutely true regardless of your opinion about it. For example, the oak tree in my front yard needs water to grow. It just does. It’s not my opinion, it’s just the truth. If the tree never gets water, it will stop growing and eventually die. If someone says, “that oak tree doesn’t need water to grow,” that person would just be wrong, and there is plenty of science to explain why.
I think wisdom is subjective, not objective. There is no worldwide, agreed-upon, absolutely true standard for whether or not a person is wise. And for every piece of advice that a million people think is great advice, a million other people think it’s baloney. Your mother may think I am wise, but your sister may not, and they would both be right: I would be wise to your mom but not to your sister.
So what I’m telling you is what I consider wise, not what everyone considers wise, because there is nothing that everyone considers wise. Someone, somewhere will disagree with any piece of wisdom you treasure. That just happens with subjective things.
Wisdom is Being a Good Listener with an Open Mind
People can only tell parts of a story at one time, so usually, you have only heard part of someone else’s story. You may tell someone what you think, but you have to be ready to listen again in case there is more to the story.
For example, here’s a situation I made up where Mary is upset with her boyfriend, and is telling Patty. Patty is trying to offer advice, but as Mary explains more of the story, Patty’s advice changes.
Mary: My boyfriend is being so selfish – I asked him to come over and study with me for the math test tomorrow, because I didn’t do very well on last week’s test, and he’s really smart at math, and he said he would not help me tonight!
Patty: Wow. You should ask him why he can’t come over.
Mary: Oh, I did ask him. He said he can’t help because he’s hanging out with his brother instead. Like his brother is more important than I am or something.
Patty: Wow. You should tell him that it’s really important to you to do well on the test.
Mary: Oh, he knows that. That’s why he helped me study last night. I just want him to help me tonight too.
Patty: Oh, well, it was nice of him to help you last night. Did you go over everything on the test?
Mary: Yeah. But I should be more important to him than his brother, even if his brother does have tickets to the Blue Man Group show tonight.
Patty: Wait, he’s going to the Blue Man Group show? The one that may never come through town again? Mary, your boyfriend isn’t being selfish – he helped you with your homework last night, which was really nice, so that tonight he can go build a great memory with his brother. It’s a good thing that he likes to spend time with his family, and it doesn’t mean that he loves them more than he loves you. He chose you last night, and chose them tonight. It’s even. Honestly, it sounds to me like he made the right choice.
See how the story can change when you know more information?
Patty’s advice from the beginning turned out not to be the best advice once she knew the whole story. What Patty could have done to have better was to ask more questions instead of offering advice. For example, she could have asked at first, “Do you know why he can’t come over?” instead of saying “You should ask him why he can’t come over.”
It is wise to ask questions if you do not know the whole story, before offering opinions.
Wisdom is Understanding that Opinions Come from Values
In almost every situation, there are many possible choices that a person can make. In the example above, Mary could choose to tell her boyfriend that she thinks he’s selfish, or she could choose to try to get tickets to the show to surprise him, or she could choose to ask someone else for help with math, or she could choose to spend her evening eating popcorn and watching TV and blame it on being so mad at him.
For every choice everyone makes, someone can explain why that was a great choice, and someone else can explain why it was a horrible choice. The truth is that it depends on what is most important to you, also called your values.
Let’s say Mary gets tickets and goes to the show to surprise her boyfriend. Her friend Sally says that was a great choice because it was sweet and romantic surprise, it showed that she’s not mad at him, and it was a way for them to experience something fun together. Sally values romance and fun. Her friend Kim says it was a horrible choice because Mary needs to study for her test, and because Mary is being kind of creepy by not letting her boyfriend out of her sight for one night, and she should learn to trust her boyfriend more. Kim values good grades and independence.
Both Sally and Kim have perfectly fine opinions. Their opinions are different, and so their advice is different, because their values are different. Neither one is better than the other, they are both valid opinions, and valid values.
Everyone has to choose what you value most in life. It may be family. It may be God. It may be money, fame, beauty, health, nature, learning… but usually it is a combination of many things, with some things valued more than other things.
A wise person understands the values of the person giving them advice, so they can decide whether the advice is right for them or not. If Mary is wise, she will decide whether she values romance and fun more than good grades and independence. What kind of person does she most want to be? What is most important to her? And that will help her decide whose advice to take.
If someone is giving you advice that just does not seem right, that person probably has very different values than you do. For example, if someone tells me to cover up a mistake by lying, it is very unlikely that I will take that advice, because I value honesty a lot more than I mind being embarrassed by being caught making a mistake. You can ask my coworkers – I think everyone I have ever worked with knows of at least five big mistakes I have made, which is a little embarrassing, but they would all trust me to tell the truth if I have done something wrong.
Wisdom is Supporting Others, Even When They Are Different
What would be best for you would not always be best for everyone. Trying out for the advanced choir is a great idea for someone with a good singing voice who likes to be in front of people, but it is a bad idea for someone who cannot stay on pitch and does not like to perform.
Very often, we give advice to other people based on what would be good for ourselves. This is perfectly natural, but it means that sometimes advice does not fit.
If you think that a friend of yours should make a certain decision, instead of saying, “You should do this,” it is more wise to say, “If it were me, I would choose this, because…” The reason that is more wise is because you are admitting that you may be different than the other person. And you are letting them choose for themselves instead of telling them what to do, which is great.
And someday, a friend of yours will make a choice that you disagree with. You will have told your friend to do something totally different than what they did. In the Mary/Sally/Kim example, Mary is either going to follow Sally’s advice, or Kim’s. The wise friend will be the one who will still support Mary even if she chooses the other advice.
Let’s say that Mary goes to the concert, has a great time, and her boyfriend was happy to see her. Then Kim, if she is wise, would say, “Mary, I’m glad you had so much fun!” And if Mary ends up not doing very well on her math test, Kim should not say “I told you so,” but instead should ask if there is anything she can do to help Mary study for the next test.
Wisdom is Sharing Your Opinions, Not Making Choices for Others
Everyone chooses their own life. And you may see every choice someone makes as right or wrong, depending on your values. So it is wise to offer your opinions to people as your opinions, not as if they were facts.
It is helpful and wise to say, “I think this is good, and this is what I think you should do.” But it is kind of pushy to say, “This is good, and this is what you should do.” Can you see the difference? The first one is friendly advice, and sounds like you would be open to hearing someone else’s opinion that is different than yours. The second is a command, and it sounds like you think you know everything in the world and that you think you’re always right. Who would you consider wiser?
Those two little words, “I think” can make all the difference in helping you to sound wise.
Wisdom is Having Reasons for Your Opinions
After you say, “I think this is good,” it is helpful to say why. “I think this is good because I think it will help your relationship with your cousin” is more helpful than just “I think this is good.” Explaining why you think what you think, in a brief way, helps people understand your values, and helps them decide if your advice fits them or not.
Wisdom is Making Up Your Own Mind
You have to decide what is right for you. You have to decide what you think is wise and good and right and true. People who follow every piece of advice that is given to them, without taking time to decide if it’s right for them, those people end up very confused and unable to decide by themselves. That is not wise. Being wise means that you know what you value, and you know why you have chosen what you have chosen.
It’s up to you to decide whether or not things seem wise to you. Except, of course, this letter, which clearly is the wisest thing anyone has every written. Hehehe.