Commentary

October 11, 2013

Got wisdom?

Col. DANIEL SMITH
56th Aerospace Medicine Squadron

I remember a story about two friends deer hunting in the woods and as fortune would have it, they acquired their prey with one swift and timely shot. It was a large and heavy six point buck that would fill the freezer and keep their families fed through the winter months.

They dressed the deer and made ready for the long and arduous task of dragging the deer back to camp.

Each man grabbed a hind leg and began tugging the deer over the ground toward camp. After several minutes, one of the deer hunters said to his friend, “Ya know, if we drag this deer from his front legs, then we’ll be pulling with the grain of the hair instead of against it and it might drag more smoothly across the ground.”

The companion thought about it for a minute and said, “Yer right! Let’s give it a try.” So they dropped the hind legs and picked up the fore legs and began walking. After several minutes the first hunter smiled smugly and proclaimed proudly, “You see, isn’t this so much easier? He just kind of glides right over the ground.” The second hunter scratched his head with his free hand and with a concerned look on his face replied, “Well yes, but we’re getting further and further away from camp.”

A few of you will have to read that last line a couple times to get the point of the story. The first hunter introduced a gem of knowledge to the situation. Dragging the deer with the grain of hair would make the effort easier than dragging against the grain of hair. But they failed to apply wisdom, or the correct use of that knowledge.

The bottom line is knowledge is different than wisdom. You and I know people who seem to know a lot.

They can recite events, dates, places, equations, recipes, etc. In fact, in this electronic age, access to data stores, databases, Google searches, and online academia allows one almost instantaneous access to an infinite amount of facts, research and learning that would promote knowledge on just about any theme or topic.

But from where and how does wisdom come? As Isaac Asimov stated, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

A quick Internet search of The Free Dictionary defines wisdom as “1. The ability to discern or judge what is true, right or lasting. 2. Common sense; good judgment. 3a. The sum of learning through the ages; knowledge. 3b. Wise teachings of the ancient sages. 4. A wise outlook, plan or course of action. 5. Bible; Wisdom of Solomon. The quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment.”

In most of the definitions I looked up, a common theme seemed to emerge. Wisdom typically, not always, requires time and experience. Confucius stated wisdom is typically gained, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

As a fourth year medical student at our nation’s military medical school, we were to receive training not only in the arts and science of medicine, but also in its application in military scenarios. One such scenario took place over a two-day exercise where we were deployed with a forward troop movement where some of the troops came in contact with a dead camel harboring Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, a serious and contagious illness that instantly spread to those troops. As the medical officer, I was to brief the commanding officer on this medical situation, how it would affect the mission and offer my counsel as to what should be done.

As I studied the situation, pieced my notes together and increased my knowledge about CCHF, I was certain I would astound the commander and save the day. Two minutes into my briefing I quickly realized I was floundering horribly. I discussed details that didn’t matter and explored rabbit holes that were irrelevant to the situation. By the time I was done, (actually I think he just finally cut me off in his and my confusion), I was frustrated and embarrassed. I later learned what a commander really wants to know, (it wasn’t the pathophysiology of CCHF), and what courses of action are, and how to use butcher paper to keep things simple and direct. Although frustrated, angry and sheepish, I quickly realized I had nobody to blame but myself. It was a hard-knock experience, but I like to think I gained a little wisdom. I started to understand the quote by Socrates, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Perhaps here is a bit of wisdom I can pass along which has helped me on my path.
Own your mistakes. So many attributes interplay with this concept; pride, insecurity, delusions of grandeur, etc.; did I mention pride? Granted, some mistakes are bigger than others and have larger ramifications, but owning your mistakes is the quickest path to gaining wisdom and getting back on course.

Learn from your mistakes. In school, one of the quickest ways to gain knowledge and apply wisdom is to look up the answers you got wrong on a test and think about them. With respect to my failed briefing, I took a harder look at the commanding officer’s perspective. What did he really want to know? What decisions did he have to make? How does this event affect his responsibility to command and complete the mission? What facts and details are most important and which can be left out entirely? What an opportunity for me to get some wisdom.

Grow from your mistakes. After I owned my mistake and began learning from it, I then had the opportunity to focus on developing this skill. I would like to say I am a master briefer, but undoubtedly that just isn’t true. I still have work to do, but I have enjoyed opportunities to brief commanders, attending physicians, residents, large audiences and have gained ground in that skill.

I am well aware that making mistakes is not the only way to gain wisdom. As Confucius reminded us, it is probably the least desired way. Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Robert Gaylor reminded us the higher a leader climbs up the pole, the more his rear end is flapping in the breeze as a target at which everyone can gawk or take pot shots. In spite of that, and as painful as that can sometimes be, owning our mistakes, learning from them and taking opportunity to grow from them will allow us to stay on the track of integrity and rebound quicker, continuing our leadership journey with a little more wisdom.




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