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The Development of Wisdom

2012 August 2

In my last post I mentioned visiting the Laboratory of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital. There, the director, Dr. Robert Waldinger, mentioned to me two researchers who had explored the topic of the development of wisdom, Monica Ardelt at the University of Florida and Barbara Fredrickson at UNC Chapel Hill.

In exploring their work, I found the following table of Ardelt’s model of wisdom very striking:



I originally found the table on the website, which, in turn, cites Ardelt’s original paper “Wisdom as Expert Knowledge System: A Critical review of a Contemporary Operationalization of an Ancient Concept” in the Journal Human Development.

To me the above table is highly evocative of the Self-Transforming Mind of Robert Kegan’s constructive developmental theory: valuing multiple perspectives of self and other, seeing both “the dark and the light” sides of human nature, and having a tolerance for ambiguity. What I found new was the explicit association of wisdom with positive emotions including love and compassion.

On an intuitive level, these characteristics seem to make sense to me. What comes to mind is the proverbial mountain climb to ask the wise sage living in seclusion at the top, “What is the meaning of life?” A one-sided answer like “42″ would be disappointing. In short, we expect so-called wise people to say things like, “Well, it could be this…or it could be that,” all the while appearing to have compassion for us asking.

Combined with Kegan’s theory of development, it would appear that such wisdom is the result of a predictable possible path of development. Such a theory suggests that not only is no one born wise, but that wisdom can be cultivated—which seems to offer some hope for the rest of us.


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