Illustration: Lincoln Agnew, Binoculars, Family, Welcome Mat: Getty Images. LGBT Flag, Love Thy Neighbor: Alamy

Like intelligence, wisdom has no single definition, and different researchers measure it in different ways. I believe it has three dimensions: cognitive, reflective, and compassionate. The cognitive is about the desire to uncover deeper meaning. A wise person is always questioning as she seeks to better understand herself and others. She can also accept that life is unpredictable, so she’ll never fully understand everything. Even Socrates said that because he could admit his own ignorance, he might be the wisest man of all.

To understand the world, you need to be open to multiple perspectives. That’s why we need the reflective dimension, which is about putting our ego aside to get the bigger picture. Wise people can not only imagine situations from another person’s point of view but also see themselves through someone else’s eyes. They have enough self-awareness to acknowledge their own positive and not-so-positive qualities, and they take responsibility for their own lives.

Thinking less about yourself and more about other people usually fosters kindness, which brings us to the compassionate dimension. I’ve been asked whether this dimension is necessary, and my argument is that without compassion, a person cannot be wise. Someone who has great insight into human behavior but doesn’t care about others would make a good cult leader or an unscrupulous used-car salesperson.

Ironically, studying wisdom doesn’t make you wiser, because you can’t find it in books. We gain it by learning from our experiences, even the smallest ones: When someone cuts you off traffic, do you get riled up, or can you take a breath and practice equanimity? And one of the most important predictors of wisdom is being open to new things, so stay curious. A wise person never stops asking.


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