Intelligence without wisdom
Today is the day of the start of Sam Bankman-Fried’s (SBF) court case. If found guilty on all charges, he can face a sentence of up to 125 years, although many experts believe this is unlikely. Usually, white collar crime never gets the full weight of the law applied to it, quite unfair, but it is what it is.
My, how life can change so suddenly. SBF went from Forbe’s under 30 billionaires to being the laughingstock of the crypto world. The former FTX CEO fell from the pinnacle of financial success to being ridiculed in the media in just a few months. Many things can be said of SBF, for one he seems to be highly intelligent, at least from an IQ perspective. Notwithstanding his IQ, SBF seems to be quite naïve and frankly silly (i.e., absent of wisdom). Did he really believe he could run one of the top crypto exchanges in the world without controls, proper accounting, non-existing risk management, and using customer funds as his own without being caught? What a silly boy!
And this poses an interesting question, what’s the difference between being wise and being intelligent? The terms of wisdom and intelligence sometimes are used interchangeably but they are not the same thing. The Oxford dictionary defines wisdom as:
The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.
Whilst intelligence is defined as:
The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.
Somewhat confusing as both definitions involve having knowledge. The only differentiator between both terms is that wisdom emphasizes “good judgment”. Leaving the Oxford dictionary aside, and when applicable, I personally rely on scripture to help me obtain a more complete understanding. According to Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; fools despise wisdom and instruction”. A better way to understand this last passage is to change “fear of the Lord” for reverence. The bible is a book of moral laws and precepts which we are to follow and believe in. Having respect for God’s word is the beginning of wisdom; moreover, it provides us with the right attitude towards secular law and ethics. Conversely you can say that people who lack wisdom don’t appreciate instruction. Does this sound like SBF, well it is not happenstance. Scientists have found an interesting characteristic of highly intelligent people in that in many cases they lack common sense. This general phenomenon is called “clever-sillies”. These individuals have high technical capabilities but evidence foolish ideas and behaviors. If there was ever a poster child for such a phenomenon, it is the former FTX CEO, SBF.
The purpose of this blog is not to delve into news but to serve as a personal self-improvement system which help us be better than average, or as I like to say, help us be great! With this guiding principle, let’s discuss how to acquire wisdom whilst avoiding being yet another “clever-silly” individual.
As we read both of the terms, intelligence and wisdom, have a common component which is gathering knowledge. My father used to say to me when I was young, learn all you can in life, be it languages, music, history and anything else that interests you as nothing will go to waste. Unfortunately, a lack of discipline and focus kept me from gathering knowledge which now would be useful as an adult, but it is never late to start learning. Moreover, knowledge acquisition is not something we do only whilst being students but ideally it should be a habit linked to our self-identity. That is, if you identify oneself as a learner, then you will always pursue knowledge. If you consider yourself as a learner, then your habits will reflect your identity. Habits are reinforced with discipline and should be continuous and second nature to you. Habits are not the same as your year-end resolution to lose weight, or to learn a new language. Habits, be it good or bad, are formed by repetition. Establishing “atomic habits”, is a term used for the establishment of apparently insignificant habits which lead to large positive outcomes. With enough time and focus, atomic habits leverage the compounding effect of time in our favor to amass great knowledge. Besides knowledge for knowledge’s sake, there are medical benefits to being a lifelong learner. For one, engaging in mentally stimulating activities on a regular basis helps reduce the risk for certain neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. I encourage you to list what you desire to learn, make a laundry list, prioritize the list, and take small but consistent actions to learn that which is in your heart. The most important factor of success is not whether you can cram 5 years’ worth of French into an intensive course over 6 months but that you are consistently trying to improve your language skills, even in small ways. Consistency of habit is more important than intensity of habit, which is another way to understand the principle of ‘aggregate marginal gains’, which says if you improve by just 1% consistently, those small gains will add up to remarkable improvement.
