The Optimized Doctor

How to become wise


The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. – Socrates

At what age is one supposed to be wise? I feel like I’m falling behind. I’ve crossed the middle of life and can check the prerequisite experiences: Joy, tragedy, love, adventure, love again. I lived a jetsetter life with an overnight bag always packed. I’ve sported the “Dad AF” tee with a fully loaded dad-pack. I’ve seen the 50 states and had my picture wrapped on a city bus (super-weird when you pull up next to one). Yet, when a moment arrives to pop in pithy advice for a resident or drop a few reassuring lines for a grieving friend, I’m often unable to find the words. If life were a video game, I’ve not earned the wisdom level yet.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente, San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Who are the wise men and women in your life? It’s difficult to list them. This is because it’s a complex attribute and hard to explain. It’s also because the wise who walk among us are rare. Wise is more than being brilliant at bullous diseases or knowing how to sleep train a baby. Nor is wise the buddy who purchased $1,000 of Bitcoin in 2010 (although stay close with him, he probably owns a jet). Neither content experts nor lucky friends rise to the appellation. To be wise you have to not only make good decisions, but also offer good advice. You need both knowledge and insight. Both experience and empathy.

"The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

The ancients considered wisdom to be one of the vital virtues. It was personified in high-profile gods like Apollo and Athena. It’s rare and important enough to be seen as spiritual. It features heavily in the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. In some cultures the wise are called elders or sages. In all cultures they are helpful, respected, sought after, appreciated. We need more wise people in this game of life. I want to be one. But there’s no Coursera for it.

To become wise you have to pass through many levels, put in a lot of reps, suffer through many sleepless nights. Like the third molar, also known as the wisdom tooth, it takes years. You also have to emerge stronger and smarter through those experiences. FDR would not have become one of the wisest presidents in history had it not been for his trials, and victories, over polio. Osler missed Cushing syndrome multiple times before he got it right. It seems you have to go to the mountain, like Batman, and fight a few battles to realize your full wisdom potential.

You must also reflect on your experiences and hone your insight. The management sage Peter Drucker would write what he expected to happen after a decision. Then he’d return to it to hone his intuition and judgment.

Lastly, you have to use your powers for good. Using insight to win your NCAA bracket pool isn’t wisdom. Helping a friend whose marriage is falling apart or colleague whose patient is suing them or a resident whose excision hit an arteriole surely is.

I’ve got a ways to go before anyone puts me on their wise friend list. I’m working on it though. Perhaps you will too – we are desperately short-staffed in this area. For now, I can start with writing better condolences.

“Who maintains that it is not a heavy blow? But it is part of being human.” – Seneca

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

Recommended Reading

Clinician violence: Virtual reality to the rescue?
MDedge Neurology
DEA proposals on telehealth for controlled substances draw fire
MDedge Neurology
The 2023 ‘Meddy’ awards
MDedge Neurology
Dodging PE
MDedge Neurology
Firing patients
MDedge Neurology