Wisdom, Intelligence, and Unanswered Questions

I don’t know if this is a discussion most people have with any kind of frequency but, as a D&D player, I’ve often discussed the difference between wisdom and intelligence.

The trickiest part of the whole discussion is that it feels like the distinction is super clear in your mind, but the actual explanations you try to provide always wind up feeling hollow, inadequate, or you just can’t think of any. The popular explanation in D&D groups follows the “Tomato Explanation” of character attributes. “Strength is your ability to crush a tomato. Dexterity is your ability to dodge a tomato. Constitution is our ability to eat a bad tomato. Intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad. Charisma is being able to sell a tomato-based fruit salad.”

There are any number of jokes that go along with this (my favorite is pointing out that a tomato-based fruit salad is salsa and then someone else declaring that I’m the party’s bard now), but they all ignore that you could easily make the argument that describing salsa as tomato-based fruit salad is actually an aspect of intelligence. As is knowing that tomatoes don’t pair well with most fruits. Any time a player makes a claim about how the mental attributes work, another player could make a convincing argument that all of those examples are actually just all a part of the same attribute.

Then, when you take these discussions out of their D&D context, you continue to run into the same problem. Is making good decisions really the result of being wise, or is it an aspect of being intelligent? Are you able to anticipate the outcomes of your actions because some innate part of you understands the correct choices or are you able to predict the end results of what you do because you can understand all the variables and their consequences? Hell, is this even a distinction worth making at all?

I’m fairly certain that wisdom and intelligence their own, discrete things. Maybe their differences aren’t super apparent when people have relatively similar amounts of each, but more extreme example make it much more clear.

Take, for instance, this software developed I worked with at my last job. He pushed at the very edges of what our code was able to do, creating these incredibly complicated activities that expanded what our customers thought was possible and laid the groundwork for future expansion beyond even that. He was probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. At the same time, by the end of his first year at the company, I was the only person who could work with him. I worked with him for almost two years and the next longest anyone else worked with him was 6 months. Third was 7 weeks. To put it bluntly, he was a condescending asshole who constantly belittled and insulted his coworkers, even if it wasn’t on purpose most of the time.

His example makes it pretty clear that intelligence isn’t something you can substitute for wisdom or charisma. On the other hand, one of my current coworkers is a super nice and competent guy. He’s better at his job than I can hope to be in anything less than a decade (we have the same job, he’s just the Senior version of it) and he has these piercing insights into how our whole team functions, along with being able to talk through things with people so that they come to see their best course of action. However, if you explain a new idea quickly, he can struggle with it for a bit before it finally clicks for him. Which shows plenty of wisdom can’t be substituted for intelligence.

To put it simply, I think wisdom is the ability to explain and intelligence is the ability to learn. I think the reason people have a hard time distinguishing between them is that they feed into each other. If you can learn easily, you are better equipped to explain things and being able to explain things well means that you have more opportunities to learn, even if you’re just learning from yourself. I can explain stuff to people very well because I know a lot, which means I can draw upon a lot of different comparisons so that what I’m explaining is housed in terms that are easy to understand. I also couldn’t begin to count to the number of times I’ve suddenly had a flash of insight into something when I’m trying to explain it so someone.

Despite the similarities between wisdom and intelligence, I think it is important to be mindful of the differences. If you start to conflate the two, you can wind up in a lot of awful situations because you relied too heavily on one when you needed the other. I can easily recognize when something I’ve said is wrong or has been misinterpreted based on people’s reactions (intelligence), but being able to anticipate that reaction and changing it beforehand (wisdom) is always better than apologizing and clarifying. Sure, it isn’t entirely reasonable to expect myself to always be able to do that, or to even spend so much time measuring my own words, but making a habit of sticking my foot in my mouth is also a pretty shitty way to live, even if I apologize afterwards.

I reflect on this a lot, specifically in the terms of thinking about how my communication affects other people. I spend more time measuring my words than I do speaking. To be honest, one of my biggest issues with myself is just how much I censor myself when talking to people: how much effort and energy I put into delicately phrasing things so as to not offend. This blog is supposed to be part of my effort to not spend so much time holding my silence, but I find myself avoiding certain topics and thoughts I’d like to explore because I know family and friends read this blog.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I feel like I haven’t made much progress in the past few years. Maybe I feel like I’ve stagnated because I’m blocking my own words, feelings, and responses in favor of giving other peoples’ higher priority. Maybe I’m writing this blog post without any insights and only unanswered questions because I don’t want to confront the truth that’s sitting right in front of my face, but is still somehow hidden from my conscious sight. Or maybe I’m just going to keep asking myself this question for my entire life, and this entire blog is just one more way to explore possible answers.

Wisdom says focusing on questions gets you further than focusing on answers. Intelligence says that some questions have no answers and just mulling them over is enough to promote growth and mental development. I say that, like almost everything in life, the answer to this particular question is going to be something along the lines of “take care, but not too much.”

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