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Leave Room for Wisdom in Your Intelligent Life

“Intelligence” is all the rage. Students take standardized tests throughout school to measure intelligence, and we build machines powered by artificial intelligence to help us do our jobs. We seem to value intelligence above all else.

This is understandable. After all, “intelligence” in both of those examples is measurable and actionable, and it appears to provide a certain amount of clarity. However, “intelligence” in this sense is not necessarily a prerequisite for success. As psychologist Angela Duckworth points out, all that intelligence tests demonstrate is performance on intelligence tests — they do not reflect fundamental intelligence.

In 1982, psychologist Dr. Vivian Clayton defined intelligence as “the ability to think logically” and to “conceptualize and abstract from reality.” Wisdom, on the other hand, she defined as “the ability to grasp human nature, which is paradoxical, contradictory, and subject to continual change.”

In short, Clayton’s distinction between the two is that intelligence is the understanding of how to do things, whereas wisdom requires understanding that a logical stepwise process rarely works in life without constant iteration. In this age of life hacks and intelligent platforms, we’ve become obsessed with mechanistic thinking — figuring out the best way to do things — but in the course of doing this, we have become blind to the potential of wisdom.

Finding Wisdom’s Worth

Intelligence by itself has mostly unobservable and latent characteristics — it’s useless without context. An “intelligent” system, after all, is only as intelligent as the data it’s processing. Feed an intelligent data processor nonsense, and you will get nonsense out of it, albeit logical nonsense. Also, intelligence doesn’t always account for which factors actually matter. We have to use our intuition and iteration to find solutions to our challenges, so “intelligence” often comes to mean little more than rule-following, and rules by themselves do not always advance our progress or add value.

For example, a friend was recently traveling on an international flight. He was one minute late for checking luggage, and due to the airline’s rules, he had to miss his flight. Outside of context, these rules seem helpful — intelligent, even. You can’t have people checking in late and delaying flights all the time, and rushing them through the ticketing and security process would be a safety hazard. But in this instance, the airline lost a loyal customer.

Intelligent rules are not always wise rules, and the airline industry has suffered because of it. Between 2000 and 2012, prompted by consumer frustration with flying, the passenger rail market between New York and Washington increased by 38 percent, and the rail market between New York and Boston increased by 34 percent. Of course, security is paramount, but airline rules are often random, unexamined, and disconnected from what makes sense. Thus, they are often unwise.

Despite the efficiency and productivity that intelligence promises, it is wisdom that leads us into real fulfillment. In 2013, behavioral scientist Igor Grossmann and his colleagues found that there is no correlation between intelligence and well-being; wise reasoning, on the other hand, correlates with greater life satisfaction, better social relationships, more positive words used in speech, less depressive rumination, and greater longevity. Because wisdom contains a number of complex variables, including prosocial attitudes and emotional balance, it’s also associated with a delicate balance in the brain concerning our emotions. Wisdom is what dampens an emotional response when it’s excessive and, through self-awareness, exerts self-control.

The regions of the brain responsible for wisdom overlap with the regions responsible for intelligence, but there are some differences. Wisdom activates brain regions involved in the practical application of knowledge and regions that promote social good. It also involves the integration of emotion and knowledge. Essentially, wisdom adds the context that intelligence needs in order to be useful.

3 Ways to Apply Wisdom to Your Life

If you want to live with greater well-being and have practical and integrated solutions for life’s challenges, make room for more wisdom in your life, not just more intelligence. To ensure you’re making wise decisions, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is my problem created by something other than itself?
    For example, if you are looking for a life partner and have no intention of moving from your hometown, you probably want to date people who have similar geographic plans. Make sure you’re comparing potential solutions with their ramifications in real life.
  2. How does my goal relate to doing social good?
    When thinking about this, make sure you’re not simply doing something because you think people will recognize your virtue. Instead, try to deeply understand how your own passions relate to social good. There’s no need to force it. Authenticity matters.
  3. Do I really care? 
    If you’re conflicted about your choices, examine those feelings. Learning how to acknowledge the pros and cons of your life choices can make you more wise, and you can integrate that wisdom into your plan moving forward. Having no strong emotions is a signal that you have not connected with your path forward, and having paradoxical feelings, while wise, should be distinguished from internal conflicts that can be resolved.

The decisions that lead to happiness aren’t just the smart decisions; they are the wise decisions, or what we commonly call “good decisions.” Having a psychological strategy that is practical, socially relevant, and authentic will make sure you’re activating your own wisdom more successfully.

Leave Room for Wisdom in Your Intelligent Life

Srini Pillay, M.D.

Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including "Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear,” and “Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders.” He also served as a part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and taught in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School. Recently, Srini created a series of videos on “Managing Depression in the Workplace” for LinkedIn Learning. He is also the chief medical officer of Reulay, a virtual reality company.

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APA Reference
Pillay, S. (2018). Leave Room for Wisdom in Your Intelligent Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 Jun 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.