Something magical happens when we get old. We automatically become wise.

I’d like to think that old age stereotype was true. Certainly by the time we reach our sixties, there’s a mass of knowledge and experience crammed into our brains. But does that make us wise?

Pointless knowledge

We pick up plenty of facts over the years, most useful when it comes to quiz shows like my favourite, Pointless. Older people may lose out to the young when it comes to current trends, music and technology, but we’re well ahead on 1970s TV, 1980s politics, and geography because we lived through it or we’ve travelled.

We have lots of useful “how to” knowledge as well:

“Memory … holds the vast repertory of skills we have acquired in a lifetime of practice, which automatically produce adequate solutions to challenges as they arise.”  Daniel Kahnemann*

Having a wise perspective

A long life brings perspective. We know that most things pass, or we find ways to accommodate them and carry on living. Broken hearts mend. Rows and upsets fade – even the ones we ruminate on for days lose their power over time.

The old know that things go in cycles. In our personal lives, relationships have periods of strain and tranquility. In families, crying babies become wide-eyed children, moody teenagers become enthusiastic adults, authoritative parents become vulnerable.

We know life is made up of transitions: changing jobs, moving house, taking up and letting go of interests. It’s all-consuming when you’re in the middle of it, yet experience tells us that transition is often followed by stability.

That’s true in national and international life, too. These are troubled times: conflict within and between nations, refugees and victims of war, terrorism and the planet itself under threat from climate change. Old people have lived through this before. Know, if they think about it, that the past has been bad and got better, and can do so again if we rise to the challenge.

“I’m afraid of Twitter. Things seem like they’re falling apart, but they always have been. We just find out about them a lot more easily now” John Goodman

Getting wise to past experience

While old people by definition have decades of experience, learning from it isn’t easy.

Daniel Kahnemann tells of a group producing a text book. They forecast it would take them 1-2 years, and a curriculum expert in the group agreed. But when they asked the expert how long it usually took to produce a text book, he replied, 7 years, and 40% fail to finish the book at all. The group ignored this because the work seemed to be going well. In fact, it took 8 years and the book was never used.

This, says Kahnemann, is the “planning fallacy”. We estimate based on the best-caschickenwisdomhowtoe scenario rather than the most realistic one. I do this myself when I time sections for a training course. 5 minutes here, 20 minutes there, adding up exactly to the time I have available. Past experience shows that I always run out of time, but I ignore experience because I don’t want to leave out my best material.

Learning from past experience means asking:

  • Have you been here before?
  • What happened that time?
  • What helped, and can you do something similar?
  • What didn’t work, and how can you avoid making the same mistake?

To be wise in old age requires knowledge, perspective and hard work, it doesn’t come automatically. That much I have learnt.

Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking Fast and Slow

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