Wisdom Trumps Ambition

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When I was younger, I used to think that I wanted to make sure I did what I needed to do to become as successful as possible as early in life as possible. I thought about wanting to acquire certain things that most people don’t get until much later in their lives in my twenties. The thought process was that I wanted to have those things early enough to still be young enough to enjoy them. Being too old to truly do things at the best level seemed a waste to me. How naive.

One of the things that young people universally need to overcome is the impatience of youth. I’m not talking about our previous discussion about having a goal and being unable to stick to the long game. I’m talking about the kind of impatience that leads to angst later in life because you set unrealistic expectations for yourself and then fail to meet them. We all have ideas for what we think our future should be, but almost all of us have a completely unrealistic time frame for how long that should take. If it could truly come so fast, we would retire at thirty. It simply isn’t the case.

One of the most important lessons I want my children to learn is the concept of setting realistic expectations for their life. Unfortunately, truly understanding this idea can only come with age, because it is only when we gain the wisdom of our years that we are able to truly understand anything. I hope my children will listen and make decisions for the long term rather than a short gain, but if they are anything like me they will jump into adulthood expecting their desires to be delivered to them in the first few years of work. They might take my advice and slow things down, but they won’t be able to truly get it until they’ve experienced enough life for it to truly make sense.

That’s the thing about wisdom. A person can make wise decisions, but it is only through making decisions that we can test things and figure out what works and what doesn’t. We can certainly absorb knowledge through education or reading the words of others, and this can help accelerate the process, but there is vast difference between knowledge and wisdom; theory and application. We can theoretically know that something is wise, but we don’t truly understand why it is wise until we find ourselves in the situation and take a course of action. It is when we see how it either works or doesn’t that the knowledge becomes wisdom.

If our education is any good, our entire childhood is spent learning the theory of how the world works. Up until the point we become adults, we are immersed in learning about all manner of things from science to social studies to physical activity, storing up knowledge that we expect to prepare us for the world. At the end of our formal education, we are proud of the accomplishments we’ve made and jump out into the world assuming we are ready for anything.

Our twenties are our first lesson in the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Our early ambition is thwarted by the world around us and we start to realize that maybe we don’t know quite as much as we thought we did. The career we chose might not be as glamorous as we hoped, or perhaps bad decisions were made that set us back. An inability to exercise discipline in our spending might have placed us in a sticky situation with our credit. Whatever the details, it is in our twenties that most of us truly start gaining real world wisdom.

When we look at it like this, we start to realize that, aside from the rare exceptional person, it is only in our thirties that we really start to push toward our life goals. This is the time that we have built up enough experiences to know what works for us and what doesn’t. It is the time of our lives in which we have demonstrated who we will be for the rest of our lives and everyone around us can know who we are and what we stand for. It is the time in which we become confident in our decisions because we’ve made enough of them to have a pretty fair idea of how those decisions will turn out.

As the title of this article states, wisdom simply trumps ambition at every level. Ambition without wisdom invariably leads to failure. You may make some short term gains making blindly aggressive decisions, but eventually your luck will run out and all your efforts will come crashing down around you. Ambition tempered with wisdom can be a very powerful force, and approaching life with the goal of slowly incorporating wisdom into your makeup will get you to your goals far faster than impatience can.

What do you think about wisdom? In what part of life do you find yourself? Are you just getting started and want to learn how to be wise? Or have you already experienced enough to know what you want and where you’re going? Self reflection is an important part of learning to be successful, because if you don’t even know who you are, you can’t make decisions that make sense for you.

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