Knowledge is looking at one sparkly, colorful pebble in the mosaic. Understanding is looking at the whole of the mosaic and seeing its wholeness as a mosaic. Wisdom is taking a step back to look at the big picture created by all the shards you’ve collected over your lifetime and grasping the implications of what the mosaic is teaching. Wisdom is the ability to use your knowledge to live a good life and make a positive impact on the world.

Knowledge leading to understanding which can lead to wisdom are all invaluable for personal and professional growth, and understanding their distinctions is essential for decision-making and problem-solving.

The Difference Between Knowledge vs. Wisdom

Knowledge is the accumulation of facts and data about the world. It's what you learn through education, reading, and experiences. Understanding is the integration of knowledge into a whole that makes sense and allows one to make decisions (predictions) from that understanding. In contrast, wisdom goes beyond just simple understanding of how fact-derived knowledge becomes understanding. It’s how you apply that understanding  in real-world situations, demonstrating sound judgment, comprehensive understanding, and, often, a deep level of insight.

Wisdom allows you to recognize and manage uncertainty, while being agile and flexible enough to come up with solutions to difficult, complex problems. You see the layers of an issue and slice it multiple ways to predict the implications of each solution. You’re aware that each situation requires contextual understanding and deep curiosity about underlying motivations rather than judging it at perceived face value.

Knowledge Is Knowing What to Do. Understanding is Understanding Why You do It, Wisdom Is Discerning When and How to Do It.

A doctor may have extensive knowledge gained in medical school, but may not be wise enough to make the best decisions for their patients. A straight-A student could have gained perfect test scores in a subject and still lack the wisdom to apply that knowledge in a real-world setting. Conversely, you don’t need a formal education to become wise, but you do need a broad and deep understanding of the world and to be able to exercise good judgment. 

Different types of knowledge are the building blocks of wisdom, mainly explicit, implicit, and tacit knowledge.

Explicit Knowledge: Clearly Defined and Easily Shared

Explicit knowledge is based on straightforward data that can be understood, interpreted, formalized, codified, and explained. This type of information is simple to store and share. In a business context, this may include operational processes, employee expectations, or industry-specific vocabulary that can be communicated via datasheets, handbooks, instruction manuals, and white papers. Explicit knowledge is the basic foundation, accessible to everyone, and fairly easy and quick to absorb.

Implicit Knowledge: Applying Theory to Real-World Settings

Implicit knowledge, also known as conceptual knowledge, is the application of explicit knowledge in practice. As you become familiar with a new position, for example, you’ll learn how to use your explicit knowledge in the new environment. You’ll figure out which methods or techniques work best on a day-to-day basis, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches, and making decisions on how to complete tasks most efficiently.

Implicit knowledge often happens by accident, through trial and error, and experimentation. It involves synthesizing explicit knowledge and improving upon it through practical experience. Implicit knowledge can transfer between situations, industries, and environments.

Tacit Knowledge: Grasping the Intangible

Tacit knowledge is gained through experience and practice like implicit knowledge, but it’s extremely situation-specific and much harder to grasp. It can be understood almost as a subconscious type of knowledge creation which is very difficult to articulate and communicate. Because it’s gained through informal means, it’s challenging to quantify and often too expansive or complex to verbalize, document, visualize, or share with others. Tacit knowledge is highly subjective and specific to an individual or environment. 

Tacit knowledge includes intuition which is an innate ability to understand situations and circumstances without using logic. It’s obvious in star athletes like Tom Brady, who intuitively know where to throw the ball without the ability to use rational thought in the moment. You may have noticed it in yourself or other entrepreneurs who have a gut feeling about when to launch a new product or start a risky marketing strategy because you have a sense of the outcome that’s beyond available data. 

Many people aren’t aware of the tacit knowledge they possess or how it could benefit others. And even if they are, it can be nearly impossible to teach or share. Because there is no formalized structure to share tacit knowledge, it’s left up to the individual to pass on their internal wealth. Because tacit knowledge is so important it’s worth the required time, space, practice, and in-depth explanations to communicate. 

How to Become Wise

Though often associated with age, wisdom is a trait that can be cultivated at any stage in life. Focusing on the process rather than outcomes, learning from mistakes, and developing genuine curiosity to listen and learn will build the depth of self-awareness and genuine understanding of other people and the world that are the foundations of wisdom. 

Put yourself in the proximity of wise people. Get a mentor. Learn a new skill. Listen to someone with a completely different background. Challenge your own assumptions. These efforts can all result in elevating your critical thinking skills, self-reflection, and ability to see patterns and themes. 

Most importantly, always consider how your developing wisdom can benefit your life, your community, and the world as a whole.

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