David Heinemeier Hansson

June 26, 2023

Wisdom is not what you know

The hallmark of great wisdom is not what you know, but what you know and can put to use. The globe is full of learned idiots, unable or incapable of following the wisdom they have accumulated. There's no prize for a closet full of axioms or insights, if you leave it all in there, and venture philosophically naked into the world.

Ironically, this was a lesson I had to learn late in life myself. I used to find it silly when people would read the same book twice. With so much more knowledge to discover, why waste your efforts on what you've already explored?

Because wisdom doesn't stick just by reading it once.

All the most valuable lessons in life require repetition. You don't get in shape by knowing how to do a push-up but by doing a hundred a week. Accept that wisdom is a form of mental exercise.

This is why I love the Stoics. They produced an exercise program for wisdom that is as counterintuitive to our emotions as it is commanding when mastered. Chief amongst the insights are the ideas that we suffer more in our imagination than in reality, and that it is folly to focus on what you can't control.

Or, put a different way: This too shall pass.

Those four little words can take a lifetime to live up to. Even when you know, from first exposure, that this ought to be the way. As soon as you actually need this pithy little reminder, it's usually nowhere to be found. To have it emerge top of mind in a time of need requires immense training.

I've tried to remember this strength of repetition when I find myself saying the same thing for the sixtieth time in writing, on a podcast, or during an interview. Yes, there'll undoubtedly be people who've heard it all before, either from me or someone else, but that doesn't reduce the value of the exchange. We're just doing the reps!

It's also why I try to read The Manual by Epictetus at least twice a year. It's a cognitive double espresso. Such punch in such a small cup. You could consume it in half an hour on a sprint, but I usually like to take twice that to savor the timeless wisdom.

You are what you think. Become better by thinking better. Think better by repeating the few hard lessons you know you need the most.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.