Wisdom above knowledge
When the world is uncertain and ever-changing, understanding will beat knowing most of the times.
We are said to live in an increasingly VUCA world (VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). Situations can change fast. The status quo not only get disrupted often, but many people and companies seek to create such disruption to forge new markets for themselves. The information we have access to is more often than not partial, hidden, outdated, or just plain wrong. We put in charge people we know are lying to us, and some don't even try to hide it anymore.
More than ever, we need to learn to navigate through all of this and, if possible, not only stay afloat, but thrive. As a coach, I get asked quite often what the blueprint for success (or even just survival) is under those conditions.
I work with businesses most of the time, and they have a hard time accurately predicting how long projects will take or how much they'll cost. They used to be able to do it decades ago, but now, year after year, their predictions makes less and less sense. What's the strategy, the process, the methodology to return to that?
The answer to that is simple: There's none. No blueprint, no secret, no trick. We live in a chaotic world that will not become simpler or more predictable over time. Quite the contrary, as we are entering a new social age of automation, artificial intelligence, and hyper-connectivity that we, as a society, are clearly nowhere near ready for.
And yet we are seeking certainty when we should seek adaptability. We are seeking knowledge when we should seek wisdom.
What is knowledge?
Knowledge is a very useful thing.
We understand knowledge as a fixed set of information that gives us clear and accurate information, allowing us to make the right decisions with assurance. It is the result of generations of prodding and testing of our world, and since we can transmit it to newer generations, it has allowed our species to thrive using far more than just our instinct. Stuff like don't eat that mushroom because it will make you sick and kill you. Or don't try to wrestle a bear, because it will maim and kill you. Or that if you ground wheat, mix it with water and cook it you'll make bread, eat too much of it, you'll get fat and that will kill you too.
Knowledge allows us to…
- Convey clear and precise information,
- To store and retrieve information quickly,
- Digest and then reproduce or apply information,
- Speed up our decision process by providing you reliable information.
Knowledge, however, doesn't always come with a certificate of authenticity, making it unclear if an information is knowledge, was knowledge but isn't anymore (outdated), or never was knowledge and just look like it.
Knowledge is reassuring in its certainty, and can easily lead to blind acceptance or blind execution as it is deemed "how things are done".
Knowledge doesn't like fuzziness either. It is context-specific and rarely applies out-of-context. It tends to be absolute: you either know the information or not. And finally, it requires a clear head to be effective, as anyone who tried to recall their in-laws' phone number the morning of January 1st after partying too much can attest.
Knowledge works well in stable contexts where it can stay relevant for some time.
What is wisdom
Wisdom is also a very useful thing.
If knowledge is about knowing, wisdom is about understanding. It's about the why and the how rather than the what. The what still has value, but we understand that it is context-specific and that most of the time, we will be facing a different context. Wisdom is about learning lessons and concepts and trying to apply them to whatever challenge we are facing.
Wisdom deals with stories rather than cold facts (think biblical parables, lesson-driven fables or allegories). Knowledge requires you to know; wisdom requires you to think. Wisdom benefits from experience, from mistakes, from exploration and from the variety brought by chaos.
Wisdom allows us to...
- Get by with understanding the principles rather than the specifics,
- Apply the same lessons in wildly different contexts,
- Experiment with ideas and figure out new things about them.
Wisdom shine in chaotic contexts where the content of information will shift and change quickly, but where the nature or underlying principles of it will stay relevant.
And wisdom still works when you have a terrible hangover, informing you that if you are still too messed up to recall your in-laws' Phone number, then you should probably wait a bit before calling them anyway.
Dealing with fuzziness
The challenge with a VUCA environment is that it is difficult to be sure about anything. The desire for certainty is a very human trait: from the diviners and soothsayers of old to the analysts and strategists of today. From our childhood, we've been trained to seek certainty, to know the right answer from the wrong one.
Most of our experience in this world, however, isn't rooted in certainty but ambiguity. We anguish when we can't perceive what the right solution or the right path is, but most of the time there isn't any right path. There are just paths.
Our addiction to certainty is so high that we are willing to accept the illusion of certainty as reality. We tend to plan our lives years in advance. We believe that working for an established company is safer than working for a brand new one (even though older companies are often struggling to adapt and compete, and even if both old and new companies can fire you due to a « business decision »). We elect politicians on promises that we know for a fact to be lies.
