July 13, 2023

Digesting Knowledge: Growing Wisdom through Experience.


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We can be filled with knowledge, and this can help us to grow in many ways in life.

It will carry us through school and take many people far in their careers.

However, if we want to truly succeed in life, it’s important to develop wisdom as well as knowledge.

There is an important difference between knowledge and wisdom, even though both are important in life. Knowledge becomes wisdom when it’s combined with firsthand experience.

“Wisdom is not wisdom when it is derived from books alone.” ~ Horace

To use an analogy, we could look at food as knowledge, digestion as experience, and our body’s cells as wisdom. It’s vital to feed our body with food in order to grow new cells, but there is an alchemical process that converts that food through digestion into our living cells.

It seems as if there is an infinite amount of knowledge we can learn, picking it up from books, classes, documentaries, and other various forms of media. As I sit writing this, I am at a bookstore surrounded by information—more than I could hope to learn in a lifetime.

While it would be wonderful to download all of this information directly into my brain like in “The Matrix,” it wouldn’t make me any wiser.

In the same way that we can continue to eat food beyond the point of satiating our hunger, we can overconsume knowledge without giving it enough time to digest into something more meaningful.

Food, when properly digested, becomes a part of ourselves. It makes up our bodies in a literal way. But if we overconsume it, then we’re likely to discard the excess without allowing it to assimilate into us.

We can also endlessly consume knowledge, and then it almost seems like we hit a limit and then we start to forget the things we had previously learned. Have you ever studied for a test by cramming the night before, only to forget just about everything three days (or less) later?

This binge learning is analogous to binge eating, in that we overdo it and our bodies cannot handle it anymore. However, when given the proper time, both food and knowledge can become a part of us.

Knowledge becomes embodied when it becomes wisdom. And when given the proper time and effort, we can help facilitate this process.

What does this look like as real-world examples?

It’s combining “street smarts” with “book smarts.”

I’m sure most of us know people that are full of knowledge, and yet have no common sense. If you’re reading this, you’re more likely to know these types I’m guessing (You nerd! Speaking from experience here).

These types of people are the white-collar “nerdy professors” who might be able to recite every definition from the dictionary word-for-word, and yet forget to tie their shoes in the morning.

There are also people who don’t need to ever pick up a book and may have never even graduated high school, and yet they’re perfectly capable people in the world. They tend to know how to get by but may not be able to articulate what they know or how they know it.

Not to overgeneralize, but these are usually more blue-collared people. Think of someone who could go into the woods and survive with only a knife and their wits. They could also survive in a “concrete jungle” as well.

However, when someone has both the knowledge to understand on an intellectual level how the bits and pieces of something fit together, but also has the lived wisdom, they are much more likely to make good decisions and offer great advice.

These people are more rare since it requires a combination of both types of intelligence. But we all have this to greater and lesser degrees. There isn’t a person on the planet without both.

Those who realize this though, and make a deliberate effort to cultivate both knowledge and wisdom, are the fortunate ones, regardless of how much of either quality they may possess. And the great news is that anyone can adopt this growth mindset!

Why would we even care about any of this?

Well, for one thing, it’s much more difficult to forget wisdom that’s been transformed from knowledge.

Have you ever been told something as a kid like, “Don’t touch the stove. It’s hot,” only to then touch the stove later on anyway? If you burned yourself and had the firsthand experience of touching the stove, it’s unlikely you’d ever need anyone to ever tell you not to touch a hot stove (or anything else hot for that matter).

This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom:

Knowledge is being told “Don’t touch the stove,” while wisdom is getting burned and remembering the burn from the heat.

Sometimes it takes a bit of reflection on events to gather the wisdom that we may have missed in the moment. Often it takes people at least three times of seeing or hearing something before they remember, so don’t get down on yourself if you don’t get it the first time.

All it takes is the decision to learn, while also trying to apply it to your life whenever given the chance. It won’t take a deliberate effort to apply this into your life.

We will automatically be given opportunities (whether we want them or not!).

It’s said that life gives us the test first, and the lesson afterward. The key is to stay alert when these opportunities occur. Yes, they are “opportunities,” even if they don’t always feel that way.

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” ~ Unknown

Trying to force knowledge to become wisdom is like trying to speed up our digestive system. It’s an automatic process that we really don’t have much control over. The best we can usually do is just get out of the way.

For myself, I’ve noticed if I’m trying to digest food deliberately, it usually just takes even longer because I stress myself out. When I relax and just let my digestion do its own thing, it happens perfectly (lying down generally helps me).

We can also cause this same stress and struggle when trying to apply knowledge into our lives, and it takes a level of trust to believe the process will happen of its own accord. It’s important to realize that we can’t do this metaphorically lying down though, because we will need to go out into the world and interact in order to experience something so that the knowledge “clicks.”

Ironically, as I’m writing this in the bookstore, I’m literally sitting right between the Psychology and Health sections. Hopefully the irony isn’t lost here.

Gaining wisdom is one of the healthiest things we can do for our psychology, and it will more than pay for the time invested in our lives. So I encourage you to go now: learn and live!


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