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Wise up! How to grow wiser as you age

[An earlier version of this "cross-over event" of Marginalia and Tips from Tom's inbox post first appeared in our weekly newsletter. Sign up here.]

We'd all like to be known as wise, right? And deserve the label. So whether or not you're thought of as wise right now, this post will show you how to recognize wisdom and how you can gain more of it over time.


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I called this a cross-over event in the newsletter, because as is common for me, the author of one of my favorite books prompted me in his email newsletter to revisit the definition of wisdom in his book, Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.

 

An alchemy of confidence and doubt

It started with Chip Conley's Wisdom Well newsletter announcement that he'd settled on "a new definition of wisdom." He wrote first that he'd reduced it to two words:

"metabolized experience."

Then, finding that definition incomplete, he expanded it to:  

"metabolized experience which leads to distilled compassion."

I don't know about you, but I found both of these attempts interesting yet oversimplified. Interesting because those first two words imply some kind of accumulation and processing of the ingredients of wisdom over time.

Oversimplified because I've read enough to know that a lot of research around the concept and measurement of wisdom focuses first on defining anywhere from three to forty-eight characteristics, or dimensions, or criteria for labeling someone wise.

And in his very next sentence, Conley revealed his own need to expand on his new definitions: 

"Wise people don’t just build upon their life stories for the sake of new experiences; they do so for the common good, which then allows the wise person to serve as a role model for compassion."

He also linked to a 2019 conference video where he and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky discussed the definition of wisdom for 3+ minutes, with this text summary:

"... a few of the ingredients of #wisdom: good judgment, pattern recognition, curiosity, the perfect alchemy of confidence and doubt, willingness to seek guidance from those more experienced, and understanding the collateral consequences of your actions or decisions."

Better. But still not satisfied, I grabbed my copy of Wisdom @ Work and located the section where he'd spent four pages laying out various elements of wisdom and some of the research behind them. And there it was, my marginal note quoting that phrase, "alchemy of confidence and doubt."

Given the theme of the book, Conley was focused on how wisdom operates in workplace settings and the role of age diversity and intergenerational problem solving strengths. In that context, he pointed to two lines of research that reach contrary conclusions about evidence to support the common view that people get wiser as they get older. He notes one study that found "the average correlation between age and wisdom is roughly zero."

However, in that same study he noted that the researchers also found:

"... that many people cultivate something even more valuable: a skill for gathering wisdom as they age."

Now we're onto something. Words like cultivate and gather hint that we just might have to take an active role, if we want to wise up.

Personal note: that line about a skill for gathering wisdom gave me chills and as I reviewed the research below I kept hearing in my mind the line from my Learning Partners Doggerel,

"We'll gather up wisdom and conquer your fears"

 

What gets better in aging brains 

In my Elderships post, I summarized a number of research findings that certain psychological and cognitive functions of our brain either don't decline or actually improve as we age. These included

  • the age-related positivity effect,
  • better ability to regulate emotions,
  • increased empathy, and
  • evidence that “older adults … apply a greater range of problem solving strategies more flexibly across situations compared to younger adults.” 

As one researcher puts it, some of these same improvements are commonly included in the dimensions or criteria that are used in wisdom research:

"Research does support the development of at least some dimensions of wisdom with aging: empathy, altruism, social reasoning, emotional homeostasis."

Another important component of wisdom in the research is knowledge, the raw material for making wise choices. As one classic definition by Paul Baltes puts it:

"We define wisdom as an expert knowledge system in the fundamental pragmatics of life permitting exceptional insight, judgment, and advice involving complex and uncertain matters of the human condition."

Within that definition, there are:

"five criteria of wisdom-related knowledge: (a) rich factual knowledge, (b) rich procedural knowledge, (c) life span contextualism, (d) relativism, and (e) uncertainty."

The word "rich" repeated in criteria (a) and (b) implies what criterion (c) comes right out and says: "life span" makes a difference. The one undeniable advantage of aging for gaining wisdom is the longer you live, the more opportunities you have to gain knowledge.

Another team of researchers led by Prof. Darrell Worthy at Texas A&M is investigating how our neurobiology may explain an increased potential for wisdom as we age. A report entitled Researchers Find That Wisdom Really Does Come With Age, describes their findings this way:

“ 'What we found was that between those two situations, younger adults performed about the same, so they selected both options equally,' Worthy said. 'However, older adults tended to figure out which one — the increasing option or decreasing option — was better each situation, so they performed better in both of those tasks.'

"Despite the well-documented neural declines of older adults, Worthy said the expertise these individuals gain from having made numerous decisions throughout their entire lives allows for them to make better decisions in many real-world contexts. This is especially true, he continued, when present decisions interact with future decisions, creating a sequence of decisions that often is more influential on outcomes than a solitary choice."

