Knowledge is not Wisdom

By Kent Thune, Author of The Financial Philosopher

December 12, 2008

When Sir Francis Bacon profoundly stated, “Knowledge is power,” his use of metaphor was absolutely accurate.  I must say, however, that the operative word in the phrase is not knowledge – it is power…

“The most exquisite paradox… as soon as you give it all up, you can have it all. As long as you want power, you can’t have it. The minute you don’t want power, you’ll have more than you ever dreamed possible.” ~ Ram Dass

Humans love power.  This love affair begins with our strong desire to be in control.  What’s wrong with that?  Power is good, right?  Isn’t control preferable to chaos?  Not necessarily… In fact, it is more likely that the pursuit of the former is what eventually causes the latter…

As we have all witnessed at one point or another, the pursuit, acquisition and distribution of power does not ensure its prudent use or a favorable outcome and our hyper-intentional efforts to be in control, not just of ourselves but of others and everything that surround us, can potentially lead to paradoxical consequences.

“Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire.” ~ Epictetus

We are fortunate to live in a free society.  This freedom enables tremendous potential to succeed wonderfully but it also provides the capacity to fail miserably.  One does not need look any further than the current financial crisis to see examples of the successes and failures of freedom.

Before I digress too far from the theme of this post, we now have a wonderful foundation to build on my point that knowledge may be power but it is not good judgment, or what I refer to as wisdom

Because we need and want control, we seek power to enable that control.  What do we, especially in the western hemisphere, view as the enabler of power?  You guessed it!  It’s knowledge.  Remember:  knowledge is power…

“All know the way, but few actually walk it.” ~ Bodhidharma

When Jeremy asked that I write a guest post, I was excited and humbled to re-visit a theme that his blog and my blog have in common – turning knowledge into action.  What I will do today is demonstrate how our human desire for power and control will have us seeking knowledge without any desire or motivation to turn that knowledge into action.

I once posted on this human tendency to perpetuate and stretch the wide space between knowledge and action, which I and others have referred to as the knowing-doing gap.

To see this perpetuation and stretching of the wide space between knowledge and action, we need not look further than the way we educate our children (and ourselves), especially at the college and graduate levels.

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” ~ Oscar Wilde

As if our flawed DNA were not enough of a hurdle in itself, we are also implicitly taught in school and in the workplace that “smart talk” is a substitute for action.

In an academic article, titled The Smart-talk Trap, authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, observed the cause and effect of the knowing-doing gap in the world of business:

Smart talk is the essence of management education at leading institutions in the United States and throughout the world.  Students learn how to sound smart in classroom discussions and how to write smart things on essay examinations.  A substantial part of students’ grades is usually based on how much they say and how smart they sound in class…

[Students] learn that they need only to deliver an intelligent insight – or an intelligent critique of someone else’s insight – to impress their professors.  They don’t have to actually implement the recommendations or act on the insights that emerge in the conversation…

People will try to sound smart not only by being critical but also by using trendy, pretentious, or overblown language…

“He who knows, does not speak.  He who speaks, does not know.” ~ Lau Tzu

Most of us can draw on immediate experience to recall examples of smart-talk and the knowing-doing gap.  In my graduate and MBA studies, I recall “class participation” was, indeed, a significant portion of the final grade.

What about in the “real” business world?  How many mission statements are actually carried out?  How many ideas hatched in committee meetings actually make it past the meeting minutes?

What about the CEOs and managers or even past Presidents of the United States?  They may “dress for success” and appear knowledgeable, but do they even know what their smart talk means?

“Ignorance of all things is an evil neither terrible nor excessive, nor yet the greatest of all; but great cleverness and much learning, if they be accompanied by a bad training, are a much greater misfortune.” ~ Plato

Ironically, The Smart-talk Trap paper was first published as an article in the Harvard Business Review.  Laying irony on top of irony, in a recently published book, titled Ahead of the Curve:  Two Years at Harvard Business School, author Philip Delves Broughton, dubs HBS, arguably the pinnacle of business schools, “A factory for unhappy people.”

But I thought money, material wealth and social status were the producers of happiness?  In the event you have not detected my sarcasm, it is absolutely intended here.

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” ~ Viktor Frankl

I certainly am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong about pursuing higher education (I’m one class away from an MBA degree, myself); and there is no doubt that knowledge, in absence of action, can actually bring extremely high levels of success.

