One Of Us Must Know

There is a fair amount of commentary about the wisdom of crowds, and how often a great deal of people together are wiser than any one individual isolated and alone, no matter how bright. While mobs are not known for being particularly wise, being united by a lowest-common-denominator sort of unity of hatred and anger, easily channeled into violence and anarchical destruction [1], but not easy to channel into productive or beneficial ends, crowds of people can be immensely wise. It is harnessing that wisdom and that excellence that often proves to be a major challenge for others. Today I would like to sketch briefly some of my own comments about the wisdom of crowds and why this wisdom is not appreciated or acted on in the course of our lives to as great an extent as possible.

There is an often-quoted scripture dealing with this subject (Proverbs 11:14: “Where there is no counsel, the people fail, but in a multitude of counselors there is safety.”) that is so often quoted that it has been viewed sometimes as a tired cliche. Yet this aspect of a multitude of counselors is a wise one that is not often sufficiently understood or applied, even by those who quote it the loudest or the most often. Certainly, a great deal of suffering results from bad counsel [2]. Whether such counsel is denied because some lack the courage and the confidence to give it, or lack the skill to give it graciously, or because others lack the wisdom to hear counsel is a vastly more difficult and tangled task. For wisdom to be of profit, some people must have it and be able to express it effectively and compassionately to those who need it, and those who need it must recognize that they need wisdom and seek it out widely, taking advantage for what they do with it but seeking insight from others.

Individually, it can often be immensely rewarding to seek the counsel of others. In the course of my life, I have sought counsel from those friends I thought older and wiser about matters as varied as romantic pursuits to the course of writing plays. One example sticks out, in that I was writing a play at the time about an idealistic and morally upright British counsul in China at the end of the 19th century seeking to deal with the anti-European mobs while treating the people there with respect and preserving his own safety. I had gotten to about the middle of the play where there was a double marriage, and I was stuck about where to go from there. So, I talked with a friend of mine who was the editor of the Asian American literary journal of the university where I attended (I had met her in a math class that we both took) and in the course of the discussion I found a way to guide the story to a successful and elegant solution. I simply needed a perspective of a knowledgeable person about the history and culture of the time who could complement my own. In general, I find such collaborative writing and conversation in general to be immensely fruitful because it provides me with a perspective that I do not tend to possess on my own.

In larger systems, harnessing the wisdom of crowds can be a difficult matter because of the way that those systems are designed and the way that they operate. Sometimes systems are designed to actively inhibit the operation of the wisdom of others. For example, one of the more unjust aspects of corporate law is the way that the ideas and creations of employees are often considered the property of the companies that they work for, providing no incentive for people to speak up or profit for them to do so, even though front-line employees are often far wiser about the details of their jobs than the people responsible for designing and implementing work technologies [3]. Indeed, there can be strong disincentives for speaking up or wishing to be heard, not the least a concern that being too vocal might lead one to be a nail that sticks up only to be hammered down, a voice that is ignored precisely because its presence leads to one being thought of as rebellious and seditious and disloyal and overly questioning and disrespectful. What is done for good motives to help the organization out as a whole can become the cause of suspicion and distress and difficulty from those who are insecure and do not desire the wisdom of those they consider beneath them.

Still, for those who are secure within themselves, the wisdom of others in a wide variety of circumstances and with a wide variety of perspectives can be immensely liberating. When we are freed from the need to feel as if we should know everything (which we cannot) and freed to see life, if only vicariously, through the eyes of others, we are enriched by the experience. Even if we do not adopt the perspectives of others, the fact that we know that they exist, that they are reasonable, and that they are legitimate allows us to better behave ourselves with compassion and understanding towards them. We can listen to what they have to say and take this wisdom into account when we are making our own choices and decisions, better knowing the reasons why others think and feel and act the way that they do. Such a wisdom is a great gift and we ought to appreciate it and take better advantage of it. Given that in this world we can so easily communicate with others if we choose to do so, let us take advantage of that opportunity and use it to develop our own wisdom and character.



[3] This phenomenon was a major aspect of my coursework in Engineering Management, especially in my studies of resistance to technological change. It was one of the more frustrating aspects of my education, the realization that while it is commonly and widely known among management theorists that there is a great deal of wisdom in humble front-line employees, for a variety of reasons, including political ones, such wisdom is not generally tapped by those in management.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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