Some observations on wisdom and intuition

Today I came across two texts, one was on wisdom and another one on intuition. I remembered a third text on intuition that I read some time ago. The observation of these three texts seem very interesting form a systems thinking perspective.

The first text is from The Economist magazine from April 7th. In the Science and Technology section one article writes on ‘Age and wisdom’ and asks the question ‘Older and Wiser?’ (the article is available online here). According to the study the article writes about, ‘Americans get wiser with age. Japanese are wise from the start.’ Not the differences between Americans and Japanese were what interested me, but the indicators the scientists choose to measure wisdom:

The assessors scored participants’ responses on a scale of one to three. This attempted to capture the degree to which they discussed what psychologists consider five crucial aspects of wise reasoning: willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

For me it was interesting to read those criteria because they resonate pretty well with what we think is a smart way to work in systems. So, are systems thinker wise people?

The second text I want to quote here is from Donella Meadows’ book ‘Thinking in Systems’, which I finally opened today to start reading it. Donella wrote in her book:

Modern systems theory, bound up with computers and equations, hides the fact that it traffics in truths known at some level by everyone. It is often possible, therefore, to make a direct translation from systems jargon to traditional wisdom.

On the next page, she continues:

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has benefited from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is ‘out there’, rather than ‘in here.’ It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away.

Several problems, she continues, such as poverty, hunger, or environmental degradation have not gone away in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance we have developed.

This is because they are intrinsically systems problems – undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.

Intuition again. And wisdom.

Now the third text that came into my mind when reading the two texts above is a reflection by Steve Jobs about his journey to India in 1974/75, written down by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs’ biography:

Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

I cannot really put any conclusions here. For me, it is interesting to think about such things as wisdom and intuition and how it helps us to shape systems. But I guess it is also difficult to put it down in writing. It should be intuitive, after all.

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