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01 July 2009

Don't Be Stupid

Written by Published in Issue 16 - Wisdom Read 1847 times

Are we turning into a fearful, passive culture that finds it easier to blame others for our circumstances than take real responsibility for our lives? A culture where what is frankly foolish is celebrated, rather than what is wise searched out?

Wisdom remains an untainted badge of honour. Wisdom, a human trait that is respected and looked up to and often associated with Eastern gurus and mystics. But the dictionary descriptions of wisdom are rooted in something much more attainable and everyday: accumulated knowledge; the trait of utilising knowledge and experience with common sense and insight; the quality of being prudent and sensible. Aren’t all these just a product of a normal, active, interested and interesting life? Why, then, are the opposites of wisdom – folly and stupidity – seemingly more easily attained?


As a nation we have celebrated and gawped at folly and stupidity in the shape of mindless reality TV, to the extent where folly and stupidity generate viewing figures that attract advertisers who are persuaded to hand over any moral wisdom they had in return for viewer reach. Likewise the daily papers and weekly glossies, that pass up world news for stories of empty-headed celebrities falling out of clubs in the early hours. I don’t subscribe to the argument that we are force-fed this low-brow media mush; we do have a choice. National Geographic does a nice line in TV and print. Somehow Britain is allowing itself to sink further into a mire of anti-wisdom.


It doesn’t help when our politicians can’t work out a fair way to remunerate themselves, and cause the wise choice of public service to become a less attractive option. Nor does it help when the so-called safe hands of bankers let greed and short-sightedness contribute to the current economic downturn or when planners play their part in a housing-led recession.


I went to secondary school from 1972 to 1979, a time when three of the most desirable and respected professions were politics-, banking- and planning-related. How many of today’s schoolchildren will be rushing to enter these professions? If wisdom is a quality of being prudent and sensible, then what hope for a generation encouraged to have half a dozen credit cards, and to invest in that most unwise pyramid-selling ruse of buy-to-let apartments?


Until I put pen to paper for this article I had never given much thought to whether I or my family were wise. We are all reasonably knowledgeable, having done OK at school without busting a gut. But if wisdom results from accumulating knowledge and experience – doing stuff – then we Hemingways are wise.


As a kid, my pop taught me to dig ragworm and lugworm on Morecambe Beach at high tide. He taught me how to keep the worms fresh and alive until our fishing expeditions resulted in a few flounders and whiting. I have passed this accumulated knowledge, and the understanding of the value of this part of the food chain, onto my kids. My pop’s and my wife’s dad’s ability to grow fruit, veg and herbs in tiny backyard spaces has allowed us to pass down through the generations the joy – and the great taste – of growing your own.


My nan’s obsession with thrift, reusing plastic bags, and my mum’s household budgeting and aversion to bank-borrowing has been vital to my business success. I can’t imagine a Hemingway borrowing beyond their means. My stepdad introduced me to cricket and other sports. Teamwork, friendship, fitness, the vagaries of the weather and learning how to win and lose is wisdom that I have relished passing down to my brood.


I was encouraged to smile at strangers and say hello; to learn from human interaction. In Britain today the fear of ‘stranger-danger’ results in parents locking their kids indoors playing computer games. We have councils that provide kids with ‘safe play’ areas consisting of half a dozen spring chickens, rather than something where kids might learn about balance and risk. Somehow I don’t think that engaging with virtual reality will result in a wise generation. I am reading an enlightening book at the moment, The Spirit Level – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. It points to the damaging effects of living in a country where only 30% of us trust strangers, versus the benefits of Scandinavian society where more than double this percentage are open to encounters with people they don’t know.


My wife and I learned about retail and entrepreneurship by being able to sell our wares in Camden market for £6 a day, and at the wonderful Kensington Market for £12 a week. There’s nothing like being able to see the whites of your customer’s eyes. You soon learn what the public likes and doesn’t like. Today our pension-fund-owned clone streets price start-ups out of the market, contributing yet more to a passive generation.


Our society has grown used to not doing, and is all too happy to heap blame on our public servants rather than go out and take control of their lives themselves. When politicians mess up, we mock rather than determine to do better. We want our homes, our meals, our jobs and the heads of our MPs delivered to us on a plate.


We have exchanged wisdom for folly.

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