Shut Up and Listen

It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809 – 1894)

To have knowledge one must have learned. To have wisdom one must have learned. So where do speaking and listening come into it?

An expert auto mechanc usually has at least one large metal bureau of tools at his disposal when he begins to repair a car. To complete the job he will likely only use a tiny fraction of those tools. Yet without the complete set he might well not have the tool he most needs when the time comes.

So it is with wisdom. A wise man or woman must have vastly more knowledge at his or her fingertips in order to give the best possible advice in a particular situation than is needed for that one situation. However, without that library of knowledge the best possible advice might not be at hand when needed.

The old saying that we learn more with our mouths closed than with them open came about for good reason. We may be able to think and talk at the same time, but we can’t learn and talk together.

Occasionally we will meet someone who seems full of knowledge and quite willing to share it. In abundance. Only after several minutes have passed might we realize that this person has done almost all the talking without giving us much chance to respond.

If our reply is on the same topic as the wonderful speaker, we may be acknowledged for having continued with the thread of his monologue. If we attempt to change the subject, we may find the subject quickly changed back as soon as the talker begins to speak again.

Our natural conclusion might be that the talker has something he feels he must get out before leaving us, something he needs to get off his chest. However, it’s far more likely that the talker wants to stay on his favourite topic because he fears having the conversation stray to another topic in case he knows nothing about that topic.

The talker wants to be valued as someone with knowledge, thus he continues to speak on his favourite subjects, with no hesitation about repeating himself in future conversations. Because the depth of his knowledge is thin on most other subjects, he doesn’t want to be revealed as a know-nothing when he has so carefully cultivated a reputation as someone knowledgeable.

It’s only possible for a young person to be knowledgeable on a limited number of topics. Accumulating an encyclopediac base of knowledge requires several decades of life experience. That, in turn means listening to others a great deal.

The internet, books and television can be useful sources of information, but only by listening to others can we gain an insider’s knowledge of nuances and tweaks that show real expertise. That often means asking questions and then listening as someone who may even know far less than us about most things expounds on his knowledge and expertise on subjects he knows well.

The other method of gaining wisdom is by making mistakes and learning from them. Those with this kind of wisdom may be annoying to listen to, but they can save us a great deal of grief by following their advice.

There is no easy path to wisdom. It requires a commitment to a lifetime of learning. That’s not easy. But then, neither is expertise in anything.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, striving to clarify the tough lessons of life.
Learn more at http://billallin.com

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