Nine Differences between Being Wise and Smart

I recently attended a leadership conference in Miami hosted by Inc. Magazine that led me to write this blog. One of the evenings, I had the opportunity to have dinner at Avalon restaurant on Ocean Drive with two partners of a software company from New York. We talked about business, sports, life, parenting, politics, and many other debatable topics. At the end of the evening we found areas we agreed in and other areas we didn’t, which led one of the partners to say this: “I think we can all agree that I have beliefs that you can’t change my mind about and you have ones that I can’t change your mind about, either.”

My immediate response was that neither one of us are eighty-five years old and set in our own ways, with certain sets of beliefs that can’t be challenged or made stronger. I believe this is one of the differences between being wise and being smart. Although both of these gentlemen are extremely intelligent, enough to be running a multi-million dollar business, that intelligence can pose a challenge when it comes to taking our thinking to the next level. This leads us to the topic of the difference between being smart and being wise.

We constantly hear parents calling their children smart or their children’s teachers smart, but we rarely hear the word “wise.” Do you remember when you yourself were growing up which students were called smart, or that overachieving cousin you were always compared to? Do you ever wonder how far that smartness got that student or that cousin?

Being smart is linked to having the key to success. If you were smart growing up, it was almost a given that you were going to be successful. But what about the kid who lost his father when he was twelve, lived in fifteen different places growing up, had to start working at the age of thirteen to support his mother and two brothers, and still had to find a way to have a cool image in school? His GPA almost certainly took a hit due to some of those uncertain circumstances, and that perhaps caused him to not earn the label of smart. What do we do with that kid in our society? Do we throw in the towel for him and say that he has no shot in life because of his circumstances, or do we label him as a wise kid?

Let’s look at some differences between being smart and wise:

1. Can anyone be smart?

  • What would you call someone who has spent ten years studying a topic? Sports, politics, religion, health, relationships, parenting, or any other topic. How about if she reads 100 books just on that one topic and takes courses on it for years? Wouldn’t that make her smart?
  • But does that necessarily make her wise? Have you ever met anyone who knows a ton about sports but isn’t necessarily a great athlete? How about someone who has studied religion but doesn’t implement any of the doctrine taught in his religion? What would you call that? Someone who is smart but not necessarily wise possibly?

2. Logic versus emotion.

  • Smart people tend to process information in a logical way whereas wise people process the emotional, the spiritual, and the subtle side of the logic as well.

3. Speed of growth creates wisdom.

  • Mark Twain once said, “A person who has had the bull by the tail once has learned sixty to seventy times as much as a person who hasn’t.” I’ve met many smart people in my life who unfortunately pass up the opportunity to put themselves in situations where they would grow at a much faster rate. Sometimes putting ourselves in situations where we haven’t been before empowers us to grow at a rate we never have before. It’s almost as if you experience ten years in a span of six months, which leads to wisdom.

4. Does wisdom only come with age?

  • Jimmy Connors once said this about experience: “Experience is a great advantage. The problem is that when you get the experience, you’re too damned old to do anything about it.” There’s no doubt that a big part of wisdom does come with experience, but one of the most important formulas for gaining wisdom is to surround yourselves with people much wiser than yourself whom you trust to help you on your journey of gaining wisdom.

5. When to open your mouth and when not to.

  • Here’s a humorous way of explaining the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Being smart is knowing your wife’s hair style isn’t as good as her last one. Being wise is knowing enough to keep your mouth shut. Gentlemen, this can help you tremendously.
  • Another explanation could be that a smart person is aware that a tomato is a fruit but a wise person knows not to put one in a fruit salad.

6. Know-it-all versus willing to learn and grow.

  • A wise person knows that they’re not the smartest person out there, which makes them seek new information in order for them to learn and grow. We’ve all heard the saying “he’s too smart for his own good,” but I’m not sure how often you’ve heard “he’s too wise for his own good.”

7. Knowing versus doing.

  • There’s a big difference between knowing things and knowing how to use what you know. Reading a book about how to start a business is a waste if you don’t actually start a business. Reading a book about how to improve your health is a waste if you end up having a whole cheesecake by yourself that evening after finishing the book.

8. Employing knowledge versus employing judgment under pressure.

  • A good friend of mind once said that it’s easier for a wise person to gain knowledge than for a smart person to gain judgment. The obvious difference is that being smart is a process of learning while being wise is a product of experience. Age has very little to do with this. A seventeen-year-old kid who grew up in a war-stricken environment has much better judgment when it comes down to how to react during war than someone who is fifty years old with no experience in war, even if that person has read every single book on war.

9. What did Solomon ask of God?

  • Solomon in the book of Kings asked God for wisdom to be a good king. Why didn’t he ask God to make him smarter than everyone else?
  • That prompted me to see how often the word “wisdom” is mentioned in the Bible versus the word “smart.” “Wisdom” is mentioned 219 times, while the word “smart” isn’t used once. That’s right: not even once. The word “intelligent” is used four times and “intelligence” five times, but “smart” isn’t used once. Maybe the Bible is hinting for us to change what to ask for in our prayers.

The ideal plan is to work on being wise and smart. Allow your thinking to be challenged in order to get sharper. Apply what you learn in order to turn your knowledge into wisdom. If you know but do not do, you’re considered someone smart. If you learn and apply that knowledge, even though you may make mistakes, you’re working toward becoming wise. And by doing so, you will notice a difference in the way you handle people, overcome challenges, resolve issues, manage money, and increase your value in your occupation.


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