Intelligence and wisdom: not the same thing

I have grown up around smart people. You know – the kind of people that can pick and choose what to do with their lives, because they’re so talented. I’m here to tell you: some smart people are wise, some aren’t. I’m saying this because of someone’s comment on Facebook. I had put up a Bill Gates quote:

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.

Jiddu Krishnamurti too felt that intelligence was another word for wisdom. But with intelligence tests all around – the simplest definition of intelligence is the cynical one: intelligence is that which an intelligence test measures.

Of course these days there all kinds of intelligence tested. There’s emotional intelligence, verbal linguistic intelligence, intra-personal intelligence etc. Generally I think it’s reasonable to call a person smart if they score well on several of these tests. Still, wisdom is something else.

Despite all these things I think our culture tends to reward people who have academic intelligence. The kind that is tested by grading papers and math tests. And we tend to think that such intelligence must make one wise. Of course when we think about it, we don’t think that. The proverbial geek is the smart guy in sweats who doesn’t know how to behave around girls. But we still tend to assume that geek will be successful, not get into debt etc. If only that were true.

Like intelligence there are all kinds of wisdom. There’s the wisdom of making right decisions. there’s the wisdom of seeing the follies of people before they become common knowledge (you know – knowing when to sell stock, before they loose half their value on the stock market). And there’s the wisdom to know that however successful you are, you may still make mistakes. There’s the wisdom of knowing how little compliments mean when you’re already successful. There’s the wisdom of knowing your limitations.

I’m telling you all: any of these kinds of wisdom may be possessed by people who get good grades – but if there’s a correlation it’s a weak one. In other words: I know very few people who possess them all – and as I said, I know plenty of talented people.

I’ve often hoped that if I ever become famous, I will still have people around me that will tell me straight when I’m being a fool. I’ll probably not thank them for it, but I know I will need to hear. And I hope I’m wise enough not to send them packing. Because right now I’m not successful enough to forget how easy failure is – and while I do hope to become more successful, I hope to never forget.

I had planned a post about religious psychology or Zen (or both), but this rant just leapt out of my pen.

7 thoughts on “Intelligence and wisdom: not the same thing”

  1. Hi Katinka,
    I know many people who are hyper intelligent, yet lack wisdom. Intelligence can be put to all sorts of means, not necessarily positive. The best example is defense lawyers, sometimes the Devil’s advocate can be the smartest person in the room, though it doesn’t make their position any less wrong.

    Similarly, you hear of people that are wise, yet intellectually quite simple. I guess I define intelligence as the power of one’s intellect, regardless of how it is directed. Wisdom, is the the ability to discern and act out of truth, regardless of how deeply it is understood intellectually.

    God Bless,
    Hari Om,

  2. I believe intelligence to be a physical attribute (of the body, brain, our animal side, whatever you call it) while wisdom is a more metaphysical property of the spirit. Sometimes they don’t go along together, sometimes they do.

  3. Intelligence and wisdom are two words that people struggle with a lot.
    Better to drop them completely as they promote a judgment call on a fellow human being that blurrs the joy of personal interaction .
    We are a diverse race of animals and are unique individuals . Celebrate this state .
    Laugh at the autumn leaves as they fall on the path of life and embrace the human experience

  4. My friend is in Mensa. She can’t hold down a job and she routinely forgets to lock her door at night. I agree that intelligence is different from wisdom or even common sense. I think it’s also a good move to want to surround yourself with people who will tell you when you’re “being a fool.” I think it’s tempting to take a higher step up the career/social/spiritual ladder and triumphantly announce, “I’m done! I get it!’ I think we’re better off listening to Charlie Brown: “The more I learn, the more I learn how much more I have to learn!” Great post, thanks!

  5. Hi Katinka,

    I feel that wisdom can only be acquired by putting your intelligence, or store of knowledge to work.

    There are plenty of knowledgable people who aren’t wise. I liken the comparison between the wise and the knowledgable to that of being street smart vs book smart.

    A street smart person puts whatever knowledge which they have acquired into use. They move into action, picking up wisdom and more knowledge along the way. Someone who is book smart is knowledgable, but unless they learn how to use it effectively, it won’t do them much good.

    It all comes down to: How are you using your intelligence?

    Thanks for sharing your insight 🙂


  6. Lori: I’m not sure I buy that separation of spirit and matter. Somehow wisdom gets expressed, just like somehow intelligence gets expressed in people. I’d say that in both cases the body is at the very least involved in the process.

    Neil: avoiding words that describe something real, just because people might get stigmatized does not work for me. There is an immense difference in intelligence between people. There are those who will never be able to learn any calculus and there are those who will go on to become brilliant mathematicians. And there are loads of people at some point of the scale in between. The word ‘intelligence’ describes that difference rather crudely – but it’s the only word we’ve got.

    DrDeb: I think Mensa is a unique organization. It gathers people who for some reason identify themselves with their intelligence, which is no tribute to their wisdom. But the very test to get in is suspect to my intelligence 🙂

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