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The psychology of extraordinariness: wisdom and perspective
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I'm reading
The psychology of extraordinariness: wisdom and perspective
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The psychology of extraordinariness: wisdom and perspective
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
3 March 2014

The psychology of extraordinariness: wisdom and perspective

Wisdom is not so much about the accumulation of knowledge over time, but rather, about perspective.

Written by Anna Box

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Each New Year brings with it the opportunity to become older and wiser, but must we wait for the years to pass in order to find wisdom?

As children we learnt of wise old owls and silver-haired philosophers or sages, all of which suggest that wisdom comes simply with the passing of time. When younger people elicit a strong sense of knowing or awareness at an early age we commonly refer to them as having “been here before,” or being “wise beyond their years.” It should come as no surprise then that people expect wisdom to simply fall upon them as time rolls on.

Contemporary research into the workings of wisdom, however, have found that wisdom is not so much about the accumulation of knowledge over time, but rather, about perspective.

In the world of positive psychology (the field of psychological science that seeks to explore human thriving and flourishing), perspective is identified as a universal character strength. Meaning some of us are better at demonstrating perspective than others, but all of us can learn more about what it is, and how to flex or strengthen it, like a muscle.

People with the strength of perspective are often sought for their advice. Their viewpoint appears broad, grounded in knowledge, reasonable, and fair. Perspective is about seeing how individual parts relate to each other, and about how they relate to the whole.

Take Maria Popova, profiled in issue 36 of Dumbo Feather, as an example.  Maria is the founder of Brain Pickings, a highly successful and addictive blog about “interestingness.” Maria describes it as “a human-powered discovery engine… a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in—until you are.”  Those of us familiar with Brain Pickings are drawn back to its pages not only for the information itself, but for the curatorial experience. Indeed, Maria’s gift is transforming complex ideas and information into accessible, bite-sized morsels that spark further curiosity and desire for knowledge.

Upon first glance, it’s reasonable to suspect that Maria’s greatest strength is her undying curiosity, her ability to get deeply absorbed in a topic and love of learning. But I suspect her greatest asset is actually her perspective. This is what aids her ability to transform information into something far more powerful and useful.

What makes Brain Pickings so enjoyable is Maria’s ability to join the dots, to spot the themes, and to shine a light on what’s most curious and interesting. And it feels effortless, subconscious even.   Like others who share her strength of wisdom, Maria thinks about big issues with broad perspective and can freely see the relationships between complex ideas and information. “It’s just how ideas work: there are existing pieces that just click together and make something new.  Nothing comes from thin air.”

Not surprisingly, wisdom plays an important role in shaping what gets shared at Brain Pickings, “There’s information, which is just noise. There’s knowledge, which is your understanding of that information.  And then, there’s wisdom, which is your ability to apply that knowledge to how you live your life.” This, in a nutshell, is about perspective. And it’s a strength well worth developing.

The good news is that we don’t need to wait for the passing of years to grace us with wisdom. To the contrary studies have largely failed to find any age-related differences of wisdom among individuals ranging from their 20s to their 90s, the implication here being that tasks designed to nurture wisdom and perspective can take place at a relatively early age.

Life experience is certainly related to wisdom, but it’s not simply about the number of years lived.  It’s about quality, not quantity, if you like. Life experience is accumulated through the living of a rich and meaningful life, through experiencing the full spectrum of human emotions. Exposure to different styles of thinking is also understood to be related to wisdom, as is the introduction of conscious perspective taking (deliberately considering the same issue from various viewpoints and perspectives).

While much has been studied about wisdom, much remains unknown. We do know that wisdom is related to open-mindedness, curiosity and critical thinking. We also know that the highly regarded ability of people like Maria Popova to join dots, find meaning, and make sense of the world; is the human strength of perspective at work. Wise beyond her years? Perhaps. But she is definitely playing to her strengths.

Anna Box

Anna Box is a psychologist, consultant and writer who mashes the art of story with the science of thriving.

Feature image by Anna Wolf

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