Have you ever used a word a thousand times only to realize that you’ve used the word flippantly, having never explored the depth of what that word actually means? I love when I realize that I have only scratched the surface of understanding a word, and there is far more understanding to be had. At these moments I feel something like Neo from The Matrix, ready to take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
There’s a good chance that the words we will explore here are words that you haven’t done the “deep dive” to fully understand. Today’s exploration is in Knowledge, Discernment, and Wisdom. Weighty topics for sure, but potentially game-changing for those who gain new understanding. Some of the greatest thinkers in history devoted time to understanding these topics, so it stands to reason that we can benefit by devoting time to understanding them as well.
The first point of discussion is that these three words are describing distinctly different things. Oftentimes these words are used interchangeably, but each word is truly unique when looked at more closely. This understanding can help you break through to better outcomes in areas of your life where you feel stuck. This will become more clear shortly.
Knowledge is easy to understand; knowledge is simply the things that you know. People who have vast amounts of knowledge are often labeled as “smart”. Knowledge is definitely good, and is the foundation for growth. A person has to know something to either apply it or teach it to others, both of which can create value. Even simple, base-level knowledge is good, for it is what helps us to understand higher-level thinking. As important as knowledge is, it is only “level 1” in our quest to understand the value and application of these words.
Statistics on health and obesity provide an interesting example to show why knowledge is good, but not the ultimate goal. The formula for weight loss is one of the least complicated formulas on the planet. If a person takes in less calories than they burn, they will lose weight. As easy as this is to understand, a quick search on U.S. obesity rates will reveal that it is more common to be overweight or obese than to be healthy. By no coincidence, eating healthier and getting more exercise are consistently among the top New Year's resolutions. This clearly shows that as a society, we know there is a problem, and we also know how to fix it. But the trend of being overweight and obese is getting worse, not better. Apparently the knowledge of how to solve the problem isn’t enough to actually solve the problem.
This brings us to “level 2” in our quest to understand these terms. To understand discernment, I’m going to share with you my own unofficial definition of the word. The definition I came up with is this: Discernment is the ability to evaluate knowledge. The reason that I created my own definition for the word is that it helps me to see how this word fits into a progression that leads to us getting better outcomes in life. Knowledge alone is not especially useful if we don’t know how to evaluate it.
To bring this definition to life, let’s revisit our health example. Knowledge is knowing that walking slowly for an hour will burn about 300 calories, and that a burger and fries can be over 1000 calories. Discerning this knowledge might sound like this: “WOW, I spent an hour walking and I didn’t even burn a third of the calories I ate for lunch. I should consume less calories for lunch so that the exercise I do leads to better results.”
Not all of our life experiences are as clear as the example of weight loss. Sometimes our options are not good vs. bad, but rather one good option vs. another good option. It’s common to see this conundrum when we evaluate how to spend our time. When there are multiple good options, we are usually unable to act on all of them. How should you spend your time on the weekend? Which relationships should you invest in, and which ones should you allow to stay on the “back burner”? Which job or career path should you pursue? Of the many ways you could grow your business, which ones are most worthy of your efforts? Which hobby should you enjoy in your free time?
These choices can appear easier when you view them from a distance, or when you see them play out in the lives of others. But these choices become more difficult when we have to make them for ourselves. It is more difficult to evaluate the risks, consequences, and benefits of various choices when you are in the situation. So what can we do to become more discerning?
Be intentional about having time to step back from situations to evaluate decisions.
When we allow some time and space between gathering information and acting on it, we remove ourselves from some of the emotions that would otherwise cloud our decision making. When presented with an option for something good that may take away from the ability to do something better, deferring the decision until later can give you time to look at the decision from different angles. Doing so may help you foresee unintended consequences of the decision that were not obvious at first.
Understand your values, and use them as a filter for your decision making.
In the case of multiple good options, some will be in better alignment with your values than others. While their might not be a “wrong” answer, some options will have synergy with other areas of your life, and others will not. An example of this would be the value of having a strong family. When presented with various ways to socialize on the weekend, some choices will add to the strength of family relationships, and others will detract from it. This is not to say that you can never socialize with someone outside your family, but being aware of this value will help you make decisions that keep your relationships in the proper balance over time.
Have goals, and use them to evaluate the many good choices.
Some good choices will be in better alignment with other things you want to accomplish. For myself, I enjoy the hobbies of writing and golf. It would be easy for me to spend hours practicing my golf swing, but it has very little synergy with other goals in my life. Writing, on the other hand, has synergy with my professional goals and my personal development. As much as I enjoy golf, I don’t devote much effort to improving my game. On the other hand, I can be found writing at 5:30am, during my lunch break, or at 10:30pm. Because I have strategically evaluated these options, I choose to invest in the hobby that has synergy with my goals, and can be done at times where it doesn’t interfere with quality time with my family (one of my values).
Have people around you who can help you process decisions.
Sometimes things are obvious to others, but we may not be able to see them. Sometimes other people will have experience with situations that we do not. We should have others around us who we trust to give us an outside perspective on our decisions. When allowing these people to influence our decision making, it is important that they understand and appreciate our values and goals. Many people are happy to give opinions, but not everyone’s opinion is equally valuable. Their advice should help us go where we want to go, not where they would want to go if they were us.
Of the three terms we are exploring, it is most common to be knowledgeable, less so to be discerning, and to be wise is the least acquired virtue of the three. Wisdom is a word that can be used in different contexts, so there is more than one definition. Some of these definitions overlap with knowledge and discernment, but there is one definition that distinctly separates wisdom from the other two terms.
The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.
As made clear by this definition, wisdom builds on being knowledgeable and having good judgment (discernment). Putting those things into action is a different and higher level skill than the prior terms. Knowledge and discernment are foundational to the ability to be wise, but acting wisely is the ultimate expression of these virtues. To be smart is to know many things; to be wise is to do many smart things.
Examples can be helpful to illustrate these concepts, so consider the following:
The knowledgeable person knows, in general terms, how to lose weight. Those who are discerning recognize what decisions in their life will impact their ability to lose weight. The wise act appropriately on these decisions, and they get the results they hope for.
The knowledgeable person knows many things about their trade. Those who are discerning can see how their greatest skills set them apart from their competitors. The wise act on these competitive advantages, and win business in the marketplace.
The knowledgeable person knows you should spend less than you earn. Those who are discerning recognize opportunities to increase their income and reduce expenses. The wise not only act to increase their disposable income, but also save and invest part of their income consistently… and they accumulate wealth.
Hopefully studying these words in greater depth has given you a new perspective by which you can evaluate your world. Being able to convert knowledge into discernment, and discernment into wise living, is the difference between having potential and reaching your goals. To take this conversation full circle, don’t let this new knowledge remain knowledge only. Think about areas of your life where you desire new and better outcomes. What factors lead to the better outcomes you desire? Which of these factors are best for you to implement based on your situation? If you know it, and you understand it, then go do it.
To your well-being,