The Mathematics of Age and Wisdom

Time goes faster as we get older.

This makes intuitive sense if you assume time has a subjective flavor, in addition to an objective meaning. A year at age 10 is a tenth of one’s live; at age 50, it’s only 2% of one’s life. The rate of passage of time, measured by our perception of change, indeed increases.

Now apply that concept to age and wisdom. How much wiser is a 60-year old person than a 20-year old person? Three times wiser?
I would argue at least a multiple of six. If not more. Here’s how.

Let’s define wisdom in a narrow, simple way: the ability to perceive patterns from the data of life. And I don’t mean book-data. Any young trader on Wall Street can cite statistics about past bear markets. But the old traders will tell you, until you’ve been through one, you’ll behave stupidly when presented with it the first time.

A 20-year old person has seen 20 years of life. A 60-year old person has seen 3 times that much. Without complicating the math, the oldster has got 3 times more direct experience—more data from which to mine patterns.

But add subjectivity. A 60-year old has not only his or her own life at close hand, but the prior 60 or so years take on a new light. They become more accessible.

Born in 1950, World War II seemed impossibly distant for me at age 10. After all, it had started more than a lifetime ago—for me. At age 40, I was shocked that college freshmen viewed the Vietnam War as similarly distant. Like all boomers—veterans especially—the passage of time has brought those two wars much closer together.

My son, who is now 19, met my grandmother, who lived to 100. She listened to Civil War stories, first-hand, at the feet of soldiers who fought it. That’s one degree of separation from the Civil War to a PS3 gamer.

Yet that feels less remarkable to me now than it used to. I can now envision the 1920s far more easily than previously; but the 1890s still feel quite beyond my grasp.

So here’s my mathematical rule of wisdom: you can mine the history of 2x your age for wisdom.

Thank god wisdom doesn’t depend much on memory. That seems to work in the other direction.

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