RIP Walter Breuning: Smarts & Wisdom – and Why You Need Both

Picture of Walter Breuning, taken on April 8, 2010

Walter Breuning - April 8, 2010

The young man knows the rules but the old man knows the exceptions” suggested Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Holmes, one of the 20th century’s most influential public figures, was on to something.

While youth (and fresh eyes) serve well with certain types of situations – think Emperor’s New Clothes, quant analysis, or the brilliance behind the Apple’s designs –  wisdom from elders is something that you can’t find anyplace else.

While there’s no doubt that it helps to have smarts and perseverance, wisdom goes a long ways. Like the difference between efficiency (doing something well) and effectiveness (doing the right thing), the sweet spot in performance is the intersection of the two. The same is true with wisdom and smarts.

“Smart” companies and organizations are those that have one or two “wizened hands” around, paying for themselves in spades with the wisdom they provide. And while their roles may vary from chairman, to outside advisor, to even leadership and executive coach, the result is the same; advice you simply can’t get anyplace else. That wisdom if you use it is essence the gift of “going to school” every day. As a piece in Psychology Today noted, “it’s a matter of absorbing memories and critical life lessons from our elders.

And when they’re gone, they’re gone. No “can we please have one more do-over?

Walter Breuning, the world’s old man, died two days in Montana at 114. His death follows the passing in March of Frank Buckles, whose death at 110 took away the last American veteran of the First World War. While their lives were different, their messages by word and how they lived are remarkably the same. (The oldest person in the world is Besse Cooper from Monroe, Georgia, who was born 26 days earlier than Breuning.)

Secrets to living that type of rich, long life?

Embrace change, even when it slaps you in the face, for starters.  “Every change is good,” note Breuning. Buckles, born in West Virginia, embraced change by a lifetime of adventure ranging from an under-age soldier, to working as a purser on a shipping line, to running a farm after he had “retired.”

Help others – “The more you do for others, the better shape you’re in” according to Breuning. Buckles life was built upon service; after his retirement he spent his years advocating better care and treatment for American soldiers from all wars.

Work as long as you can. While both men could have retired and played golf, they actively engaged in all sorts of productive activities and tasks up to the very end. As Frank Breuner noted as an aside, “That money is going to come in handy.”

While 89 year old Betty White may not make your life, she might be able to change it. Part of the trick from White, echoed by Buckles and Breuning, is to live passionately.

Albert Einstein – not someone short in the smarts department, noted that “Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

People like Walter Breuning, Frank Buckles and Betty White show us a way to live our lives wisely.

All we have to do is listen.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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