“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.” - Sandra Carey

Generation Y thinks we know it all. We go off to college to get a good education, a fancy degree, and then think we know how to do everything right away. I often tell people that while I’m glad I pursued a Master’s degree, my coursework only taught me how to do things, it didn’t really teach me how to get things done. Going to school did not teach me how to communicate effectively with different types of people or how to build consensus around an issue. It didn’t teach me how to deal with ethical dilemmas in the workplace. it didn’t even teach me what to do when I screw up. I learned all that through trial and error, and from the wisdom of my peers and older colleagues.

There is a huge disconnect between the theory and the application of things, especially in doing nonprofit work. Young people need the education (which does not necessarily have to come from a university or college), but we also need the wisdom that comes from failing, and learning from our mistakes. I think there’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Wisdom can be described as a combination of both education (which leads to knowledge and expertise) and a leader’s individual experience. N. Korac-Kakabadse, A. Korac-Kakabadse & Kouzmin discussed this distinction well in their 2001 article, “Leadership Renewal: Towards the Philosophy of Wisdom”:

Practical wisdom is not the same as expertise in a technical specialization, but a kind of expertise that requires practice and experience. To study the character of practical wisdom fruitfully, people should have done some living, gained some maturity and assumed some responsibility as householders and members of civic communities.

Which is why I think many young nonprofit leaders should focus on building their leadership skills instead of going back to school. Formal education is not always the answer. Equally important is self-awareness, and the other “soft-skills” that come along with developing wisdom. As the authors point out (my bold emphasis):

Leaders need to have a healthy vision of self which can only be forged in a combination of knowledge and experience. There are no leaders without personality frailty or imperfection. A will to action marks the leader - a willingness to enter the field of human inter-action where one learns that pain gives rise to compassion; that correction is the author of wisdom; that daring sharpens decision; that courage ennobles the spirit; and that in seeds of doubt reside the flowers of faith.

We look up to so many mentors and leaders in the nonprofit field because we believe them to be wise. But it’s clear that wisdom is a deeper form of expertise that can only be developed by learning from life experiences.  Perhaps at some point, young people need to stop trying to know it all and just let ourselves live and learn.

Reference: Korac-Kakabadse, N., Korac-Kakabadse, A., & Kouzmin, A. (2001). Leadership renewal: Towards the philosophy of wisdom. International Review of Administrative Sciences

imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.