When I was in college, I longed not to be learned but to be wise. I was learning rapidly, and soaking up new ideas all the time. I was making connections between all sorts of different systems of thought and culture. I thought I had human nature all figured out.

I was, however, wise enough at the time to know that I would be foolish to consider myself wise. That paradox never really resolves itself. The moment you think yourself wise, you have made a fool of yourself. Go ahead…try it, then wait a while.

Still, I must have shot my mouth off about how wise I was, because some people thought I was wise, and would ask me to help them sort out problems in their personal or academic lives. I was foolish enough back then to try to help them.

Now that I am middle-aged and raising two children with my wife, I feel both smarter and more foolish than ever. It is hard to feel wise when you can’t get your kids to do the simplest things most of the time. I find people–even the ones I am closest to–to be, at turns, more predictable and more inscrutable than ever. It is much easier to predict what people will do than it is to understand why.

What does it really mean to be wise? It’s certainly different than being smart, clever, or quick–though all those things don’t hurt. Being wise is about seeing the big picture, especially when those around you have lost sight of it, and using that viewpoint to help others help themselves.