The World Needs Wisdom: Here’s How to Activate Yours
When we allow the head, heart, gut, and intuition to work together, we can embrace our inner wisdom.
By Barbara Waxman, Leadership Coach, Gerontologist, Life Stage Expert, Angel Investor
I met Judy—one of those magnetic people of gravitas and sparkle—at a recent 60th birthday celebration. For the past two decades she’s done extraordinary work for an educational non-profit, and like many who meet her, I felt inspired. Given the occasion, we talked about turning the BIG 6-0. Bubbly Judy suddenly turned serious. Judy told me she still liked her work and that nothing on the surface was wrong, but it no longer felt right either. “There’s so much need in the world; I want to feel in sync, challenged and impactful,” she shared, “but I’ve been here for 20 years, and I feel like it’s probably too late to change.” Judy was in what I call the ‘blah-zone.’
As birthday festivities carried on, I asked Judy to think of a word she associates with her upcoming 60th. She was stumped. Her sparkle lost its luster. To her, sixty conjured images of people losing their energy, purpose and place in the job market. She couldn’t identify an aspirational word to go along with this milestone.
So I shared mine: Freedom. Not ‘freedom from,’ but ‘freedom to.’ Freedom to care less about the opinions of others; freedom to help the world in ways big and small (without the wonderful but heavy anchors of caregiving holding me back); freedom to disprove ageist tropes about these years; freedom to laugh more and stress less. Judy’s sparkle returned—we left the party as Freedom Sisters.
When I met Judy at the birthday party, I’d just returned from teaching at Modern Elder Academy, co-founded by one of my favorite people, Chip Conley. I spent a week with my friend, co-founder and co-leader, Jeff Hamaoui, helping compadres, as we call them, listen deeply for messages from their inner sage. We used the arts and curation as a metaphor to guide our hearts and minds through the week’s journey towards clarity and, ultimately, to unearth the wisdom within. We took time to discern and create North Star Statements as roadmaps for our next best steps. The process is serious work, made more challenging because we’ve been programmed to believe that if we work hard and do the ‘right’ things, our lives should follow a relatively straight trajectory to success and happiness. But, as Judy discovered, even if previous life choices were the right ones at the time, the terrain can shift and we yearn for new ways to grow, explore and contribute.
The extra 30 years we’ve added to our lives translates into more hills and valleys to explore and traverse. And this requires wisdom. Leaning into your wisdom may be your richest and most satisfying adventure yet. The Harvard Review of Psychiatry recently reviewed a series of studies linking wisdom to better overall health, happiness, life satisfaction, and resilience. Insights that come with wisdom bring greater individual well-being through increased acceptance, gratitude, and calmness, which means less anxiety and depression. The brain science in this area points out that wisdom comes with age—no two ways about it. Below I outline a formula that can serve as your guide.
Wisdom = Heart + Head + Gut + Intuition
It helps to begin by defining what we mean by wisdom. Wisdom takes many forms and expressions, but a generally accepted definition is: “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Cultivating wisdom is a lot like gardening. It’s planting seeds, watering and nurturing them, allowing them to grow and then harvesting in the right way at the right time. Let me help break down the pieces you can work with.
We live fast-paced lives full of distraction, with precious little priority on soul connection. Tuning into your heart requires slowing down, paying attention, being present with your environment and with yourself. Use meditation, time in nature and solitude to quiet the ambient noise.
This story is a perfect illustration: God asked some angels where she should place the ‘secret of life so that it would be well protected and challenging to find but remain an essential part of life’s quest. One angel suggested the darkest innermost reaches of the earth. Another angel suggested the highest mountaintop. A third said the bottom of the sea—a world unto itself. A fourth, the quiet angel, spoke up: “People will eventually explore all of these places. The only place to hide the secret of life, love, and purpose is within their very hearts. They will never dream of looking there.”
The wisdom of the heart and the richness of life are intimately connected. Both are born of brokenness and authenticity that comes from the peaks and valleys of life—all that your heart celebrates and survives.
When considering wisdom of the brain, it’s helpful to distinguish between two specific kinds: fluid and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to think quickly and recall information—skills typically sharpest when younger. Crystallized intelligence refers to the accumulation of knowledge, facts, and skills acquired throughout life. As author and commentator David Brooks explains, “As young adults, you can solve problems quickly; but you know which problems are worth solving as you get older. Crystallized intelligence can be the difference between an enterprise with no memory that makes lots of rookie errors and one that has deep experience—even if the company is brand new.”
Crystallization takes time, and in our immediate gratification, youth-obsessed culture, the beauty that can only be had with time on this planet is often undervalued. Diamonds are crystallized carbon—the product of eons. Wisdom is too. We must dig deep for both. Nelson Mandela understood something about this. While imprisoned, tortured and isolated for 27 years, he honed depths few of us will ever fathom. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” he said, exemplifying a resilient mindset and wisdom like no other.
What Nelson Mandela understood was that there is a risk of losing out on what often tips the balance from good to great by over-emphasizing objective, rational thinking. When you live predominantly in your head, you forgo all vital information, wisdom if you will, that comes from your heart, guts, and intuition.
The head, your cognitive brain, offers and processes one kind of wisdom, and the body yet another. The latest research is showing that there is a scientific basis for embodied wisdom. Because the enteric nervous system (your literal gut) relies on the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters found in the central nervous system, some medical experts call it our second brain. So when your best friend tells you to “follow your gut,” or when you feel “butterflies in your stomach,” it may be wise to pay attention. You are likely getting signals from your second brain.
Hidden in the digestive system walls, the “brain in your gut” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health, and even the way you think, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins. The enteric nervous system communicates back and forth with your mind-brain, linking what you eat with how you feel and what and how you process with how you make decisions. So then, following your gut may not be just your grandma’s advice but a deep kind of wisdom.
I recently queried Facebook friends to share a time when trusting their intuition paid off. Heather, a middle school teacher, said she relies on her intuition to sense when “something is off” with her students, helping her address needs that would otherwise go unspoken. Ann, a former search consultant, uses her intuition to help her understand “what makes a person tick.” While not infallible, intuition is invaluable and typically right. It is your innermost voice – beyond logic or learned responses – steeped in the lived and embodied knowledge you have gained and inherited. And some of that only comes with age and experience. Interestingly, most responses reflected regret for times when they did not follow their intuition.
According to research, intuition is a powerful and scientifically proven factor in supporting good decision-making. A recent survey found that most top leaders turn to their experiences and feelings when making important decisions. Another study found that 81% of CEOs who exhibited high levels of intuition doubled their business within five years. However, because intuition is intangible, it can be hard to trust, and the irony is that trusting one’s intuition requires wisdom and leads to wisdom. Here’s the rub, my friends: There are forces out there, doing their damnedest to hijack your heart-head-gut-intuition power, hindering your ability to embrace wisdom. That’s why so many of us can relate to living La Vida VUCA—to being vulnerable to chaos and uncertainty rather than savoring the equanimity born of wisdom. Freedom, as our current headlines remind us, is never a given. It must be protected, cultivated, worked for, valued and celebrated. In this respect, I believe freedom and wisdom are similar. Both are intangible and often taken for granted; both can be easier to recognize when they’re lacking. Freedom, alignment, possibility, and equanimity emerge when we are rooted in wisdom. The key is to tap into the wisdom you have within yourself to cross the next threshold successfully. Freedom awaits on the other side.