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With age comes wisdom?

20 Oct 2021

Oscar Wilde famously said that ‘with age comes wisdom’. It’s an interesting idea, but not one I necessarily agree with.

I’ll start with a definition of wisdom. Google defines it as ‘the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement.’

Personally, I think there are two levels to this. The first is cognitive, namely an understanding of life and a desire to know the truth. The second is reflective – an ability to perceive events from multiple perspectives, which requires self-reflection, awareness, and insight. Combining these two factors is what makes you ‘wise’.

Considered in this light, Oscar’s quote is definitely true when we’re in our formative years. As we get older, we learn all kinds of soft and hard skills. We develop our own sense of self and our own view of the world and the people around us. In fact, studies have proven that for most people wisdom grows steadily between the ages of 13 to 25.

In fact, wisdom can plateau from ages 25-70

The problem is that the same studies suggest that this level of wisdom plateaus from age 25 to age 70, when it starts to decline.

I thought that was both depressing and a bit of a wasted opportunity. What is it that stops us continuing to get wiser as we get older? I’ve thought about it and have come up with three factors that I think influence whether we become wiser as we age:

  1. The first is our breath of experience
  2. The second is our ability to stay open-minded
  3. The third is our moral compass

Take breadth of experience first. There are some people who enjoy being in their comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with this although their experience over a decade might be repeating the same thing every year, for ten consecutive years. They’re older but they’re probably not much wiser. At least not in comparison to the people who jump from job to job and travel the world, experiencing new cultures and meeting new people.

The biggest factor, however, is whether someone remains open minded. For lots of people, their wisdom plateaus because they stop being receptive to new ideas, or new ways of doing things. It’s as if a switch gets flipped at a certain age and people stop learning (or wanting to learn). They’re happy with how they see the world and their opinion is ‘formed’. It’s why, for example, it’s more difficult to get your parents or grandparents to understand a different point of view.

It’s as true for people as it is for companies

The final factor is the moral compass. I don’t think you can be wise without considering the world from the perspective of others. These three factors are as true for companies as they are for people.

The overwhelming reason that most companies struggle as they get older is that they fail to learn or adapt as the world around them changes. At the very beginning, for example, a business tries everything it can to survive. Reversing decisions, changing tack, trying new things are all part for the course and carry no stigma.

But if they’re lucky some companies will eventually find something that works. If they’re really lucky, this thing will keep working. The problem, however, is that pretty soon this becomes gospel. It becomes the only accepted way of doing business. New things are seen as distractions or dismissed because ‘we tried something like that a few years ago and it didn’t work’. The company stops learning. It continues to do what it’s always done, almost oblivious to the fact that the world around it is changing.

Age is just a number

To demonstrate this point, of the companies listed on the FTSE 100 at the start of the millennium only 49 have survived. I think it’s fair to say that ‘wisdom’ would have saved many of these companies, they didn’t fall from the top because they needed smarter people (they had the smartest), but because they were unable to let go of their historic beliefs. They stopped learning. They held strong views (a good thing) but they held them firmly (a bad thing).

Wisdom, to me, is more driven by mindset than by age. It’s not age that makes you wise, it’s your experiences and your outlook on life. 

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