Friday, May 25, 2012

A little wisdom and its consequences

data_info_knowledge_wisdomI used to have a hierarchy of definitions mounted on my cubicle wall giving the definitions of data, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.  Our systems captured data, but our challenge was to interpret it, place it into context, and to give it insightful and actionable meaning.  Wisdom (poetically, de wijsheid in Dutch, where it’s: a state of being) is the ability to bring experience, knowledge and judgment together to act correctly and effectively.

So I read with interest the article Older and Wiser in a recent Economist, examining the question of whether Age brings Wisdom.  Their conclusion, based on a study at the University of Waterloo, was that Americans get wiser as they age, while while Japanese scores were more age-independent.

Almost more interesting was the psychological definition of “wise reasoning”:

  1. Willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict,
  2. Recognition of the limit of personal knowledge,
  3. Willingness to search for compromise,
  4. Awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist, and
  5. Appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

I’m surprised that there is a definition, and pretty happy with the qualities that the boffins are proposing (“Being able to interpret  events in their proper context” would be a good addition, along with “Understanding the motivation behind people’s actions”). Passions and emotions are (purposefully) excluded.  Reflecting to my own life, I like to think that these maxims are foundational principals for interacting with the world and resolving interprersonal conflicts.

It’s been put to the test this past week.

In one instance, a stock transaction at one of my companies has become hopelessly entangled in the individual fears and greed of the participants.  This had led to a widening ripple of frustration and concern as more and more spectators get sucked into the process.

In the other, a revision of the governing agreement between founding members of another business has resulted in a change in wording that partners see as threatening and the authors believe is innocuous.  The lawyers are now involved in spinning the language.

In both cases, I’ve approached the negotiations with as much wise reasoning as I can muster.  In particular, I have tried to resolve rather than highlight conflict (usually though clarifying points of agreement and exposing the underlying issues that remain, always with recourse to facts) and appreciate the kernel of truth in both sides of the argument.

I expect acknowledgement of common ground and constructive focus on bridging gaps.

I get emotional and extreme emails: bad behavior.  What’s going wrong?

I am starting to believe that a mediator acting from “wise reasoning” paradoxically frees people to act on their worst impulses.  In part it may be because it allows them to vent passions without consequence; in part it may be to pull the compromise point in their direction.

I have met fire with ice so far, but may change to an uncompromising stand (eg: stopping the process and letting consequences fester until people come to their senses) or setting up a gladiatorial arena (eg:  let the two most strongest opponents duel it out between them).

It’s a bit discouraging, and probably reflects why the world is ruled by politicians rather than philosopher-kings.  People can trench into achieving particular goals with strong convictions, com what may.  The resulting process has little to do with wisdom, so may not be amenable to solution as though everyone is a rational actor.

Sometimes, Harvard Law holds: Under the most carefully controlled conditions, keeping all variables within specifications, the organism will do as it damn well pleases

(Webb’s Corollary, If the organism can't do as it well pleases, it will expend its energy 'stuffing up' what the controlling agent wants.)

And that remains wijze uitspraak, a piece of wisdom.

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