Preparing for Their Future: The Importance of Learning to Navigate Ambiguity
My older son began taking an environmental science class a couple of months ago, his first real “class” in a long time, complete with regular assignments and a teacher who provides feedback and grades. As I’ve been watching him do research for his various reports and presentations, I’ve been flashing back to how different it was in the days when I was in school and working on similar projects. Of course there was no internet, nor were there even computers – it was all about library books, magazines, and micro fiche.
Micro fiche! Remember those strips of film we had to feed through those clunky machines, ducking under the shaded screen to read old newspaper articles? It was always kind of exciting, like a treasure hunt, with each advance of the image potentially delivering the golden nugget of information.
Those were definitely different times. For us the struggle was finding any information related to what we were researching, while now the challenge is finding too much information – pages and pages of every conceivable type of article, graphic, or video for any search they type in to their browser. However, as seemingly opposite as our experiences were then from our children’s experiences today, there is one thing they have in common: ambiguity.
Decades ago, the ambiguity we were navigating was the lack of information – if it wasn’t available at the library, we just didn’t have access. Today, navigating ambiguity means wading through an excess of information, much of which is irrelevant, inaccurate, biased, or contradictory. We were trying to find any lighthouse in the fog; they are trying to figure out which light is actually the lighthouse.
Same problem, different conditions.
Developing navigational skills is even more essential these days, too, and not just because of the overabundance of information for tasks like school reports or eventual work-related projects. It’s also important because there are so many more educational choices and career options, and because the pace of change is so much more rapid. Our kids need to determine what information they need, figure out how to find it, assess what’s true and what isn’t, and then select which input is most valuable for them, all while keeping in mind that any of this may change at any moment. So, in this constantly-changing environment saturated with data, ideas, and opinions, how can we help our kids learn to navigate the right course for them? There are three vital navigational tools they’ll need on their journey to adulthood:
- Self-Knowledge: “Where do I want to go, and how do I want to get there?”
Every journey starts with a destination in mind, whether it’s a physical place, an experience, or an accomplishment. And each person has to choose and steer toward their own destination, using their own internal compass fashioned out of their own unique combination of interests, values, and goals. While the destination will likely change from time to time, it’s still important to have one – otherwise they’ll just be lost at sea. As parents, we can help our kids cultivate self-knowledge by instigating conversations about the things they’re interested in and value, and discussing what they would like to contribute to the world, as well as encouraging introspection during moments of both success and failure. In my family we talk a lot about personality types, too, and have fun taking Myers-Briggs and Enneagram profiles every now and then, which always sparks interesting conversations about our individual personality traits.
- The Ability to Work with Others: “Will this person be a valuable member of my crew?”
We all have blind spots and weaknesses. Working with other people toward a common goal can help our kids broaden their perspectives, identify their own biases, challenge their assumptions, and find support when they encounter troubled waters. Teamwork also challenges them to develop stronger communication skills – a key factor in reducing ambiguity. While our children are still young, we can expose them to different types of people across multiple age groups (not just kids their own age), and talk about seeing things from other people’s perspectives, which will help encourage flexible thinking and the ability to see choices and problems through a different lense.
3. Critical Thinking Skills: “Is this worth including on my map?”
As they travel along, our kids will need to analyze and evaluate the wide range of information they have at their fingertips so they can make clear and well-reasoned decisions. Whether they’re considering someone’s research methods and results, the possible motivation behind another person’s behavior, or identifying what information they need to solve a problem, rational thinking and critiquing skills can be the difference between effective choices that keep them on course toward their goals, and detrimental choices that run them aground. There are actually classes available to help develop critical thinking skills, but daily life also provides many opportunities to sharpen this ability — choosing a problem, whether it’s real or hypothetical, and working through it together is actually an enjoyable activity to do together. Asking “Why”, “What else?”, and “What if…” are great ways to jump start critical thinking.
In addition to these tools, there are some valuable traveling instructions we need to make sure they have as well:
- There is no such thing as perfect information. This is hard for our kids to understand sometimes given that it seems all things can be “googled” these days. The truth is that we, and they, still cannot know all things. So, they need to get comfortable making choices with the best information available.
- When in doubt, don’t move too fast or too confidently, even if others are pressuring them to. It’s okay to take some time, to reflect and consider things more deeply, to let others know “I’m not sure, yet.”
- There is rarely one right choice. Usually, there are several good, or at least reasonable, choices they’ll need to choose from. Pick one, and move forward.
- Ambiguity is a good thing. Without it, we would all make the same decisions, do the same things, and end up in the same place. Ambiguous situations keep life interesting, and allow us to get creative.
As parents, it’s important for us to remember that developing these abilities will take time and practice, and our role is to find the right balance between supporting and challenging our kids. Experience is essential, so the best thing we can do is give our tweens and teens lots of opportunities to make their own decisions (as we advise or encourage from the sidelines), especially if they spend a lot of time in structured situations where teachers, coaches, or other adults are telling them what to do. Over time they’ll become much more comfortable dealing with uncertainty and risk, and will hone their abilities to listen to their own authentic voice. They’ll also be less likely to get “stuck” in their lives and, most importantly, will have the skills they need to navigate their way to what truly matters through an ever-expanding sea of distraction.
If you enjoyed this article, check out more on the same topic over at GHF…