Wisdom is not a one-time thing. It is intelligent learning stretched over the long haul and applied mindfully. Situations change, calling for course corrections—or an unexpected level of complexity appears, revealing new paths and challenges. So use periodic, iterative processes whose outcomes give birth to—and feed into—new inquiries, insights, possibilities and activities.
Related: 22 Enough Time, 29 Generative Interactions, 37 Multi-Modal Intelligence, 43 Possibility Thinking, 45 Powerful Questions, 64 Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively, 69 Wise Use of Uncertainty
Going deeper …
This is an edited version of the video on this page.
Iteration involves the output from one process or formula becoming an input into a subsequent and often similar kind of process.
That’s the fundamental dynamic of intelligence: We learn something and we take the resulting understanding out into life to see how it works. Sometimes it works really well and each time it works it becomes more validated and embedded in our understanding. Or it works sometimes but not at other times. We start to develop a nuanced understanding and say, “Okay, I have now learned a new thing to apply to life – when this works and when it doesn’t.” Or it doesn’t work at all and you trash it, saying, “Okay, I have to start over again learn how this works.” So iteration is fundamental to the construction and unfolding of intelligence itself.
A main dimension of wisdom is that this learning process doesn’t stop. A lot of people and groups will learn something, attach themselves to what they’ve learned, and then hold on to it no matter what’s going on. That’s foolish. Wisdom is more responsive to the challenges that life presents to the things we know. Maintaining our iterative learning process over the long haul and being conscious of how we’re doing it – that is the applied mindfulness part, which is a big part of wisdom.
We can ride along stable situations for a long time until we run into things that are changing. At that point we need to change, too. That’s the fundamental lesson of adaptive evolution: When the situation changes, you’d better change how you’re thinking and responding and feeling to fit that. Because if you can’t, you will get hit by reality, by the world around you. Hopefully that will get you to change, because the more you resist, the more you’ll get hit. So being able to continually respond as things change is calling forth your iterative responsiveness. Over and over you are asked to respond newly and to correct your course and adjust your behaviors.
Sometimes it isn’t change per se, but rather that new dimensions of the situation, of reality, or of yourself show up. The complexity of life is almost infinite, and our understandings are always built on a particular level of understanding. You may have gone to a particular depth or to a particular extent and said, “Okay, I understand that.” But there’s always more involved, there’s deeper we can go, there’s more dimensions to what is going on in and around a situation. We can suddenly realize we need to learn something new. It’s not so much that things have changed, but we realize something else is going on there, and that may be a problem or it may be a new opportunity, a new direction to go. So we may think, “Okay, we’ve been looking at this totally wrong. Let’s shift how we look at it.” And suddenly there’s a whole pile of new things we might do that would resolve it. There is a kind of breakthrough.
If you are going to have a wise democracy, you take this dynamic that is so clear in individual and group life – this need to respond to changing circumstances – and you apply it to the whole democratic culture, to the democratic systems, to how you set things up so that instead of just doing a democratic process once, as an event, you do it over and over again.
You have a Citizen Deliberative Council, for example, and what comes out of that goes out into the government, into the population, and it gets digested and used and challenged and all that. Then you do that process again so all of those effects and insights that come from impacting reality get fed back into a renewed learning process. So having this happen over and over and over and over is part of wise democratic culture.
In majoritarian representative and republican systems, voting is supposed to be the main iterative process. We vote for a bunch of people and they do what they do. Then we look at how much we like or don’t like what they’ve done. And then we do another vote and say, “Go ahead, try again,” or we say, “You’re out”, or we say, “We need some new blood.” That feedback loop is an iterative process, and many democracy activists are trying to intensify and upgrade it. And with wise democracy, we want to get more sophisticated and not just do voting. We want to actually be looking at issues over and over again, and looking at our relationship to the broader reality over and over again.
As we make this kind of iteration an intrinsic part of how our different processes, protocols, or institutions operate, we start to move toward a more wise democratic system.