What Makes Someone Wise?

I think think one core aspect of wisdom, when you experience it in another human being, is that there is an integrity, a connection between inner life and outer presence in the world. Knowledge is something you can possess, intelligence is something you… can point at someone and say that’s an intelligent person. And wisdom is also — it’s a possession, but it’s a possession that is applied.

So the litmus test of wisdom is not just what is contained in that person, but their imprint on the world.

Krista Tippett, in conversation with Pico Iyer

I think we know a wise person when we see them, but it’s often difficult to say exactly why we see them as wise. There’s an essential and critical difference between someone who is intelligent and someone who is wise—but how to describe the difference?

Krista Tippett captures it perfectly in the quotation above (and I strongly recommend you listen to her interview with Pico Iyer in full). The intelligent person is inward-directed. They may have a large inner life, but they draw no connection between their inner life and the outer world. Their knowledge exists within them, for themselves.

The wise person directs knowledge and intelligence toward the outer world, using it to shape and improve the world around them. They not only have the necessary knowledge, but understand how it should be used, leading what they know to be used valuably in their interactions with the world at large. And that makes all the difference.

How We Start Our Days is How We Start Our Lives

I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Annie Dillard before I came across a quotation of hers. Yet as some quotations seem inexplicably to do, hers bowled me over; made me freeze at the full stop, made me stare out the window at nothing in particular and caused that wonderful zooming-out of perspective that I often think is three-quarters of the reason why I read.

The quotation said, simply and nonchalantly, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Of course! Of course how we spend our days is how we live our lives. Without the “of course” the quotation may not have struck as it did; the “of course” pats us on the back and says, it’s okay, you knew this deep down, but it took a writer to bring it to the surface; don’t take it personally that you’d forgotten about it all these years. Dillard wrote this line in her book The Writing Life, which is a reflection on writers and writing, and which seems the only appropriate place for a line like that to be written.

Of all the people I’ve met, writers seem to be those who daily live the idea. Pico Iyer has embodied the idea for me; he need not say the words, for how he structures his days all points to that larger knowledge that it is these parts that determine the whole.

To structure a life at the outset is an impossible task. I was once in North Carolina on a cycling trip with the Yale Cycling Team, and we were to scale Mt Mitchell, the “highest peak east of the Mississippi”. From our small cabin we could see the mountain stretching upwards interminably, the peak, however, always obscured in a misty cloud. One’s mind could not at once comprehend climbing the entire mountain; once we began, it was only possible by breaking the hours-long climb into each visible stretch of road. I only needed to make it to the next bend in the road, beyond which I could not see, and once I made it there, I could make it to the next bend, and do this enough times and I’d reach the peak.

It is a pleasurable thought that for most of us, our lives are already broken into these neat, short stretches of road. We need only decide how to live today, and then decide tomorrow, and through these individual decisions we will live a life. It reduces the overwhelming. It breaks up lifelong commitments into daily reaffirmations, which seem certainly feasible.

And if, out of respect for Dillard’s masterstroke, even at risk of butchering it, I could offer a slight tweak to her formulation, to break those individual days down into even more manageable parts, it would be this: how we start our days is how we start our lives.

Focus on the start of each day. Get it right, do something you’re proud of in the first hour, and, slowly but surely, you’ll find life itself becomes something you’re proud of.

Pre-Distraction Distraction

But of course, when I’m at home, if ever I’m tempted to read a book, a part of me is braced for the phone to ring or the chime of “you’ve got mail” in the next room. So I interrupt myself even if it doesn’t interrupt me. And if ever I’m tempted to look at the stars, I think, oh no, there are a thousand things I have to do around the house or around the town. Or if I’m involved in a deep conversation, I think, oh, the Lakers game is on T.V. I should do that. And so one way or another, I always cut into my own clarity and concentration when I’m at home. And it reminded me why sometimes people like me have to take conscious measures to step into the stillness and silence and be reminded of how it washes us clean, really.

— Pico Iyer in his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.

Pico puts perfectly and beautifully, as he always does, a phenomenon I’ve thought about as pre-distraction distraction. 

Pre-distraction distraction means that the activities I’m willing to put my mind to are always small, and are always far down on the list of importance, because we expect the interruption that is to come. And when we expect that interruption, we are never willing to engross ourselves in the Dostoevsky we have always intended to read, or to write that polemic about the state of concentration in the modern world, because we know we will only last five minutes before the distraction comes.

Instead we scroll through Twitter or Instagram, perhaps reply to a few brief emails (ignoring the meaningful ones that require one’s full attention), or we browse through a picture-filled magazine until, inevitably, comes the vibration in the pocket or the chime from the laptop.

Without distraction-free places our minds come to take on the the tasks that we anticipate can be completed before the distraction comes. And who ever learned or accomplished anything great in five minutes?