Most of us want to be wise, know more and better (lets not worry about the exceptions here)
The question is HOW? Some of us think about it now & then, but soon lose track, distracted or confused.
I have found the ideas below useful. But first, what is wisdom? I see it as knowledge and experience to lead a satisfactory life. While the knowledge & experience we gather depend on our interests, we all need some basic wisdom to live well. Where do we start?
The eminent dead are possibly the best source. Human beings have been around for a few millennia and most situations we face today are not new. Looking up how our ancestors managed their lives can provide us practical ideas & tips. Studying their mistakes of commission & omission are more useful. Ancestors don’t have to be those who lived centuries back. People who lived a few generations back can as interesting. The lives of both Socrates BC and the recently deceased great lawyer can be equally educative, though in different ways.
We can start with reading up all that was written by and about the eminent dead folks we admire. Autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, interviews etc. These folks often lead us to others whom they admired and learnt from. Then move on to other eminent dead admired by family, friends & colleagues. The villains of history should not be ignored as they teach us what not to do, and those lessons prove more useful on some occasions.
Why the dead, and not the living? That’s simply because most eminent dead folks’ lives have been well examined from various perspectives. There’s a reason why somebody is labelled a hero, villain, or a great soul. It’s useful to lookup different sources of information on the same person to plug gaps & avoid errors of judgement.
The Great Books are the next best sources of wisdom. Great books are the world’s greatest written works, both fiction & non-fiction, aka classics. Great Books from genres as wide as fiction, science, history, travelogues, philosophy (and more) are a treasure trove of ideas, experiences, & learnings. No single genre should be ignored. Fiction entertains even as we learn how people think & act in different situations. Philosophy, not as boring as commonly believed, is all about how to live the good life. History enthrals with feats, failures & lessons, repeats itself in myriad forms, and a careful study of it is of practical use. Each genre has its own merits.
Many lists of Great Books are available online. We can look them up and prepare a personal list of Great Books to study in our lifetime. It’s important to include books across genres & cultures in our list. A typical list can run into 100-150 books and may take a few years to complete. But real insight & joy comes when we dip into these books the second or third time. So its good to start early, to make practical use of what we learn when we are young & actively engaged in worldly affairs.
Technical & contemporary works come next. We have our personal interests and so naturally we pick up related books & other texts. We tend to overdose on these, ignoring the eminent dead & great books, which is not a good idea. An ambitious business student who spends most of his time on standard textbooks, and ignores Sam Walton & Warren Buffett, is not going to do well. A judicious mix is important.
We consume newspapers & magazines daily. While they are important sources of information on topical and special interests, they hardly score on wisdom. However, we cannot ignore them. We live in the present and we need to know what’s happening around us. Its useful & interesting to browse a few different newspapers to get different & contradictory views on the same story. The plethora of special interest magazines are a boon to expand our horizons. Picking up a random magazine, once in a while, on an interest area far removed from our usual interests can be quite rewarding and enjoyable. A dedicated doctor can stumble into new ideas & interests when occasionally browsing, say, the Architecture Digest or Fishing Times.
The internet has both confused and improved the pursuit of wisdom. While it provides easy access to an immense repository of ideas & knowledge, even free of cost if you know how, the sheer volume of available information can be confounding. Where to start and how? We got blogs, podcasts, videos, movies, documentaries, lectures and much more. The answer can be deceptively simple. Just prioritize the eminent dead, great books & your interest areas. Pick blogs, podcasts, etc. focussed on these.
The trick is to constantly check if the content is from a primary or secondary source. No amount of secondary source information can replace loading up wisdom from the primary source – the eminent dead & great books. It’s important to be very selective, as we can get drowned in the sea of blogs & online media. And its useful to lookup random blogs & media, once in a while, for the same reasons we should pick up random magazines, books & newspapers – we can be pleasantly surprised, entertained and educated.
This looks daunting. A big heap of texts & media to wade through. Is one lifetime sufficient?
The answer, again, is deceptively simple. Knowledge & wisdom are cumulative. As we start reading more, across genres, we can draw parallels & comparisons, contrast situations & characters. After sometime, possibly a few years or decades of intense study, we can discern repetitions, recurring themes, & a sense of deja vu. The effort becomes lesser & easier.
What about hands-on action & experience? Is wisdom all bookish? Not at all. Books just open our mind’s windows & doors, so to speak. We still have to step out, interact, experience, get back to the books, and repeat the cycle.
Sounds good, but what are the tricks of the trade? Any short cuts, tips?
Yes, quite a few. Many of the tricks can be learnt from the eminent dead & great books.
A good way to start is read 2-3 books a month. Spend more time on primary sources like books, less on newspapers & blogs. Learn how to read fast & effectively. Take notes. Use offline or online tools to store notes & quotes, look them up often.
Avoid distractions like TV, social media, idle browsing & gossip.
Don’t forget to step out, put into action what you have read.