Learning Wisdom At The School of Hard Knocks

We believe that life experience confers wisdom.  Several of the most successful sales executives I know have told me that the most important thing they look for when interviewing job candidates is someone who has experienced a devastating blow…and recovered from it.

What’s less clear is why this experience confers wisdom.  Is it the result of a greater knowledge of how the world works?  Does it come from stronger willpower?  More applicable skills?

As it turns out, science believes it knows the answer:

“Research has located the roots of wisdom as early as adolescence or early adulthood… wisdom often grew out of an exposure to adversity early in life. Many participants in the Berlin Aging Study who rated high on wisdom testing, according to coauthor Jacqui Smith, had lived through some of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous events as children and young adults.

Some theorists argue, however, that natural selection might care about cultivating a neural mechanism that could modulate and, in a sense, master the emotional experience of risk. Whether that mastery is partly acquired early in life, as the stress-inoculation research suggests, or later in life, as research by Carol Ryff and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin has found, the end result is an enhanced form of emotional regulation that would clearly confer adaptive power on anyone who possesses it.”

Exposure to adversity helps people develop their skills of emotional regulation.  Having overcome great obstacles, the wise can approach new challenges in a calm and productive emotional state, with confidence in their ability to handle whatever comes up.

What’s interesting to me is that emotional regulation isn’t emotional suppression.  Emotions are a powerful component of our decision-making process.  Studies have shown that subjects who lose the ability to feel emotions (either partially or wholly) don’t become Spock-like geniuses, but rather struggle mightily to make any decisions.

As with many things, there is an optimal level of moderate emotion (enough to provide feedback on potential options, not enough to disrupt the thought processes or induce panic) that acts as a mark of wisdom.

As you evaluate employees, investors, or even co-founders for your startup, you should probably assess their wisdom as well as their degrees, past companies, and technical skills.

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