Wisdom: The Meta-strength

Actions speak louder than words. Or is it, the pen is mightier than the sword? Look before you leap. Or is it, she who hesitates is lost? Too many cooks spoil the broth. Or is it, many hands make light work? Countless moments I have echoed these proverbs while contemplating situations of hostility, teamwork, and commitment. We counsel a sensible proverb in time of need, yet seldom is there a correct prescriptive how-to that enables the perfect solution to the complex problems of life.

The virtue of wisdom is considered the meta-strength that enables us to understand how to navigate through ethical dilemmas. Organizations that wish to take a strengths-approach should consider the development of this meta-strength rather than simply discuss the nomenclature of the strength framework.  

More important than using one’s strengths is knowing when to use what strength, the degree to which we balance our strengths, and understanding how strengths work in combination (Biswas-Diener, Kashdan, & Minhas, 2011). It is difficult to balance kindness (from indifference to excessive flattery) with leadership (compliance to harsh tyranny) in a situation that calls for discussing an incomplete, late project with an employee.

Knowing how to use strengths (called practical intelligence) is not enough. Knowing the value of a strength within a certain context requires true wisdom (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2005). Leaders must act like expert archers—knowing the technique of the bow (practical intelligence), while also having the keen eye of a hawk to know where to aim (practice wisdom).  

What is wisdom

Wisdom is considered the master virtue in solving the problems of specificity, relevance, and conflict that arise in transferring abstract strength knowledge into real-world situations (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2005). According to VIA character strengths, the virtue of wisdom encompasses the cognitive strengths of:

  • Creativity : originality, adaptivity, ingenuity
  • Curiosity : interest, novelty-seeking, exploration, openness to experience

  • Judgment : Critical thinking, thinking things through, open-mindedness

  • Love of learning : mastering new skills/topics, adding to knowledge

  • Perspective : wisdom, providing wise counsel, taking the big picture view

Who is wise?

Common sense identifies wise individuals as the older-aged mentors, yet general consensus in the literature suggests age is not a significant characteristic of wisdom (Brugman, 2000; Glück & Baltes, 2006). Some evidence indicates that adolescence is the period in which individuals develop the “seeds of wisdom” in response to difficult life problems (Pasupathi, Staudinger, & Baltes, 2001). The wisdom literature suggest the virtue of wisdom is not some inherent trait, but an area that can be developed through interventions (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000). This holds promising applications for coaching, team training, and developmental programs in organizations to reap the benefits of regulating strengths.

Enhancing Wisdom

There are three general pathways to cultivate wisdom: explicitly teaching critical thinking skills, implicitly administering wisdom interventions, and learning from life.

First, wisdom can be nurtured in educational settings by teaching strategic critical thinking skills that get at not what to think, but rather how to think (Sternberg, 2001). This is done through active discussions of what makes a satisfying life, teaching the usefulness of interdependence, reading wise judgments, and teaching how to recognize emotions.

Second, short-term interventions can have immediate positive effects. For example, visualization activities have been shown to increase wisdom related outcomes without teaching any new knowledge (Staudinger & Baltes, 1996).

Lastly, one can ultimately learn through the experiences of life with guidance from mentors who can facilitate the process of gaining insight (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000).  Taking an objective view on your life events during self-reflection will benefit future contemplation of actions. Confronting difficulties, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, and allowing yourself to practice authenticity in the face of ambiguity accelerates the growth of wisdom (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2005). So take that opportunity to speak in front of class and listen to your racing heart beat.


Baltes, P. B., & Staudinger, U. M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American psychologist55(1), 122.

Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T.B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106-118.

Brugman, G. (2000). Wisdom: Source of narrative coherence & eudaimonia: A life-span perspective. Eburon.

Glück, J., & Baltes, P. B. (2006). Using the concept of wisdom to enhance the expression of wisdom knowledge: Not the philosopher's dream but differential effects of developmental preparedness. Psychology and Aging21(4), 679.

Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In Fave, D. Well-being and cultures (pp. 11-29). Springer Netherlands.

Schwartz, B. & Sharpe, K. (2005). Practical wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology.   Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 377–395.

Staudinger, U. M., & Baltes, P. B. (1996). Interactive minds: A facilitative setting for wisdom-related performance? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology71(4), 746.

Sternberg, R. J. (2001). Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom in educational settings. Educational Psychologist36(4), 227-245.

Pasupathi, M., Staudinger, U. M., & Baltes, P. B. (2001). Seeds of wisdom: Adolescents' knowledge and judgment about difficult life problems. Developmental psychology37(3), 351.