Making Sense of What is

by Kamran Rizvi

Kamran Rizvi came to Pakistan and pioneered the self-improvement and organisation

development movement under the banner of KZR


“Every day experiences carry immense value for us if only we develop the insight to

find significance in the apparently mundane events of life and work”.




What is reality? We can approach it from a ‘facts-based’ perspective, e.g., over seven billion people live on one planet called earth, which is part of our solar system. Another way of looking at what is, is ‘perception-based’ e.g., Individuals live in their own world. They see the world, not as it is, but as they are. They substantiate their view of reality by what they experience and how they interpret it. The former is objective and the latter, subjective. Managers and leaders need to view ‘reality’ from both perspectives to be effective and inspiring.

Consider these two paradigms: 1) We are in this world; and 2) We are of this world. Our interpretation of what is will vary significantly, depending on which of the two paradigms guides our thinking. ‘We are in this world’ paradigm leads us to realize that not so long, we all came to this world crying. At the time, we were helpless, dependent and completely oblivious of our surroundings. Gradually, we started to see things, touch things and feel their texture. We heard all kinds of sounds in our immediate environment – mechanical and natural. Slowly, but surely, we started making sense of our everyday experiences; became mildly cognizant of our relationships with people, and the world in which we live. Fast forward, we went through school, college and/or university and came out the other end as entrepreneurs or employees. We became functional, and to some degree, responsible.

We started earning a living and got our first taste of autonomy. Soon after, most of us entered the realm of delusion – thinking what we knew was all there was to know and mindlessly got involved in a rat-race. We unconsciously acquired the ‘we are of this world’ paradigm. In this paradigm, people measured their success with money, status and power they enjoyed over others. They thought they could control people and events. They defended status quo due to their own sense of insecurity. They defined themselves by their possessions and positions. Such individuals forgot, that sooner or later, they too will find themselves in their own 6 feet by 2 feet [grave], but only if they were fortunate enough. Such a fate awaits us all, and to forget this in our daily conduct is to embrace ignorance.

Making sense of what is, also requires wisdom. The Random House College Dictionary describes wisdom as having knowledge of what is true or right, coupled with good judgment. In another dictionary, I found wisdom to mean making correct use of knowledge. This made me think. I wondered what incorrect use of knowledge might be! And the answer was astonishing. It turns out that someone making incorrect use of knowledge is a fool!

Over two thousand years ago, a young man in his late teens had this intense desire to seek out the truth. He discovered that there was a man in his town he could go to in his search for wisdom. This wise old man was Socrates. The young man met the philosopher who took him for a walk to a nearby lake. On reaching the shore, Socrates took this young man’s hand in his and started walking into the water, ever so slowly, and continued moving gently till both of them were waist high in water. Socrates stopped, quietly placed his hand behind the young man’s head and in a sudden motion, shoved the boys head into the water. He held it there firmly. The seeker of wisdom, fast running out of breath, was now in a state of shock. A thought raced through his mind that maybe he had made a mistake by coming to this old man who’d apparently gone mad. As the seconds ticked away, the lad struggled for breath, and Socrates in turn used even more force to keep him down. A point came when the boy knew that the only way to survive was to put all his might and lunge out of Socrates’ strong grip, for a gasp of air. Using every bit of his strength he succeeded to pull himself out of danger. On recovering his breath and composure, he demanded to know why on earth did Socrates do this?! Socrates replied, “Young man, the day you pursue your goals with the force of passion you displayed just now for catching one breath, that’ll be the day you will gain wisdom!”

This parable is simple, yet profound and contains several implications for corporate leaders whose aim it is to empower people. I have shared this parable of the young boy and Socrates with a countless number of managers in coaching and training sessions throughout the country to good effect. Over a decade ago, Late Brig Azhar Ansari (Retd), quoting a general in the army he admired, said, “You cannot lead with the heart of a sparrow.”

Invariably, one finds that those with greater wisdom are not necessarily the ones with better professional and/or educational qualifications. In essence, what makes managers effective and better than their counterparts is their ability in applied wisdom – ie., knowing how to get people to work well with one another; knowing how to attract talent and inspire them to coach their successors; how to motivate people to do their best; how to get the whole organization strategically aligned and to act collectively in meeting difficult challenges. After all, management is about converting resources into results efficiently and effectively, and this goal can never be accomplished without people skills.

Look around you. Meet some senior bureaucrats in government, top managers in companies and leading social activists in development. A number of them have a string of degrees under their names as proof of all the accumulated knowledge they have acquired. What good is all this knowledge if it is not being put to correct and effective use?

The more we know, the greater the risk of us acting as fools when we fail to do what we know to be right. How many managers challenge status quo? How many directors speak up in board meetings and express views that go counter to that of the chairman’s? Behind a lot of pomp and ceremony, when you look hard enough, you will find cowardice dressed up as expedience. Fear is the enemy of wisdom and turns knowledge workers into fools.

‘In search of wisdom’, can also be seen as: ‘A desire to avoid foolishness’. Foolishness in Urdu means ‘Jihaalat’. Sadly, in our society, people who are not literate are mostly termed “Jaahils”, when, in fact, some may actually be quite wise! Knowledge is acquired through formal means, e.g., Universities, colleges, schools, madrassas; as well as through informal sources, e.g., self-study, observations, experiences, the company of elders, etc. Experience, however, is the more relevant avenue of wisdom acquisition for those who reflect. The Quran emphasizes repeatedly, “There are signs for those who reflect.”

Every day experiences carry immense value for us if only we develop the insight to find significance in the apparently mundane events of life and work. For example, the simple exercise of learning from one’s own mistakes. The most important elements in our experiences are the day-to-day routine mistakes we make. Being able to acknowledge our own mistakes; to draw lessons from them; and then to share this knowledge with others is the starting point of wisdom. It takes good intent, courage and vision to be wise – wise enough to take the kind of actions that lead to improvement and enduring good in our places of work, and in our homes and communities.

Learning from our own mistakes is fine. But to supplement this by learning from the mistakes of others is even better. A decade ago, late Obaidullah Baig gave an inspiring talk on ‘History’ to over 200 young students and professionals gathered at the Young Leaders’ Conference organized in Karachi, organized by the School of Leadership. Participants were spell bound for over an hour. His message was crisp and clear. According to him the study of history enriches us with the wisdom and experiences of colossal personalities who have ever lived. We learn of their thoughts, actions, and consequences of their actions. By caring to read the great figures of history, we can learn from their mistakes and become even wiser.

Wisdom is like excellence – an ever-moving target, the pursuit of which is in itself an admirable quality in people. Not to search for wisdom is to condemn our lives voluntarily to mediocrity and indeed to foolishness. Einstein reminds us by saying that no matter how much we know, our knowledge will always be limited. But with imagination, we can encircle the world.

It is in our humility and strength of character that greatness finds expression.

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