“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” — Confucius
Ever heard of Confucius??? He was an ancient Chinese philosopher who focused on creating ethical models around family relationships, public interactions, and educational standards. I remember hearing about him as a kid, and how us kids would always tease each other when someone did something really dumb. We would say, in our best Chinese accent, “Confucius says” and then the obvious thing the person should NOT have done. As kids, we didn’t know a lot about Confucius, but we knew he was wise and if he said something, you should listen.
Confucius lived from 551 B.C. through 479 B.C.. Yeah, a few years back, but his wisdom has lasted centuries and will continue to do so. This is a great quote on how anyone can obtain wisdom. In just a few words, he tells you everything you need to know on how to gain wisdom and the best ways to do it. Let’s look at them.
What is reflection? “It’s how you look in the mirror.” No, I don’t think this is what Confucius is talking about. He is saying that the noblest way to learn is through reflection. This is where we take time to look back over the day, something that happened, or something we did, and see if we did it the best we could. Could we have done something different or better that would have worked out better for us? By reflecting on the day and what we have done, we can learn from what worked and what didn’t in hopes that we can add wisdom around handling life’s events. Many of the best thinkers in the world take time for reflection. Confucius says this is the noblest way to learn.
“Stop imitating me.” This was a common complaint we would have of our brothers or sisters growing up when they were making fun of us. But Confucius says that imitation is another way we can learn wisdom. No, he is not saying to tease your siblings. He is simply saying that if you want a certain outcome then look at others who have achieved that outcome and just imitate them. Do what they do and how they do it and you can have what they have.
We can learn how do things by studying exactly how others have done them and get the same things they have gotten. By imitating successful people, we can have their success. Confucius believed this to be the easiest way to gain wisdom as someone else has already done all the heavy lifting. All you have to do is copy them.
People offen say that “Experience is the best teacher.” Well, Confucius says this is the bitterest way to learn. How can it be bitter? Often we have to fail, over and over, to gain the experience to do something better and avoid failure. That repetitive failure can be very bitter and disheartening. Too many times, people will do the same things over and over and over again and get the same disappointing outcome. They never take the time to reflect on what they are doing wrong, or learn from someone who has already done what they are trying to do. They resort to repetitive failure before they eventually learn. This is surely a way to learn, but one that Confucius says is the bitterest and can sometimes be the most costly.
I believe Confucius provided us these three ways to attain wisdom so we can understand how and when to use them. Experience is a great teacher, and I believe that we only reach failure if we stop when we fail. If we keep going, then we just learned how NOT to do something. I believe that we can easily follow what others have done and find success and wisdom in what we are trying to accomplish. Why try to re-invent the wheel when someone has already done that? Just copy what they did and you can have a wheel too. I definitely agree that reflection is one of the best ways to gain wisdom because looking back on our actions and outcomes can help us piece together cause and effects that will help us learn how to do things better.
I say we should do all three. Find someone who is successful at something what you want to be successful doing. Imitate them, reflect on your experiences, and try again. This is one of those “wash, rinse, repeat” cycles where wisdom can be attained. Through trying again, again, and again, we will steadily be learning and gaining wisdom. Take time to study others, try different things, and then make time to reflect on how things worked out. This is clearly a definite path to wisdom.