Wisdom does not come with Age

I’m still on the younger end of the age distribution in the workforce, but I’m no longer on the youngest end, and as time goes on I will only ever move toward the right in the age distribution. As I make that move, one of my primary goals is to not repeat the mistake that has been, in my experience, common among my colleagues: assuming that age brings wisdom. This includes the assumption’s corollary, with youth comes lack of wisdom.

This assumption takes many forms, some consciously held and some unconsciously held: “They’re older so I suppose they know better than my idea.” “That kid has a lot of nerve questioning company protocol.” Or something like these.

This assumption does two things: it discourages young people in the face of more aged opposition, and it makes older colleagues blind to improvement opportunities just because they originate in a younger mind.

When I float this idea, the immediate pushback I receive is that older people generally do know more, because they’ve had a longer time to accumulate experiences and knowledge. After all, in many industries and crafts it simply takes time to develop as a practitioner. I don’t immediately disagree with that pushback, and I also don’t think it’s actually pushback. It fits with my preferred rework of the age/wisdom assumption: wisdom does not come with age necessarily, and wisdom does not avoid youth necessarily.

Wisdom is a set of thinking processes that more consistently generates outcomes that correspond with reality, and these outcomes tend to be integrated into an increasingly consistent whole body of knowledge. Time allows an individual to accumulate more knowledge and improve one’s thinking processes, but it does not guarantee that this will happen. The accumulation and improvement (“growing in wisdom”) only happens if an individual works at it.

Age—the passage of time—does not bring wisdom, it just potentially facilitates it. Whether an individual takes advantage of the facilitation is another matter completely.

In my view, I assign people “wisdom points.” You get a wisdom point if you improve your rational faculty, for example, by recognizing a logical fallacy you make and correcting for it.

Assuming that you don’t deploy knowledge in a mental state that is distorted by a terribly incorrect view of the world, you also get some wisdom points for accumulating knowledge and integrating it into your total sum. Clearly, the passage of more time potentially allows for more wisdom points to be accumulated, but the rate at which individuals accumulate wisdom points varies.

Using arbitrary numbers: if someone accumulates wisdom points at a rate of 1 per year after they turn 20, and someone else accumulates wisdom points at a rate of 3 per year after they turn 20, it’s clear that, even if the first person is much older than the second person, they will be outstripped in wisdom by their younger counterpart.

If someone who is 30 years old has spent all of their adult life reading 40—60 books per year (assuming they are good books that improve thinking and present well-ordered knowledge), trying different things, and generally engaging in active thinking all the time, I think that person will be wiser than a 50 year old who has read perhaps two books in their life and never engages in active thinking.

Potential pushback to the point above: but the 30 year old might still have things they could learn from the 50 year old. Even if the 50 year old has been accumulating wisdom at a much slower rate, they will have some experiences and beneficial insight that only (usually) come with age, like raising children to adulthood, experiencing the death of parents, &c. Again, I don’t disagree with this. But it doesn’t dispel my contention that age doesn’t guarantee special or superior wisdom. In general, any human can learn from any other human—there is so much knowledge generated by human society that a good insight can come from anywhere, since no one human can possess even close to all of it. So, yes, the 50 year old can still have things to teach the 30 year old, but the 30 year old might very well have more things to teach the 50 year old.

Even if you could measure the wisdom levels of different age groups, and you found that, in general, wisdom increases with age (which wouldn’t be surprising, given that the passage of time potentially facilitates wisdom), this still doesn’t tell you how wise any individual is based on their age. As with any statistical aggregate, it cannot be applied to individuals—each must be examined alone to learn about its particulars. To do otherwise would be like a man saying to a woman, “I have more upper body strength than you because I am a man.” Perhaps this is true in the aggregate, but one cannot possibly apply the aggregate trend to all men and women individually. There’s a large area of overlap where many women are stronger than many men. And, just as it would be sexist for the man to say that to a woman, it would be ageist for an older person to say, “I am wiser than you because I am older” to a young person.

Really, the only way to know if someone is wise is to talk with them and examine the products of their mind, whether those are creative products or perhaps a certain professional/vocational methodology. And some people, even if they seem unwise in various endeavors, might have very silo’d wisdom; they learn how to do something really well, but have either failed to generalize the principles from that thing to their life, or have just spent much more time with one particular craft or idea. For example, a lawyer who makes partner at a firm might know the law extremely well, and have great insight into structuring certain kinds of contracts—but this same lawyer will fail to carry over the “if x, then y” type of thinking that could improve their thought in a variety of other areas.

