The 25 cent lesson

Since I can remember, my grandfather Dr. Leonard Binn, has given me the same lecture almost every time I see him. My grandfather is almost 92-years old, but the topic of the lecture remains the same. When I was growing up, he would always end the lecture by handing me a quarter, 25 cents.

“Jonathan, what is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?”, he would ask 8 year old me. At that time, both knowledge and wisdom were the furthest thing from my young mind. If I had a choice, I probably would have just gone back downstairs and watched more taped Washington Redskins football games, movies about baseball, or gone outside to play catch with my Dad or a friend.

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A recent family photo. My grandfather is in the center wearing the University of Michigan hat (we love him anyway)

However, I’ve been recently reflecting a lot on these early lectures. Sometimes facetiously, I think that a 25 cent lesson on compound interest may have been more practical. But, in all seriousness, my grandfather was making a worthy point. Theoretically, knowledge begets wisdom, but I have found that in practicality, wisdom is elusive, while knowledge is readily accessible.

Let’s look at the age of the internet right now. Ordinary people have access to vast knowledge and education. Recently, I have been spending time on platforms like coursera, edX, Khan Academy, and Udacity. Not to mention Wikipedia, google, or the now almost effortless ask of the closest Amazon Alexa, we have access to boundless amounts of knowledge. More than any time in history, knowledge is easily accessible for most people. If knowledge begets wisdom, we should be in the most peaceful, humble, and thinking for the collective well-being time in history as well.

Yet, we remain so far from that reality. The tragic events in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday are simply the latest manifestation of the counter to the knowledge begets wisdom argument. One explanation is that the nature of wisdom is changing. In one of the latest episodes of Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast, one of the guests explained that historically, change happened slowly so that wisdom could be obtained from knowledge and experience.

In the past, we depended on the wisdom of our elders for practical purposes like to tell us what was poisonous and what was safe to eat. They knew because either they had learned it or witnessed somebody become sick from eating the poisonous food. In the 20th century, our elders could teach us about their job search and provide us career guidance that was current and valuable. But, as careers with a single company became few and far between and the nature of retirement savings changed, that advice has become less valuable because of the rate of change in the current work environment now.

To me, wisdom today is mostly about judgment. Not to be confused with being judgmental, wisdom is more about how we process and understand our knowledge (what we know), pursue our curiosity (what we hope to know) and make sense of the world in the context of values. Using judgment, and then acting in a way that incorporates others wants, needs and emotions, even “in the moment”, is today’s wisdom. It is being deliberate in the way we behave based on what we know.

That definition, however, is depressing. I can’t help but think of leaders, politicians, pundits, and social media personalities. They have access to thought leaders and knowledge, but are in an environment that constantly appears to lack wisdom. Navigating the fast changing world and the hyperactive news-cycle encourages a “just get through the day” type behavior.

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Me and my Father-in-Law, Dr. Joel Nathanson, after we successfully ran the Marine Corps 10k in 2018

Luckily, there is an important corollary here, that I learned courtesy of my Father-in-Law, Dr. Joel Nathanson. Last weekend, our family celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah. At synagogue, he shared with the congregation that he recently identified the difference between hope and faith. Hope, he said, is passive. We hope something will happen for us, as if just the thought will make it so. Faith, on the other hand, is active. We have to believe that if we put in the effort, we will work to make it so, or believe that it will all work out in the end.

If we are going to have faith that wisdom can help us create a better life, a better family, a better business, a better community, or a better world, we have to live it. By using good judgement and thinking before we act, we can contribute to making our world a better place. It is the job of a leader to be wise when others, who may be knowledgeable, are not. It is the leader who acts with faith as he makes decisions for the company and the team. Knowledge won’t carry the day and hope is not a strategy.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The nature of wisdom is changing. Wisdom is how we process and understand our knowledge (what we know), pursue our curiosity (what we hope to know) and make sense of the world in the context of values. Faith is an active way of making the world better. If we have faith that others will pursue wisdom, we must demonstrate wisdom ourselves.