Still don't believe me? Just look at how most businesses are managed: we predict timelines for projects months or years in advance, even if we know that context will change multiple times before the project is completed, we ask people to provide accurate financial predictions, and we hold them accountable for any discrepancies stemming from a change of priority or context. Basically, we bet the livelihood of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people on guesswork. We could run those same companies using tarot decks, and the results would not be that much different.
I'm not making fun of anyone here. The world is a complex, unpredictable, and chaotic place. We just don't have all the right information to make accurate predictions simply because most information we have is partial, outdated and unreliable, and the information we need would require the ability to predict the future accurately.
What we need is to become comfortable with fuzziness rather than certainty. It is possible to have a good enough idea of what's coming based on current information. This is often a « good enough » situation, if and only if we accept that this is a guess and that we need to revise that guess continually.
While knowledge is clear and precise, wisdom is all about fuzzy-thinking. By paying attention to underlying principles, we are better equipped to deal with the unknown as we will always have at least some points of reference and probably a few lessons that can apply to the circumstances. It's not going to be as clear-cut as applying knowledge, but not only close enough is still better than nothing, but the way we decide to react to the unknown will need to change and evolve quickly. Wisdom allows us to cut the crap and accept in our hearts that's what we need to do.
In a certifiably uncertain and chaotic world, certainty is a sucker's game. Let's admit that and ready ourselves to deal with uncertainty proactively rather than reactively.
We can't ignore or change that the world is becoming ever more chaotic. It goes with the multiplication of people, connections, interactions, and the removal of barriers such as distance and language. As the world becomes ever more complex, our capacity to predict the future erodes all the faster.
If we cannot stop the trend toward complexity and chaos, we need a strategy so we can survive or, even better, thrive in such an environment. We need to become chaos-resilient.
System theory teaches us that there are three types of systems.
Fragile systems are quite efficient at doing one thing very well but tend to break easily when submitted with an unexpected type of stress. Think of the marvel of engineering that is a modern Formula 1 race car, how well it can perform on a race track and how quickly it will break if used off-road.
Resistant systems are tough, and can go through a large amount of stress without change. A tank or a tractor comes to mind.
Resilient systems will be damaged by stressful events, but are good at bouncing back from stress. A lot of natural ecosystems are like that and can recover from a lot of stress.
Nassim Nicolas Taleb adds an additional one, Antifragile systems, a variant of resilient systems that not only bounce back but actually improve from a moderate amount of stress. How the human body gets stronger with exercise is a prime example.
Dealing in certainty and sticking with knowledge makes us like fragile systems: we are optimized to know all the answers as long as our environment is stable and controlled. But that doesn't describe the world we live in, does it?
Trying to become resistant means we need to reinforce and secure our positions and assets. But since we cannot enhance everything, it requires us to choose what we try to make more resistant. By making those choices early, we eliminate options that we might need at a later time. It requires us to predict the future, which is beyond our abilities.
Resilience and antifragility are the only paths to become chaos-resilient. The former strategy allows us to weather chaotic events and recuperate quickly. The later strategy allows us to see chaotic events not as adversarial challenges, but as opportunities we can use to thrive.
Since there are no clear, specific ways to face chaos, let alone profit from it, knowledge can be of limited use for us. Wisdom, however, with its integrated fuzzy-thinking and the acceptance that we can't have straight answers for everything, is invaluable to face a VUCA world.
A lopsided strategy
Ok, so wisdom is awesome and knowledge sucks? Not quite.
Rote knowledge serves its purpose: to give us immediately consumable information that we can apply quickly with certainty. Wisdom allows us to face uncertainty and forces us to question and revise our knowledge continually.
Scientists are an excellent example of people who uses both knowledge and wisdom. But they do so in a lopsided fashion: they hoard a lot of knowledge, yes, but the priority is set of understanding that this knowledge is imperfect and requires constant revision, exploration, and questioning. In essence, they use knowledge to work but rely on wisdom more to keep themselves and their work relevant.
This lopsided strategy favoring wisdom but still routinely using knowledge when appropriate is probably the best way to face our VUCA world, stay relevant, and aim toward becoming resilient or antifragile so we can thrive in an increasingly chaotic world.