Wisdom vs cleverness

Compassion X

Stuart Pickles

28 October 2015

When celebrities are asked in magazine questionnaires “Who would you invite to your perfect dinner?”, none of them could possibly improve on the people I had the privilege to join in Chengdu last week.

This Leaders’ Quest dinner event included an inspiring speech by Jayma Pau (an LQ Partner), which posed the question: "what is the difference between wisdom and cleverness?" Our table erupted into a deep and compelling hour-long exploration. There were many valuable insights and perspectives. I’d like to share a few that stood out for me.

"So, Peter," asked Jons (a Dutch professor from the Chengdu University of Technology), in that wonderfully warm and direct way the Dutch have, "what IS the difference between cleverness and wisdom?"


Peter, who runs an NGO in Lagos called Health Matters – which focuses on improving the health of young Nigerians – gave this some careful thought and then responded. "For me”, he said, “wisdom is really just about two things. It's about seeing the bigger picture, standing back from your own situation and worries, bridging across the barriers that separate people, making sense of the whole system and shaping a holistic view of the world. And it's about selflessness. We all have to take care of ourselves, but how much energy are we devoting to that and how much to the care of others? Wisdom is the realisation that care for others is where true happiness lies – both for ourselves and for everyone who needs our help.”

The table went quiet as everyone absorbed this wisdom ... and then a response came from the very quietly spoken, but assertive, Helen, a programme manager at Chengdu-based NGO Hands On, which mobilises thousands of volunteers to help develop health and education institutions. She offered a wonderfully simple metaphor: “I see wisdom in the eyes of the market stall holders who trade their natural produce, their eyes conveying warm and joyful happiness, self-esteem and self-belief. I see cleverness in the eyes of the office workers on the train in the morning, their eyes darting in a mixture of fear, distrust and discontentment.”

Then Laopan, the courageous, articulate and compelling founder of Workface – an organisation that brings together thousands of entrepreneurs to provide mutual help and support – gave another powerfully simple view. "I learn wisdom mostly from children – because they understand love at the purest level."

There were many other nuggets. For example: "Wisdom is listening first, and treating people in a humble way". Laopan explained that, in Buddhist philosophy, there is the notion of the ‘big vehicle’ (the outer world) and the ‘small vehicle’ (our inner world). “Wisdom is understanding that everything that we can influence in the outer world comes from our inner world."

And finally, I’d like to share my favourite: "Stupid and slow can be the greatest wisdom!"