The point of this essay isn’t to say that the young should disregard the relatively older, or that the relatively older should give more deference to the young than they sincerely judge to be correct. It’s that everyone should recognize that wisdom is a process that proceeds at a certain rate, and that rate is different for individuals. Keeping that in mind, in addition to the fact that anyone could learn something from anyone else (potentially) because of the immense scale of total human knowledge, wisdom and age should lose their affiliation.

If you are wise or have better insight than someone else, justify it by demonstration or explanation. Making an appeal to age doesn’t prove anything, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what wisdom actually is.

A different take on this topic appears in the introduction to Dear Wayne County.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Being Wrong in Public is Useful

Per previous posts, every day in February 2018 I am posting one essay. These essays don’t have lead time, not much editing time, and are pretty much the product of one sit-down session each. Unlike an extended editing and revision process, this accelerated timeline makes it much more likely that I’ll write something I didn’t fully think through, the result of which is that I will be outed as wrong publicly.

Being wrong never feels great (well it sometimes does, but that’s a different essay), but it’s useful. It’s even more useful, in certain respects, when it’s public. If you have publicly staked your position and are subsequently proven wrong in public, you can’t say, “I never said that.” Obviously you did; it’s a matter of record. If you still try to renege, then you lose the esteem of a certain kind of person. I would contend that that kind of person is really the only kind whose esteem is worth anything anyway.

If you make a claim/do a thing that turns out to be wrong, either in your head or to someone who doesn’t care about correcting wrongs, then it’s all too easy to simply pretend that you never did it. Psychological pressure builds up to just forget about it, or to blank it out.

My life philosophy explicitly prohibits this kind of behavior—pretending no wrong was done or contended if it was not witnessed—but I still feel the aforementioned pressure to blank out. Even when I am doing my conscious and conscientious best to recognize my errors, it is still helpful to make my assertions public. In that case, there’s no reneging, at least for me.

This is the same reason that scientists should publish their predictions of what will happen in their experiments before they run them. And the same reason that computer coders should predict how their code will act before they run it (I got that example from Eliezer Yudkowsky, but for the life of me can’t remember from which of his works). If you state your premises in a way that you can’t take back, you’ll be forced to hunt through them for errors if you’re proven wrong.

The result of this process, which is a mental version of Ulysses tying himself to the mast, is a better self-improvement and cognitive correction mechanism. Everyone makes mistakes and errors—my goal is to do the best job of recognizing and correcting them that I can. Part of the reason I’m writing every day in February is to get better at exposing my thoughts and contentions to the public—this means being prepared to defend them if they’re right, and accept if they are wrong. And this is different than in person-to-person discussions.

I’ve written several longer pieces, and those serve a similar function, especially Dear Wayne County, but I only produce a book perhaps every year or two. I need to fill in the cracks.

^That was going to be the end of the essay, but after some brief thinking I need to add two addendums.

  1. It occurred to me that what I was saying wasn’t “being publicly wrong is a stop-gap against me blanking out errors.” It was, “I should put something on the line when I contend something. Contending things in public means I am specifically putting the esteem of others on the line should I default on rationality, and that often works as a deterrent against blanking out for me.” There are, in fact, a whole lot of ways that you can put something on the line to ensure that you don’t renege on rationality. Stating things publicly can work in certain circumstances, but in other circumstances betting is wonderful. Laying money on the line really forces you to consider whether you really believe something you’re saying. I first encountered this view of betting from Less Wrong, which you will find at the previous link, and had forgotten about it until now.The conclusion of this addendum is: lay something on the line when you make a contention. Publicly contending it (and putting esteem on the line) is a particular instance of this, and it can work, but it might be necessary to go further and throw down money/whatever to really ensure that you aren’t tricking yourself. (You could always pull a “Well I said that, but what I really meant was…” rabbit out of the hat otherwise.)
  2. I appreciate the smart people who post their thoughts on Facebook and other platforms all the time. I get the enormous benefit of watching ensuing debates play out, and I learn a lot from them. I don’t post that often on Facebook mostly just because I don’t prefer to use it with equal frequency, but part of it is definitely the if-I-say-this-it’s-public deterrent. I don’t think I’ll be a frequent poster, but I’ll be a relatively more frequent poster.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.