October 2019: What in the World is Next?

One of the questions we adults seem to enjoy posing to children, particularly young children, is an old standard, one that is familiar to all of us.  What do you want to be when you grow up?  Have you ever known a kid who is planning to be a Mechatronics Engineer? Or one who is passionate about her future as an Ergonomist, an Energy Broker or a Biostatistician?  Maybe I am projecting, but I’ll bet chances are likely that the children in your life are unaware (perhaps as unaware as you and I) that these jobs actually exist.  According to the website Fast Company, within the next handful of years top tier workers will be competing for jobs like Personal Worker Brand Coach, Urban Farmer, Freelance Professor and End of Life Planner.

Oh my, how our world is changing.  And how quickly!

We know we exist in an uncertain world and, by its very dynamic nature, we also know that change is constant. In fact, some would argue that the only constant in life is change. As we experience a chronic whirlwind of geological, economic, geopolitical, social shifts requiring us to pay attention, adjust, course correct, and adapt it often feels like change is happening at breakneck speed.  Innovations in technology, combined with an exponential explosion in social media platforms and a 24/7 news cycle have left many of us feeling anxious and often helpless about controlling our own future.  

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting a high school Environmental Science class and discovered some staggering statistics.  We currently share our big blue earth with approximately 7.8 billion people and by the year 2050 that prediction increases to 9 billion!  Because our growing world is moving at a pace never before experienced in human history, we - much like The Little Engine that Could - try our best to keep up with a succession of demands in both our personal and professional lives.  But because we are only human after all, it is predictable that something somewhere has to give.  

One thing that I believe has resulted from our helter-skelter world is a reliance on quick answers and easy solutions. Based on how dependent we have become on instant gratification – be it the convenience of single click shopping, growing dependence on immediate communication through text messaging, or instant access to information – we are losing our ability to think deeply. We have grown accustomed to immediate solutions to most of our questions and problems. But what if the quickest answer is not the best answer?  What if ample time for reflection in order to deliberate in a more thoughtful, meaningful way could yield better results?  What if an expanded way of thinking is necessary? Or what if we have to be content with ambiguity - with not knowing?  Yikes!

Consider however that scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists alike embrace uncertainty.  While their talents and areas of expertise may vary widely, they share common approaches.

Sometimes there is a misconception that science provides clear answers.  Although scientists search for answers to unknown problems, they live most of their work world in uncertainty.  Engaging in investigation and research can help reduce knowledge gaps and generate alternative solutions but research findings are based on probabilities not universal truths.   

Similarly, entrepreneurs are always pursuing the next best product or business. This self-starter mindset faces the unknowable head on and then attempts to shape the future by creating need, value, and ultimately profit. Entrepreneurs must be comfortable with taking risks as they make a conscious choice to envision a better product, a better service, a better way that currently doesn’t exist.  Author Terri Trespicio writes, “Entrepreneurs are scrappy and disruptive, creative and unruly, strategic and unstoppable. Sometimes they make lousy students and difficult employees.”  I, personally, know and admire quite a few people who fit that description.

Artists, regardless of their chosen medium, have a clear understanding that uncertainty is an essential ingredient of creativity. They recognize that there is no fixed idea past or present that cannot be modified or transformed.  Late South African economist Ludwig Lachmann once wrote, “The future is unknowable, though not unimaginable.” Through imagination, the artists among us create new spaces to see the present and future worlds with a different lens.

In Robbinsville, teachers throughout all grade levels and disciplines use authentic approaches to encourage students to wonder and become curious about problems and uncertainties in the world around them. Our students practice both critical and reflective thinking as they ask questions, preform research, and evaluate the best solution for a particular problem or scenario. Because these processes require an abundance of patience, persistence and teacher facilitation, it makes sense that this type of deep thinking and learning cannot be hurried. On the contrary, with sufficient time to mull things over and examine a problem from multiple vantage points, students may discover previously unsuspected and hidden dimensions not initially apparent at the outset of an inquiry. 

Author Pema Chodron writes, “The root of suffering is resisting the certainty that no matter what the circumstances, uncertainty is all we truly have.”  If this in fact is true, and I happen to believe it is, our students’ (and our) capacity to face, tackle, and embrace change depends on our ability to become comfortable with not knowing. More often than not, accepting uncertainty requires a change in perspective. This in itself requires that we yield to the ambiguous nature of life rather than to oppose it. Yet however uncomfortable it may seem, when we surrender to the natural order of the universe by leaning in to our insecurities and facing our fears, we take the first baby steps toward embracing the unknown. It is only then that we can consider uncertainty a worthwhile next step on a much grander journey toward a bold and daring future. 

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