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What’s Wrong With Wisdom?

“Abandon sageliness and discard wisdom
Then the people will benefit a hundredfold.”
-- Lao Tzu


This quotation hits me like a thunderbolt. Because my secret longing is to be wise. I’ve trained for it and read for it and worked for it and sacrificed other goals for it. To my mind, wisdom is the ultimate accomplishment. It goes beyond being savvy or smart. It means knowing how to use what you know, how to respond to the moment, how to help.

But there’s a dark side to my pursuit of wisdom. The dark side is having to know, having to respond rightly. If I’m wise (like the many “sage” characters we see on TV) I have to know what to do, what to say. That can be nerve wracking. Because I don’t always know. When I don’t know something I or others expect me to know, I feel incompetent. I lose my focus. As a coach, my attention shifts from my client to myself. “What do I do now?” I ask myself. I become conscious of my hesitations. I wonder what my client is thinking of me. In the worst moments of unknowing, I imagine that everyone will somehow know about this and think I’m completely hopeless. My mind is running a mile a minute.

The last thing I’m doing in such a moment is what Lao Tzu calls “non-doing.” For Lao Tzu, there is a flow of life that is ever-changing, ever-creative. If we trust in the creativity of life, our job becomes one of doing nothing that interferes with that flow. Paradoxically, if one is focused on being wise, one cannot be aware of the flow or trust that flow. Whatever one does will interfere with the creative process. When I struggle to be the sage, I act unwisely. When I let the process unfold, when I don’t grasp for the solution or the right thing to say, when I focus on what’s happening and don’t worry about what I “should” be doing, the right answer comes.

Many of the executives I know are the same way. After all, aren’t they paid to have the answers? These executives believe, sometimes at an unconscious level, that they have to know what to do when subordinates come to them, when their bosses come to them, when the organization demands an answer. They are great problem solvers, great visionaries. And, like me, sometimes the external or internal pressure to know gets in the way. Just like my brilliant insights sometimes get in the way of my client’s discovering something even more brilliant for themselves, the go-to VP with all the answers gets in the way of their subordinates solving problems for themselves. Or they solve a problem too quickly and miss valuable information that would have informed a better decision. Or they solve the problem the same old way and lose out because the old way is no longer sufficient.

There is such pressure for us to know, to be right, to be wise. Yet to be wise and helpful, we have to let go of our desire for wisdom, our need to be right. We must wait for the right time, trust that others will find the answer, tune in to what our senses, our bodies and our emotions are telling us, let go of what we know so we can trust the unknown. All this requires a certain faith, not in ourselves, but something larger. Call it God, call it the Tao, call it the Universe. If we trust in the flow of life, we don’t have to be right. We simply have to be present.

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