In 2007, Paul Graham wrote a clickbait essay titled “Is it worth being wise?.

This is one of the few essays by Paul Graham which doesn’t hit the mark for me, because he uses a lot of words, but doesn’t really hit the essence. He attempted to define wisdom as

“Wise” and “smart” are both ways of saying someone knows what to do. The difference is that “wise” means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and “smart” means one does spectacularly well in a few.

And he spends the rest of the essay examining the implications of these, as well as how he doesn’t get the serenity from insight. He basically justifies discontentment as being a necessary ingredient for intelligence, which is more valued in modern society than in the past.

The entire essay is a classic case of someone who is smart but not necessarily wise: while he might be smart in startups, he definitely does not have the deep life wisdom I’ve seen in someone like Ajahn Brahm or Ajahn Ganha. So not coincidentally, the essay is a bit self-serving: as a co-founder of a startup accelerator, he stands to benefit from having more discontented smart people who want to be materially successful. He doesn’t really benefit if there are more contented wise people in the world who realize that material success is a huge trap and happiness-sink.

Which leads me to an alternative definition of wisdom vs. smarts.

Wisdom might be more usefully (and recursively wisely) defined as

  • being able to make decisions which benefit yourself AND more other people around you
  • while minimizing harm for yourself and others
  • in the long term.

In other words, the three parts of wisdom are really about

  • the scope of the benefit being yourself AND others around you
  • harm-minimization: the Golden Rule applies here.
  • time horizon or duration being long-term.

In the case of real practicing Buddhists, the long-term is really long-term: we are talking about multiple lifetimes…

While smarts can be defined as

  • primarily benefiting yourself, and maybe your immediate circle,
  • in the shorter term
  • while hiding potential harm to a future date

So a software engineer who benefits his company today by taking on tech debt (before he leaves) is smart.

But a software engineer who makes decisions that benefit herself, AND also millions of other people (through open source software) with very little tech debt? Now, that is wise.

And what is the real benefit of wisdom? The real benefit is the happiness you experience in this life.