Good and Bad Habits
In my high school years, I was a terrible writer, not that I am good now or to the level I desire but I press on. Since I identify myself as a writer, I have the habit of formally writing at least one newsletter per week. This small (i.e., atomic) habit reinforces my identity and helps me improve my skills. This is a good example of the aforementioned principles. This is a sharp contrast vis-à-vis my aspiration to run a marathon. I never saw myself as a runner but instead focused on a goal, i.e., running 26.2 miles. As such, I formed a daily habit of running but I did not follow the principle of aggregate marginal gains but instead I found myself following a bust or boom cycle. One month I would force myself to run 150 km, but then injury would take me, to say, 50km next month. After recovering, I would then come again to 150 km to 200 km in a month, but I never achieved consistency and my habit was not well embedded in my life nor was it a pleasurable experience. My running track record and performance are dismal versus my potential because I was “silly” in my approach. Small but consistent mileage over many months would build my aerobic base, but instead I used brute force to pursue my goal, but that did not go well. I reformulated my goal to change the focus from the “26.2 miles” to building a running system which can help me obtain a strong aerobic base. Now I run 3 km to 7 km daily but couple this routine with good sleep and a healthy diet. I am pretty confident that in due course my running system will indirectly get me to run 26.2 miles.
I would argue that wisdom trumps intelligence as both are similar but the former also involves having good judgment. Scripture beautifully explains the need for wisdom with good judgment, as in Proverbs 4:5-15 (NLT version):
5 Get wisdom; develop good judgment. Don’t forget my words or turn away from them.
6 Don’t turn your back on wisdom, for she will protect you. Love her, and she will guard you.
7 Getting wisdom is the wisest thing you can do! And whatever else you do, develop good judgment.
8 If you prize wisdom, she will make you great. Embrace her, and she will honor you.
9 She will place a lovely wreath on your head; she will present you with a beautiful crown.”
10 My child, listen to me and do as I say, and you will have a long, good life.
11 I will teach you wisdom’s ways and lead you in straight paths.
12 When you walk, you won’t be held back; when you run, you won’t stumble.
13 Take hold of my instructions; don’t let them go. Guard them, for they are the key to life.
14 Don’t do as the wicked do, and don’t follow the path of evildoers.
15 Don’t even think about it; don’t go that way. Turn away and keep moving.
Academia also concludes the need for good judgment but from a secular lens, for instance Sir Andrew Likierman, professor at the London School of Business gives a summary of good judgment, “Leaders need many qualities, but underlying them all is good judgment. Those with ambition but no judgment run out of money. Those with charisma but no judgment lead their followers in the wrong direction. Those with passion but no judgment hurl themselves down the wrong paths. Those with drive but no judgment get up very early to do the wrong things. Sheer luck and factors beyond your control may determine your eventual success, but good judgment will stack the cards in your favor”. This emphasizes that individuals who lack good judgment, lead themselves and/or others, in the wrong direction or wrong path. So fundamentally, good judgment is about distinguishing between right and wrong. Right and wrong in the secular world is largely defined by the prevailing law of the land. But does this make it right? Take for instance North Korea, the dictatorship controls most everything in the country, even the haircuts that are allowed for women and men. There is a state approved catalog of haircut styles which you must adhere to, otherwise you would be breaking the law. If you are unfortunate enough to live in this radical communist regime, you will definitely exercise good judgment in keeping to the state approved haircuts. That said, Kim Jong Un by most standards, is not using good judgment in governing his country and people even though there are prevailing laws in North Korea. And this is the crux of the problem, right and wrong is relative to our belief system. If you and I really want to have good judgment, we have to embrace a higher moral law, that is, God’s law as in scripture. Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple”. In the latter days, people will call that which is good as bad, and that which is bad, as good.
The need to have good judgment is greater than ever but there is also a lot more difficulty in getting this right if one relies on our individual belief system. Sam Bankman-Fried exercised his judgment in running FTX; without controls, risk management, proper accounting, and customer segregation of funds. He exercised judgment, poor judgment that is, and now we have to wait to see the price of being silly. He is likely not getting the full 125 years, but he will have plenty of time to consider his poor judgment in the decades to come.
I would conclude that true success is the accumulation of knowledge whose application is informed by good judgment. If we can collectively do this in society, our world would be a better place to live.
1. Wisdom and Intelligence are similar but different.
2. Wisdom trumps Intelligence as the former incorporates knowledge but coupled with good judgment.
3. We should endeavor to seek wisdom and knowledge, lifelong.
4. Identify yourself as a learner and build habits around this.
5. Build atomic habits which follow the principle of ‘marginal aggregate gains’, i.e., 1% rule.
6. Always follow that which is good and not bad.
7. Lean not on your own understanding but leverage a higher moral law in deciding what is good and what is bad.
- Clever sillies: Why high IQ people tend to be deficient in common sense – ScienceDirect ↑
- Atomic Habits, James Clear, Penguin Books 2018