“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Navigating the Spectrum of Intelligence and Wisdom
There is much to be said for those with raw intelligence and the ability to deftly learn and synthesize information. Some are better at it than others, but the world is filled with smart people in every arena of life. Sometimes, however, wisdom is overlooked.
Wisdom is the culmination of experience. As one moves through life, one encounters situations and responds to them based on what was previously studied. Initially, one learns through what is taught, either through the various tangible teaching mediums, like books, lectures, and digital content, or through more experiential means. Each initial educational path will have a steep learning curve as one assimilates information. However, as the journey progresses, something more than information can be incorporated into one’s understanding, and an evolution can take place.
Shaping Wisdom Beyond Textbooks
Information is nothing without context and understanding. We all “Google” information online, but the information may not truly mean anything because it may be inaccurate or just unable to be applied properly. I may be able to watch videos or read about taking care of pets, but I may not fully understand the process of caring for animals if I don’t have one or interact with them myself. Yet, someone who is less well-read on the topic may be supremely more skilled and knowledgeable about animals because they’ve spent years personally caring for multiple pets at home.
With years of experience in an area, one can gain a higher level of appreciation for what is written and not written in a book. There is greater integration of information, and it becomes more contextual. If one pays close attention, one can begin to visualize the nuances that most people can’t see. I liken this to the imagery of the 1999 movie, The Matrix, and its subsequent sequels. In this futuristic movie, a computer-generated artificial world, called the matrix, is created to pacify mankind as they are literally plugged into a computer system as machines have conquered the world. Most people just see the world as it is displayed to them by the computer as their reality. However, there are a few that understand it as a computer-generated reality. And, there are still fewer who see it as just a display of ones and zeros on a computer screen, knowing that it is not real and can manipulate the computer program itself. It seems to be an allegory for wisdom in the vein of looking, but not truly seeing.
Journey into Insight
I gained some insight into the concept of wisdom during my fellowship training in pediatric critical care. It is exemplified as a reflection on a specific experience that I encountered in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit (CTICU). A seasoned attending physician was covering the CTICU while I was the rotating trainee that week. An infant who underwent complex cardiac surgery to palliate one of the most severe cardiac lesions, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, was recovering after the surgery. The infant seemed to be progressing well and had been weaned off cardiac medication support and extubated (removal of the endotracheal tube used while mechanical ventilator support was being administered). It seemed like things were improving for the patient. Nevertheless, as we were checking on all the patients in the CTICU one afternoon, my mentor looked at the patient and told me to intubate the infant (putting the endotracheal tube back into the trachea to start mechanical ventilator support again).
I didn’t question his assessment or medical decision-making, but I was skeptical because I didn’t see anything severely wrong with the infant’s clinical condition at the time and it was a step backward in the infant’s progress. Despite my skepticism, I did intubate the patient and started the infant back on mechanical ventilator support. I was on-call in the hospital that night in the CTICU and the infant’s health took a turn for the worse. A few hours into my evening, that very infant became more ill and required medications to support the cardiac function, as well as being given intravenous fluid boluses to bolster the blood pressure. If we had not intubated the infant earlier in the day, the patient would have suffered a sudden, significant deterioration that would have resulted in emergent intubation and possibly cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
How did my mentor know what was going to happen? What did he see that I didn’t at that time? He anticipated the infant’s turn for the worse and it all boiled down to wisdom. I knew a lot of medical information and was learning a tremendous amount during my fellowship training. However, I had not witnessed certain things to identify subtle changes in patients’ clinical conditions that should set off the alarms of concern. I knew the information in the books, but I didn’t have the real-life, on-the-job experience that was needed to catch the subtleties that my mentor had. I was learning, but I didn’t have the extended vision or understanding that my mentor had attained.
Realization and Deeper Understanding
So, sometimes, wisdom is overlooked. We think that we know everything, as we’ve assimilated a vast amount of information. Nevertheless, we may not have had the opportunity to use that information to see how it applies or doesn’t apply to different scenarios. Wisdom is the result of us learning to properly apply information that we’ve absorbed and progress to a deeper understanding of that information if we have paid close attention to the lessons along the way. While raw intelligence and the ability to acquire information are undeniably valuable, the intricate interplay between information and experience, where wisdom stands at the pinnacle, transcends the limits of mere knowledge and leads to a path of deeper, more comprehensive understanding.
Can you relate to the idea that sometimes wisdom is overlooked in favor of intelligence?