It’s weird to talk about wisdom at work. Wisdom is a word like “love” or “honor” or “courage” that doesn’t seem to belong to work culture, but instead to novels and maybe the military or religion. Not work. Yet over the past months I’ve been wrestling with how to define and describe those intangible attributes that make someone really good at their work, and I can’t find a better word to encompass all that than wisdom.

Wisdom isn’t the same as smarts. Intelligence and knowledge are necessary but not sufficient to good work. I saw that in action years ago on a technical assistance trip to help run a project design workshop. We had all the stakeholders there, the local government people and the NGO people and the hospital administration people. We also had a couple of folks from a US-based consulting firm who were to gather information and make some recommendations about the program. They were young and sharp and had been to the best schools. In their few years of flying around the world they had seen a lot and done a lot, and they exuded a confidence and world-weariness beyond their years. After the workshop they sent around a mammoth slide deck, slick and dense, that was full of information but empty of wisdom. It accurately presented the data and the analysis, but had no insight, no ability to comprehend the story beneath the data and suggest ideas in ways people hadn’t yet understood them. Their analysis was correct, but it wasn’t right.

So. Those folks weren’t yet wise. But what exactly do I mean by wisdom? What does it look like, and how do we get it? That’s the hard part, isn’t it? There is no line in our performance appraisal documents for wisdom, no continuing education course titled “5 Easy Steps to Wisdom”, nothing to buy on eBay that will fill our heads with wisdom. Yet what wisdom we do possess whispers like a little voice in our head. It tells us:

When to speak, and when to be silent.

When to come in, and when to go out.

When to push, and when to let things come to you.

When to do, and when to let others do instead.

When to ask, and when to tell.

When to argue, and when to hold your peace.

If I am right, and if wisdom is important at work, then we should seek it and to teach it at work. The problem is that generally wisdom comes from experience, from making mistakes and learning from them. That is having the work itself, and time, act as the teacher, rather than having supervisors or professors act as teachers. I think there is another way to gain some elements of wisdom, though, and that is by watching carefully the people we admire. Those people may have no ability to tell us how and why they are wise, but we can model ourselves on them. It’s a sort of fake-it-till-you-make-it wisdom.

My mom gave me two standard pieces of advice when I set out into the work world: dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and never leave the office right on the dot of five. It was good advice for me at the time, although now I don’t think about my clothes much and I leave on the dot of three to get my kid off the bus. Sorry, Mom! But at the time it was a short-cut way to say: find someone you admire, watch them closely, and do what they do. Clothes and work hours have little to do with wisdom (though they have a lot to do with work culture, a topic for another day) so I would give different advice today:

Find a person at work who is good at what they do, who you see regularly in meetings and in the halls.

Notice their silences, their questions, their body language, their word choice in emails.

Listen to their tone of voice when they speak to those with power over them, and over whom they have power.

Ask them why they made a decision or did something a certain way, and how they knew what was right.

Act like the wise person you admire, like an actor playing a part. Fake it till you make it.

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