I’ve heard it said that the difference between knowledge and wisdom is this: knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.
Well, where exactly did I hear that? It’s an old joke, one that’s been around for years, but here’s a confession: I actually looked it up for the purpose of writing today’s letter, a purpose which I hope will be obvious soon. I have no real expertise in the area of fruit—and the only thing I really have to offer when it comes to fruit salad is my appetite. Instead, I want to use it today to talk about the most dangerous kind of wisdom I’ve seen: borrowed wisdom.
Now, real wisdom is one of the greatest tools any hero can bring along on their quest. In fact, wisdom is often the real reward of going on quests. But like a suit of armor designed for someone else, borrowed wisdom never fits quite right—and can be quite dangerous.
So what is borrowed wisdom? Well, I’m not saying you shouldn’t find wisdom from other places—because wisdom is everywhere. It’s in books and movies, in people, in history, even in your own past. Wisdom is everywhere, ripe for the taking. But not for borrowing; for the earning.
I see borrowed wisdom all too often. It’s what makes up book summaries, the kind that claim they can teach you all the important lessons from Moby Dick or The Brothers Karamazov in 15 minutes. It’s what fuels clickbait titles and “productivity hacks” that claim they have some long lost secret or new technological innovation that lets you master some previously difficult skill in fractions of the time. And it’s the pernicious source of all sorts of one-off quotes and truisms, the kind that sound like they mean something but can’t stand up to any real scrutiny.
In stories, we instinctually know that borrowed wisdom isn’t the same as the real thing. It’s why we can’t just pick up a book, flip to the last chapter, and feel the same thing we would feel if we had read the whole book. It’s not as simple as “it’s more about the journey than the destination.” Rather, we inherently know that in order to understand the hero, the world they live in, and their choices, we have to go along for the whole ride.
Real wisdom is earned. It’s earned with bloody noses, scraped knees, and skinned elbows. It’s earned in the ordinary slug and toil of life. It’s earned in quiet reflection, in taking the time and creating the space to really, truly reflect on a new idea. And it’s earned with the thousand upon thousand of ordinary steps along the road of your adventure.
So as you set about your day, beware the borrowed wisdom, the kind of simplistic answer that leaves your head as quickly as it enters it. And above all else—don’t take my advice on fruit salad. Though you’re always welcome to send some my way!
May the road rise up to meet you!