The Attitude of Wisdom

In The Loss of Wisdom, from Wisdom, Its Nature, Origins and Development John Meacham explores a concept called the “attitude of wisdom.” He discusses the ability to act with knowledge while simultaneously doubting that knowledge. Avoiding both overconfidence and excessive caution.

[Both extremes] dampen the curiosity we need to be adaptive in the face of uncertainty.

Excessive caution dampens curiosity because it causes people to fear experimentation, failure, and criticism. Excessive confidence, or arrogance, dampens curiosity because people “know” they are doing the right thing and see no reason to test their ideas, to try new ideas, or to ask for advice.

Rather than focusing on aspects of intelligence such as reasoning, empathy, maturity or experience, Meacham focuses on a particular attitude toward knowledge.

The essence of wisdom […] lies not in what is known but rather in the manner in which that knowledge is held and in how that knowledge is put to use. To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. Wisdom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge or information in some specialized area, or a set of special abilities or skills.

Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of things that could be known.

To put it another way, the “attitude of wisdom” means arguing as if you’re right but listening as if you’re wrong. Strong opinions, which are weakly held.

Meacham also delves into an aspect of wisdom that seems especially salient for the service design community and reminds me of Dick Buchanan’s caution in 2007 against moving too quickly to define the practice. As Meacham puts it:

One’s confidence can also be increased, and wisdom lost, through immersion in an intellectual climate that forces a too early defense of one’s views, a premature foreclosure of possible conceptual positions. Rather than being permitted to playfully entertain ambiguous or contradictory positions, we are often either forced to quickly abandon tentative notions or forced into dogmatic defense of what are likely to be still untenable positions. In the course of defending such positions, we adopt a more extreme and hardened stance, moving further from the moderation of wisdom.

Service designers seem unconcerned with formal definitions at the moment but the danger lurks just beneath the surface whenever designers evangelize to other disciplines.




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