2022: How We Can Become Wiser and More Compassionate

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

It’s interesting how, as winter break approaches and the holidays begin, we often feel an urge to become reflective and philosophical and perhaps dispense some sage advice.

I suspect it’s even more common as we mature. We naturally begin to believe that our long experience gives our hard-won insights and opinions more weight and value. It’s natural to believe that they do – but it’s mostly an illusion.

“If you think you are wise, think again.” That was the beginning of a recent “Book Bite” – a podcast and short text summary spinning off five big ideas found in Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good by Dilip Jeste.

Dr. Jeste is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at UC-San Diego, and director of the university’s Center for Healthy Aging. He is a neuropsychiatrist specializing in geriatric issues, and previously served as president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Here are five wise things he has to tell us.

Big Idea One: If you think you are wise, think again

We are deceiving ourselves if we think maturation alone makes us truly wise, according to Jeste. Before you despair, however, we’re told that we can become wiser when we accept Socrates’ advice that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know very little.” Perhaps the word metacognition is lighting up in your mind. I know it did in mine!

Traits that lead to greater wisdom include: self-reflection, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion, and balancing the acceptance of a diversity of perspectives with being decisive when we need to be.

According to Dr. Jeste, realizing your own limitations is the first step to increasing your wisdom. Once we do that, we can learn “from almost any person” we meet and “every situation” we find ourselves in. If you’ve been involved with our Instructional Partners work and the research of Dr. Jim Knight, you’ll be making some connections here.

Big Idea Two: Understand yourself better

One problem with realizing our own limitations is that humans aren’t very good at surfacing our weaknesses, even though we can see the weakness in others. To overcome that challenge, Jeste recommends setting aside regular time for quiet and honest reflection.

Perhaps you might begin by reviewing the day and surfacing what upset you or a possible misstep you took. Then you might ponder what you might have done differently or what you would do differently in the future. Seeking honest feedback from a trusted friend can also help you better understand your strengths and those areas in need of attention.

We all do some of this, but the key is to do it with intention and focus, perhaps several times a week.

Big Idea Three: Don’t judge a decision too soon

Jeste begins sharing this idea by referring to a quote from Mark Twain: “Good decisions come from experience and experience comes from making bad decisions.”

In fact, Dr. Jeste believes that no decision is purely good or bad. And “mostly” bad decisions often help you make better ones in the future. He reminds us that more often than not, the long-term outcomes of a decision are more important than immediate results.

Big Idea Four: Spend time with people who are different

Now more than ever, we need to seek out people with different viewpoints, taking the stance of honest curiosity.

Jeste suggests that to expand our mental and emotional horizons, it is critical to “work and play” with people who are different: younger, older, hold different perspectives, etc.

In addition to being truly curious, try putting yourself in their shoes and seek to understand their perspective. Rather than challenging their views or trying to convert them, just try to understand the rationale behind their thinking. In the long run, gaining insight may be more valuable than giving insight.

Big Idea Five: Put on your mask first

Using the tried and true example of flight attendant’s admonition to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others, Jeste underscores the importance of self-care. Empathy and compassion are the most powerful drivers of wisdom, so be kind to yourself and pay attention to self-care if you want to help others.

Becoming wiser by listening

I’m particularly struck by Big Idea Four. In several personal-growth books I’ve read (and shared here at the ABPC Blog) recently, wise individuals – from social psychologists and science writers to accomplished coaches and effective leaders – have urged us to “spend time with people who are different.” This might be a difference in occupation or in life experiences, in age, political beliefs, or culture and background. These encounters may provide the dissonance – the little shocks to our world view – that can make us wiser.

We likely will not be having all the Peace on Earth we might wish for this December. But chances are you’ll have the opportunity for some quiet time to reflect – and perhaps an opportunity to become wiser by listening for ideas that could lead to more peaceful and caring schools and communities and to a nation more ready and willing to embrace goodwill.

Happy holidays!