What is Wisdom? How Truly Wise People Act—and What You Can Do to Become More Like Them

April 27, 2022

By Mike DuBose

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of wisdom is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” When it comes to ourselves (and those around us), however, the concept of wisdom can be a bit trickier to pin down. Well-educated people are often wise, but some people who have no formal education are very wise as well. Intelligent people may be wise, but there are also plenty of very smart people who lack basic common sense, much less true wisdom! People who have gone through many different experiences may become wiser by doing so…but only if they look to find lessons within their experiences and apply them in their lives.

Is Wisdom in Decline?

True wisdom is a precious thing, and listening to the news and looking around on social media today, it’s easy to believe that wisdom is in very short supply. Some people intentionally spread lies and misinformation to further their agendas, even if what they’re saying is so blatantly wrong as to be comical, and others are happy to spread these falsehoods without taking the time to examine the statements and discern whether or not they are true (which is certainly something that a wise person would do). Indeed, Steven Pinker, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and psychology professor at Harvard University, wrote in his book Rationality, “Today’s humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding—and also appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that developed vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?”

Although it is deeply troubling that so many people these days seem unconcerned with real knowledge and understanding, plenty of wise people do exist. Although these folks may not be as loud as their foolish counterparts, they are still present in our families, groups of friends, workplaces, and churches, where they can be relied upon to thoughtfully examine ideas and give good advice based on their knowledge and experience.

The Habits, Activities, and Characteristics of Truly Wise People

When we recognize wisdom in others and seek to emulate their behaviors, we can gain wisdom ourselves. But what does real wisdom look like?

Wise people look inward, and they do so honestly. Aristotle once said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Wise people are reflective. They are able to recognize their own faults and limitations without becoming defensive, and they also extend this tolerance to others.

Wise people don’t shy away from making mistakes. The truly wise are the first to acknowledge when they have erred. They know that mistakes, failures, and difficulties are actually valuable opportunities from which they can draw more wisdom. They don’t dwell on the past, but they do utilize lessons learned from their past disappointments (and successes) to continuously improve themselves and their decision-making. Because they are not afraid of failure, they passionately strive to implement their visions, even when facing major obstacles.

Wise people “underpromise and overdeliver.” Because they are realistic about their own capabilities, wise people don’t overcommit themselves. They don’t make promises that they can’t keep.

Wise people don’t hold grudges. Just as they accept their own mistakes without shame, wise people accept others’ imperfections and failures. They look for the good in everyone, even those with whom they disagree, focusing on understanding and compassion rather than judgment.

Wise people seek to lift others up. Because of their ability to empathize, wise people are often first in line to assist those in need, especially by sharing their knowledge and experiences. They tend to look beyond their personal needs and desires to find compromises that are best for everyone. Although they don’t take joy in arguing, they will challenge the status quo if they feel that something is wrong.

Wise people think before they speak or act. Wise people tend to be calm and reserved. As recommended in James 1:19, wise people are “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Wise people are able to look at arguments rationally rather than basing their opinions on emotions. They do more listening than talking, and when they speak, others tend to listen.

Wise people know that there is always more to learn. The wise are always seeking new knowledge. They push themselves outside of their comfort zones to learn, achieve, and experience more, always believing in their potential. However, they aren’t know-it-alls…no matter how intelligent, experienced, or educated they are. They know that “The only wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” as Socrates once said!

Wise people surround themselves with those who are smarter, wiser, and more experienced than they are. The wise don’t seek to be the “big fish in the small pond;” rather, surround themselves with positive individuals who challenge them to grow. Many wise individuals also seek help from a higher power in guiding their lives, believing that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

Wise people welcome and respect thoughts and opinions different from their own. Rather than relying on friends, media outlets, and conversations that simply confirm the beliefs they already have, wise people look outside the “echo chamber.” While they may discard some opinions after careful thought and consideration, wise people are willing to entertain all fact-based, rational arguments from people with a wide variety of perspectives, regardless of political affiliation (although they avoid one-sided discussions with those who refuse to compromise). As Aristotle said, “It’s the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Wise people make choices based on facts, evidence, and experience. The wise strive to analyze all facets of a situation before coming to a timely conclusion. They base their decisions on facts rather than emotion or hearsay, and they remain open to reconsidering their stances if and when new information arises.

Wise people look to the future and plan ahead. Although they “hope for the best and plan for the worst,” wise people are strategy-driven. They craft detailed plans so that they know where they are going and how to get there.

Wise people value teamwork. Wise people recognize and appreciate the knowledge and talents of other individuals. They know that they are more likely to succeed when working as part of a talented, passionate team toward common goals.

Wise people live within their means. Plato noted, “The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” Wise people avoid debt, and they value relationships, spirituality, knowledge, and personal growth over worldly success and expensive things.

The Bottom Line: Real wisdom is a rare and precious treasure, but it is one within our reach. If we look at the habits and characteristics of wise people with the desire of learning from them and improving ourselves, we can all become wiser! As Plato once said, “Excellence is not a gift, but a skill that takes practice.”


Mike DuBose has been a staff member with USC’s graduate school since 1986, when he began his family of companies, and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for free copies of his three books and additional published business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health columns written with Surb Guram, MD. Contact Mike at [email protected]