So why not follow that path of conventional wisdom – of knowledge, power and control – if it is proven to offer the potential for money, material wealth and social status?  It is because this particular path is not proven to be the path to a meaningful existence – the same path that can not come from physical world pursuits…

… and it is because I believe that knowledge acquired through “higher education” is still beneath the self-knowledge acquired through the highest form of education, which can only be found within, and obtained from, ourselves…

Oh yeah, do you remember Francis Bacon’s famous words, “knowledge is power,” where we began this post?  I thought it fitting to end the same post with some of Bacon’s lesser-known words:

“But this is that which will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge, if contemplation and action may be more nearly and straightly conjoined and united together than they have been…” Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning

I first found Kent when he was a guest writer at another site that I am failing to remember now. He impressed me with his writing so much that I jumped at the chance to have him guest write here. I am proud to say he has certainly outdone himself again! I truly hope you would take the time to maybe read this article a second time. Believe me it’s worth it to read it twice. Then head on over to his site The Financial Philosopher. It will be well worth your time! 🙂

9 thoughts on “Knowledge is not Wisdom”

  1. Excellent article.

    I find this to be very interesting.I value education very much.There is a difference though.

    You can be book smart but not street savvy.

    You need a hands on education.Living with passion.
    Not putting limitations on your goals this is power to me.
    Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual.

    Bunny got Blog’s last blog post..2 Short Stories By Bunny

  2. I also think that education is important, however some of the smartest people I’ve ever met never finished high school. I really feel like education is one of many mechanisms one can utilize to achieve understanding, though achieving that understanding is not a guarantee. Like the author said in the title “Knowledge is not Wisdom”. Great post.

  3. BgB:

    I also place a high value on education — both in the academic sense and in life (outside of the classroom). I have found, however, that even the most brilliant of individuals with the highest of academic degrees and broad life experiences can fail miserably if they are without good judgment — or what we may refer to as wisdom. Examples of these failures can easily be found in investing, politics, the business world and your immediate surroundings…

    Thanks for the comment…

  4. In the spirit of quotations and education:

    “I never let my schooling interfere with my education” – Mark Twain

    Let it also be noted that no one can deny the importance of wisdom … a great many “smart-talkers” move vertically in societal and corporate positions due solely to their ability to impress others through their “smart-talk”, while building teams capable of implementation while they themselves couldn’t implement a plan to complete a partially constructed peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

  5. Great post. I, too, believe that intellectual knowledge is important up to a point. I have found that far too many people lack the ability to communicate clearly, use discernment, and therefore be motivated to act. As a result, the ability to motivate others, except through fear, is also severely weakened. To me, true field tested knowledge creates the foundation on which wisdom is built.

    Clint Stonebraker’s last blog post..I Turned Out O.K.

  6. @ BGB – I think you need both street smarts and book smarts to reach your potential. However, I think having passion trumps just about anything. Its passion that most helps you persevere till you reach success!

    @ Geuka – Education gives you the foundation. Its up to you to build on it.

    @ Kent – Good judgment is something that seems missing in the business community. Why aren’t there more books, or any books, on that specific subject? I know we talk about ethics a lot, but there isn’t much knowledge out there to train people to have good judgment. Is it even possible to teach that? hmmm….

    @ Mike – Don’t you just hate it when people that are good at moving up the ranks, but little else succeed while others that are more capable don’t? Goes to show you that you need to learn skills such as marketing yourself as well. Its funny what is valued in society. p.s. Sounds like you have a project management background… Would that me a safe assumption?

    @ Clint – I like your last statement the best! “true field tested knowledge creates the foundation on which wisdom is built” That shows the proper process there. Learn…test…learn…test…. They go hand in hand. Unused knowledge is wasted knowledge. Action without knowledge is wasted time. Knowledge that creates action leads to success…

    Thank you all for your comments. This subject is an important one to discuss. I hope to continue the conversation with more posts and hopefully more comments. So keep them coming! 😉


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  8. I value education very much.To live in this world education and book smart alone will not help you to overcome practical problems. One
    should be wiser, street smart and be practical
    to reach success.

  9. Many thanks so much for sharing. It is beginning to become more uncommon to find quality material. Appears plenty of sites are providing nothing unique – just scraped content or rehashed rss feed. Your work is appreciated. Anytime we can find more viable ideas about building our business is a good thing

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