One early morning in 1983, Lieutenant Petrov carefully watched the computer screen in front of him in a secret command center outside of Moscow. Alarms sounded, signaling missiles had been launched from the United States.
Rather than immediately alerting his superiors who would, in turn, aim and fire a nuclear bomb in the direction of the US, he paused. For five minutes, he waited, assessing the situation. He decided the blips were probably a false alarm and elected not to report the incident as a threat from the US, instead filing a report that the system had malfunctioned.
It turns out the blips were sun rays, abnormalities in weather that the computer misread. His superiors were upset with him for not following protocol and his decision drastically impacted his career, causing him to get passed up for promotions and eventually leading him to retire early.
Years later, he was heralded a hero, a man who prevented a nuclear war because he paused rather than reacted.
The pause was a reflection of something Dilip Jeste attributes to wisdom, which Jeste defines as, “a product, not only of age and experience, but also of distinct behaviors and traits, all associated with discrete but connected regions of the brain.”
The book, “Wiser: The scientific roots of wisdom, compassion, and what makes us good,” lays out wisdom as a trait that encompasses intelligence, warm-heartedness, and compassion. It’s a sophistication, an acquisition of knowledge amassed from lessons learned in business or academics, lessons learned from the environment, and lessons learned from people. It’s the ability to be open-minded, to listen and self-reflect.
Jeste is a neuropsychiatrist who became interested in the science of wisdom while working with middle-aged individuals with schizophrenia. The general assumption among psychiatrists was that living a long life with schizophrenia meant a certain decline into dementia due to the nature of the disease.
Data collection revealed that wasn’t what happened. Instead, many of these older, mentally ill individuals functioned better. They had learned hard lessons about the importance of taking their medications, the detrimental costs associated with illegal drugs, and how to successfully live without hospitalizations. “…Many seemed to have become, dare I say, wiser about how to manage their disease,” Jeste writes.
I have read it argued that wisdom is also what allows older athletes to thrive. In the book, “Play On: The new science of elite performance at any age,” author Jeff Bercovici explores the success of athletes who are continuing to win championships and compete, despite their “advanced” age (advanced in the sport world is anyone over the age of 30).
What many of the athletes Bercovici feature have in common is a work ethic that focuses on working smarter rather than harder. Instead of making every practice focused on “going hard or going home,” athletes like Tom Brady, Sarena Williams, and Carli Lloyd focus on quality practice sessions, self-reflection, and creating a lifestyle that supports balance and recovery. Bercovici writes on victory, “…so much more often, it comes down to keeping the body healthy enough to unleash the more important advantages of the mind: experience, discipline, tactical nous, emotional stability.”
My field of fitness, strength and conditioning, and movement are a young person’s industry. Not only is the research on exercise performed largely on college aged individuals and/or athletes which influences results and data (if you only study one type of person, you are going to get one type of results), but social media drives a specific image associated with the fitness industry, one that favors youth and impressive physical feats. This leaves anyone beginning a fitness program who is over the age of 40 feeling like they need to get in shape before they go to the gym so that they “look” the part. It also equates the ability to teach a movement well for a range of abilities with the ability to perform a movement well, an assumption that isn’t always accurate.
While there are definite physiological changes that occur as we get older that make us less fast, less strong, and potentially less creative, there are benefits to the aging process as well. If you have spent a lifetime moving and you are continuing to find ways to perform more advanced movement skills, you learn how to be more coordinated and efficient. This brings a different quality to movement—rather than pure strength and flexibility, there becomes an innate body intelligence that enables movement complexity.
The ability to think abstractly, identify patterns, and solve problems rapidly also improves—the connections your brain has acquired after a lifetime of experience isn’t something that can be taught, though as you will see in a moment, it can be strengthened with the right tools.
These strengths translate into the ability to teach in a much more robust way. There is a passion in the young teacher, a desire to share and ignite change. But the ability to communicate complex topics in a relatable way is a gift I have only witnessed with more experienced teachers. It’s a form of communicating driven by practice and self-reflection.
Though the research on wisdom isn’t exactly substantial, there are some common themes that suggest a more direct pathway to becoming wise. Self reflection is a key component, and if you look at the research on learning, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. As author James M. Lang writes in the book, “Small Teaching,” “…we remember what we spend a little time thinking about.” When was the last time you made an error at work and reflected on it, pondering what you could have done differently? Did thinking about it give you greater insight to how you could do things differently next time?
One of the reasons I have many, many different ways to teach similar concepts is because whenever I perceive something I am teaching isn’t going well, I think about it later. It becomes what my brain ruminates over while I run, a source of (slightly) obsessive inquiry until I have the chance to approach the problem again in a different way. I do the same thing after lectures and workshops—what went well? What could have gone better? What do I need to change?
Other ways to cultivate wisdom include mindfulness and practicing gratitude. Lieutenant Petrov’s pause before making a decision was an act of mindfulness. one that comes from learning the value of observing before doing. Professional athletes who practice mindfulness have the ability to take in huge amounts of information, filter out what’s unimportant, and focus on what is.
Steph Curry is a professional basketball who uses brain training to maintain his status as one of the best shooters in NBA history. When he began playing in the NBA, he was considered physically on the smaller side for the league. His coach and trainer quickly realized his strength was in his ability to process information, so they capitalized on that with training that emphasized task-specific attention and rapid intake of information.* He compliments the attention training with sensory deprivation in float tanks, giving the parts of his brain associated with focus an opportunity to shut off—a decision that comes from experience and enhances recovery.
Though Curry’s training program doesn’t look like traditional mindfulness exercises, the sheer amount of focus required to perform the drills he practices employs the executive control network in the brain, a network that engages with externally-directed tasks that require attention, the integration of sensory and memory information, and behavior regulation.
The ability to readily access the executive control network (or central executive network, depending on which paper you’re reading) can be improved through mindfulness techniques like meditation or brain specific exercises, like the ones Curry uses. Mindfulness can look many different ways, but the benefits extend beyond achieving a Zen-like quality. Practicing mindfulness develops neural efficiency, allowing connections between the executive control network and other neural networks. This fluidity between networks leads to better emotional regulation and cognitive function in older adults, as well as high amounts of creativity.
One of the final ways to strengthen wisdom is through remaining open to new experiences. Maintaining a sense of curiosity about people, ideas, skills, places, and life in general is something that can be challenging. Listening to the opposing viewpoint, hearing people’s stories rather than focusing on your own, and continuing to learn require a different type of effort, one that involves accepting your own ideas and the knowledge you have acquired is one lens through which to view the world, but it isn’t the only lens.
People are in a rush to acquire all of the knowledge, as quickly as possible. I watch as people go from training to training, attempting to absorb all of the information, or become internet experts on a subject in twenty minutes. But the thing that is missing is they rarely take the time to sit with the knowledge, play with it, and embody it. While lifelong learning is an important pursuit, so is pausing, reflecting, and connecting new knowledge to previous knowledge. Taking the time to gain a deeper understanding of newly learned information not only makes it easier to actually apply it, it creates space for a wider breadth of connections. Staying open minded and cultivating wisdom isn’t about the amount you know; it’s about the ability to connect, quickly recognize patterns, reflect, and re-route when things aren’t working. There is value in stepping back, assessing from a non-judgmental place, and accepting when the path you have chosen isn’t, perhaps, the best path for this moment in time.
If you are interested in the science behind wisdom, the book, “Wiser: The scientific roots of wisdom, compassion, and what makes us good,” is a thought provoking read.