Digging into the neurobiology of learning and decision-making, the report continued:

"The ventral striatum [involved in habit formation, procedural learning, and assigning value to immediate rewards] declines due to aging, and the theory Worthy and his colleagues are investigating says that the frontal areas of the brain, which are used in more conscious, deliberative processing, become more broadly activated in older adults to make up for other age-related declines in the brain.

“We think that younger adults might be using their ventral striatum more, since they are just making decisions based on the rewards they receive immediately, whereas older adults may be using their prefrontal cortices more, or a broader network of the frontal portions of the brain, rather than just acting in response to the immediate rewards they receive,” he continued.

By recruiting these "deliberative processing" areas of our brains,

"Compared to younger adults, older adults seem to develop more specific hypotheses about how current choices affect future possibilities, and in turn, they act on these hypotheses to make the best decisions."

Back to Wisdom @ Work, Conley describes pattern recognition as a core skill for applying knowledge to reach wise decisions, noting:

"And this is where age gives us the indisputable upper hand: the longer you've been on this planet, the more patterns you've seen and can recognize."

He also cites Gene Cohen's book, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, on this point:

"... older people, with the advantage of years of experience, have a vast storehouse of solutions embedded in their maturing brains that allows them to synthesize more information and potentially offer more solutions."

Conley offers the example of scientist John Goodenough, who at age 57 co-invented the lithium-ion battery, more recently sharing a Nobel prize for that line of research. But now in his late 90s, he's collaborating on an entirely new "glass battery" technology that could eliminate many of the hazards of the lithium batteries he pioneered. If it comes to commercial use as planned in the next few years, it could double the range of electric cars and reduce both their charging time and cost.

 

Ya gotta keep doing the work

Of course, we can all point to examples of older people with little to offer in the way of maturity or wisdom. What keeps those folks from growing wiser as they grow old?

It's pretty simple, really. Did you notice how I emphasized the words opportunitiescan, and potentially in the discussion and quotes above?

Gaining knowledge and developing skills in pattern recognition does not happen automatically just by getting older.

You have to pay attention to the experiences you're going through, participate in the problem solving, and engage in life-long learning, if you're going to build up that "rich" factual and procedural knowledge and "vast storehouse of solutions" to draw upon. It shouldn't surprise you that my recommendation for your life-long learning includes reading.

In Read 'Em & Reap, I reviewed dozens of research results in neuroscience and other fields showing the brain benefits of reading both fiction and nonfiction. I closed the chapter on how reading "makes you smarter" this way:

"My takeaway from [several research papers]: reading both fiction and nonfiction helps us accumulate more raw material and more mental strength and agility.

     When considering how reading helps us put our increased knowledge stockpile to use, recall the brain benefits we've explored already ...

  • more neurons,
  • more connections,
  • more white matter,
  • greater empathy.

     All these overlapping benefits work together, enhancing our brains' ability to process the information and experiences we gather from reading – all helping to make us 'smarter'."

Perhaps I should have changed that to "wiser," as you'll notice much of the language tracks well with the criteria and characteristics listed from the wisdom research.

Even more encouraging, newer research has begun exploring specific ways we can build or rebuild our capacity for wisdom, even in our elder years. One study looked at a set of interventions with participants over 60 in senior independent-living facilities, measuring "wisdom" among other things, and finding that their overall stress, wisdom, and resilience improved. The interventions included "savoring" and "gratitude" practices that we've looked at as "happiness-inducing behaviors" or HIBs.

A third intervention was most intriguing to me. The participants went through training to overcome their own ageist attitudes, including:

"aging as a time of continued growth and enjoyment; making small changes to increase positive emotions; and engagement in values-driven activities." 

After the training sessions, facilitators helped them identify and engage in concrete, values-driven activities to pursue their revised view of aging. Wise move, eh?

Another paper proposes a more ambitious "pro-wisdom environment" at both the family and societal levels and calls for more research to establish additional

"wisdom-enhancing interventions ... given its immense but largely untapped potential for enhancing mental health of individuals and promoting well-being of the society at large."

I don't know about their "largely untapped" jab at our collective wisdom, but I'm happy that wisdom has become a fertile ground for research over the last couple of decades. Just knowing we can improve our wisdom scores and that age is no barrier should encourage all of us.

 

Wisdom is as wisdom does

One very short, but thought provoking paper, entitled Wisdom as Quality of Choices, proposes that we treat that list of forty-eight wisdom characteristics as action words, defining wisdom this way:

"Wisdom is a cognitive framework for making the best choices."

Or, as I expressed it in the "Take Action" chapter in Read 'Em & Reap:

"What's the point of getting and keeping your brain ... all bulked-up and buff, full of knowledge and empathy, strength and energy, if you're not going to use them?" 

Circling back to Chip Conley's ideas, I think what we've learned here is that exercising whatever wisdom you've gained to this point by pitching in to help solve problems or provide value where you can – whether in a paid work role, volunteering, creating art, spreading ideas, you name it – is one sure way to keep growing the "vastness" of your wisdom storehouse.

What will you do to wise up?

 

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