Finding Wisdom in the Wild

Knowledge and experience get you far. Wisdom gets you further.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between knowledge, experience, and wisdom.

I’m not certain that accurately describes a perfect three-dimensional view of the world – but that’s where I am in my thinking right now.

Knowledge can be taught. Any 24-year-old coming out of B-school is going to have way more knowledge than me. They’ll know frameworks, and models, and statistics. They’ll be able to discuss business cases I’ve never heard of. The leading thinking on everything from leveraged debt to synthetic financial instruments to the most efficient ways to retain customers. All the reasons that New Coke failed and Google won. And all those things will be true and valuable.

Experience comes from doing a thing – or varied but related things – over, and over, and over again. Running projects fifty-five times and seeing all the things that can go wrong. Managing hundreds of employees and navigating all of their quirks, and needs, and skills, and foibles. Guiding Wall Street organizations through tumult (I have stories about the ‘08 crash, btw…) and transformation and changing times and meeting timelines and budgets.

Undervalue those things at your own risk.

But that’s not what I’ve been thinking about lately. What I’ve been thinking and wondering about is wisdom.

I’m not sure I can accurately define wisdom. It’s almost Zen in its ambiguity. Kinda like the concept of ‘self-actualized’ people. I know I’ve seen it. Rarely, but I’ve seen it. It’s the alchemy of knowledge, and experience… and something else. Something about the difference between knowing the “right thing to do” – and “the right thing to do right now in this situation” – and “the right thing to do in this situation given the people and the goals and the constraints and the…”

Or something like that. I’ll let you know when I become wise.

I worked for a man – let’s call him Bill (cause that was his name) thirty years ago in – let’s call it Title Insurance (cause it was Title Insurance).

This was at the dawn of us all realizing what computers and automation could do in industries like that. We (Bill’s employees) kept clamoring that we could reduce the time and cost by 100X through automation. We could save the company so much money! We could reduce staffing needs!! We could lower costs for consumers!!!

And then one day, in a stairwell, when he was tired of us whining – he said something like this.

“If you could produce this Title Report in 20 seconds with zero people… how would you justify charging $200 for that report instead of the $2.00 it cost you? And then what happens to your revenue? And then what happens to your stock price?”

That was knowledge. And that was experience. But it was more than that. It was the wisdom to know what was doable – what was desirable – and where we should be focusing our attention. He could have let us keep tilting against all the windmills, but he was too wise for that.

That’s not necessarily a story about the “right” thing to do. I’ll tackle morality some other time if I feel brave. It’s a story about insight. About understanding the totality of the world he was operating in. And to me – about wisdom.

I do know that when I see wisdom in the wild it’s awesome. And inspiring. And it changes organizations. And it changes people. And it – more often than not – leads to great outcomes.

I’m in the very fortunate and unique position of being able to work with a few people who I think are truly wise. And a lot more who are on their way there.

Mr. Rogers now famously said “look for the helpers.” I’ll paraphrase that and say – especially when you’re in a tough place, business or otherwise, find someone who has knowledge. Find someone who has experience.

But don’t stop looking until you find someone who has wisdom.

At Further Advisory, we meet you where you are… so together we can go further than ever thought possible. For our clients, we further their aspirations and priorities. For our people, we further their careers and lives. And for our practice, we further ways of working and positively impact the world.

About the author


  • Sean Oakley

    Sean brings two decades of experience in helping organizations solve their most challenging technology and operational issues. He has spent his career driving the creation of realistic, actionable goals and plans to address IT Operations challenges - and leading both the strategic and tactical activities required to succeed.

From Strategy to Reality®

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