One of the most difficult virtues to attain is wisdom. Nobody becomes wise through an accident of birth or by osmosis. As has often been said, wisdom derives from good judgment, which, in turn, derives from bad judgment — and an awful lot of it. Jesus told his disciples, "By their fruits you shall know them." Human history is an immense tapestry of good and bad judgment calls, wisdom and folly, all intertwined. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," represents a sad epitaph. Yet, when the smoke has cleared and the results of our decision-making have been revealed, there's no escaping the evidence. Credit default swaps certainly must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it'd take quite a stretch of the imagination to pretend that the results were anything short of disastrous.

There's never a shortage of denial among us human beasties. Just when you might imagine that all the evidence is in and irrefutable, someone shows up with his (or her) head in the sand, proclaiming the black is white and up is down. The world sadly experiences no shortage of Holocaust deniers . . . and that's only one example. Yes, wisdom can be very hard to come by and, when you do come by it, it can be very expensive. As a boy, my dad was having a lot of fun feeding paper into a reel lawn mower and watching the blades shred the paper. That is, he had fun until it lopped off the tip of his thumb, giving him a bump (where they reattached it) that he carried with him to the grave. Of course, I was much wiser than he: I was cutting photographic paper into narrow test strips on the paper cutter in my darkroom one day until it lopped off the top of my index finger. Unlike my dad, I'm carrying a flat top finger with me to my grave. As the Pennsylvania Dutch were fond of saying, "We're too soon old and too late smart."

"The wisdom to know the difference," says the end of the Serenity Prayer (short version). The difference between what? Between the things I can and cannot change. What, after all, actually falls within my power to change? Only time (and a lot of it) teaches the truth about that. There's very little (if anything) outside of myself that I can change. In fact, one of the things that I've learned through this long life-education process is that changing myself offers the only hope I have of changing situations. It's a Great Truth of systems theory that the more you try to impose change from the outside, the more resistance your system will offer. Yet, people keep pouring their resources into trying to change the world only to find themselves exhausted and the world virtually unaffected. You know the explanation the guy offered when asked why he kept beating his head against the wall, don't you? "It feels so good when I stop," he volunteered.

At some point, there exists a watershed point between the courage to work for change and the serenity to accept the world as it is. The Wisdom Point reveals itself in the continuum between commitment and insanity: between doing what you can and doing the same thing over and over again with the same results. Age seems to be of little help here. You've got more knowledge, skill and experience and can handle more difficult and challenging situations, so you'd expect to be able to accomplish more. Life allows you glimpses of progress from time to time, sometimes only to bolster your hopes. Successful casinos always let you win some; they know you'll be back, encouraged, and ready to fall prey to their lopsided odds. "The wisdom to know the difference." "Strange game. The only winning move is not to play." [War Games] There comes a point — graced by wisdom — that you experience the existence of that watershed point and you learn that it's time to say 'enough is enough'.

It may be true that winners never quit and quitters never win, but then along comes the midlife transition and you get to see that what got you here won't get you there. [Marshall Goldsmith] Wisdom gives you the power and authority to change from courage to serenity, from engagement to acceptance. I speak sometimes about the cardinal virtues: acceptance, engagement and trust: acceptance of the past, engagement in the present, trust in the future. While never abandoning trust, engagement must always give way to acceptance. That's the way of wisdom. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus recommend to his disciples: "When you have done everything you were ordered to do, say, 'We are but unworthy servants. We have done only what we ought to have done.'"

So, there comes a time when you stand and look around you and see that there's no more that you should do. Evidently, there's much more that you could do ('could' is a bottomless well of possibility), but there's no more that you need to do. The Wisdom Point comes when you reach Stage Five grief: acceptance. It arrives when it finally sinks in that your business is finished; when you look at your career and finally acknowledge that you can't do this anymore; when you realize that leaving a marriage will be much less painful than staying in it; when you finally accept that doing the things you love to do isn't worth dying for. That, after all, is the ultimate 'dead end,' isn't it? Wisdom dictates that you don't have to take it that far; you don't have to let your stubbornness kill you. Until the ultimate 'dead end', every ending is a new beginning, though sometimes it's hard to know one from the other. We can pray for "the wisdom to know the difference."

Author's Bio: 

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC grew up in an entrepreneurial family and has been an entrepreneur for most of his life. He is the author of The Frazzled Entrepreneur's Guide to Having It All. Les is a certified Franklin Covey coach and a certified Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Effectiveness coach. He has Masters Degrees in philosophy and theology from the University of Ottawa. His experience includes ten years in the ministry and over fifteen years in corporate management. His expertise as an innovator and change strategist has enabled him to develop a program that allows his clients to effect deep and lasting change in their personal and professional lives.