There are certain skills citizens should develop in school and nurture throughout their careers. Skills such as empathy, grit, wonder, and growth-mindset. These are often referred to as non-cognitive, twenty-first century, or intangible skills. They can empower an individual to live a fulfilling and prosperous life.
I've recently started to believe that dealing with ambiguity is another critical non-cognitive skill. This skill requires an individual to be comfortable with committing to an answer when there is no right answer. To be able to take in multiple inputs (perspectives, facts, etc.) and make a decision. To not only strive to make the best decision that can be made, but to be aware of the impact that decision may have. And to use that awareness of potential impact(s) to make an even more optimal decision.
Learning to deal with ambiguity is the antithesis of a multiple-choice test. The latter has one correct answer. Many situations in the real-world have no clear right answer. For example as new technologies emerge, regulations for those technologies can rarely be organized into a A, B, C, or D answer. The answer is there is no right answer. And we will need citizens that are capable of making decisions that are ethical and value driven. Decisions that if audited, show that the citizen made the best decision they could given the information available.
While certain questions and decisions will have narrow consequences, others will be far-reaching. In the article "Tech Giants Join Forces to Score AI Chips", the author describes how tech companies need to align around a benchmark for measuring how well computer chips perform artificial intelligence tasks:
While esoteric, the process of devising benchmarks can be surprisingly contentious, involving fierce technical battles and corporate politics. Participants are often the same companies that have heavy stakes in the results of the tests—namely, chip makers and cloud computing providers who use the scores to publicly boast about the advantages of their products and services. It is a bit like inviting students to craft the questions for an exam they’re about to take.
If you're the mediator, or a representative of a company building such chips, how do you navigate this situation? How do you deal with the ambiguity? How do you approach understanding the perspectives and goals of the other parties? How do you take a stance and recognize when it's more productive to shift your stance even if it comes with a negative cost to you.
In a white paper by Senator Mark Warner, he describes potential policies for regulating social media and tech firms. In one of the sections he talks about "dark patterns":
Dark patterns are user interfaces that have been intentionally designed to sway (or trick) users towards taking actions they would otherwise not take under effective, informed consent. Often, these interfaces exploit the power of defaults - framing a user choice as agreeing with a skewed default option (which benefits the service provider) and minimizing alternative options available to the user.
One drawback of codifying this prohibition in statute is that the law may be slow to address novel forms of these practices not anticipated by drafters.
He gives the example of Facebook asking users to provide access to their address book, and not giving the user a clear YES / NO option. The product design skews the passive user to selecting the YES option.
And thus how do you regulate this? As a free product that users have the choice to not use, should Facebook be regulated in how they build their product? How will such regulation impact other companies ability to innovate? How would you introduce regulation for something that seems clear today, but may become ambiguous in the future? Although your stance may make sense today, tomorrow a new company or technology may break it. Would you be able to adapt? As Mark Warner writes, can a law be written in such a way that it anticipates future problem areas?
As new technologies emerge the level of ambiguity around how those technologies impact our societal infrastructure increases. And as these technologies impact a majority of citizens, the decisions made around these ambiguous questions will have a far-reaching impact. And thus I hope that the citizens in positions to answer ambiguous questions are comfortable and confident in dealing with ambiguity.
In his essay "How to Get Startup Ideas" Paul Graham writes:
The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not "think up" but "notice." Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing.
Awareness, the ability to notice is a fundamental life skill that can release you to pursue greater things. For Paul Graham it's a strategy to unlock startup ideas. For those that practice mindfulness it's the foundation of the practice.
Thich Nhat Hanh in his seminal book on meditation "The Miracle of Mindfulness" introduces the reader to meditation through awareness. Having a process running where you are constantly aware of what you are doing presently. Even when putting a book back on the shelf:
While placing a book on the shelf, look at the book, be aware of what book it is, know that you are in the process of placing it on the shelf, intending to put it in that specific place.
What is awareness? How do you channel it? Tara Brach in "Radical Acceptance" writes:
When thoughts arise, where do they come from, where do they go to? As you explore looking into the space between thoughts, through the holes in the net, you are looking into awareness itself. You might sit quietly and simply listen for a few moments. Notice how sounds arise and dissolve back into formless awareness. Can you notice the beginnings of sounds, the ends of sounds? The spaces between? It is all happening in awareness, known by awareness.
As you begin practicing awareness you'll notice a transformation in your outlook to the world. Signs you may have missed previously become clearer. Feelings you've suppressed may become nurtured. Your relationships with others, with food, with experiences may become more significant.
Starting small and finding awareness in moments everyday can lead to more awareness throughout your experiences. It's a habit that can easily be dismissed or neglected. And yet finding ways to remind yourself, to continue to notice, can establish a habit that can have a profound impact on how you live life.
On the topic of life skills Michele Borba's book "UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World" is one of my favorites. It presents a case for why empathy is a critical skill and how it can be fostered in children.
Professionally as a Product Manager empathy is something I'm continually honing and practicing. My responsibility is to determine the stakeholder's (e.g. user's, team member's) need. Out of all the things we can build given a constrained set of time and resources, which ones will have the greatest value? I must put myself into the position of the stakeholder in order to understand their need. I must empathize.
Unknowing I began to foster my ability to empathize at a young age. One of my favorite games was setting up and acting out movie like scenes with my G. I. Joe action figures. I'd imagine elaborate worlds and scenes where my hero would fall under duress and battle his way through to redemption. I imagined what he was feeling, what his allies were feeling, what the villains were feeling. I'd act out the scenes, conversations, and of course the action. I'd stretch out the scenes imagining my hero experiencing a range of emotions. It was exciting to create these scenes in my mind. And as I let my imagination flow I was honing my ability to empathize.
Imagination is a pre-requisite for empathy. You cannot empathize with someone if you can't imagine what they feel or need. I believe if we want a child to develop empathy, we must encourage them to use their imagination. The how they do it is not important. It could be playing a video game where they have a connection to emotional state of the characters in the game. It could be watching a film, reading a book, or creating a fictitious world with G.I. Joes. Put them in a situation where the mind starts imagining and they'll begin to empathize with their environment.
A traditional school curriculum is comprised primarily of topics that teach cognitive skills. Topics like reading comprehension, vocabulary, algebra and biology. These topics are comprised of "blocks" of knowledge such as: "2 + 2", "what is a nucleus", "what caused the US great depression", "what is a verb".
These knowledge blocks can be stacked into a 9 month curriculum with the same standardized answer being taught to all students. Knowledge of each block can be categorized as "pass" or "fail". Students can be ranked by the amount of pass knowledge blocks they've obtained. Obtain enough, move on to the next grade.
A teacher can teach such curriculum with minimum creativity and improvisation. Teach the block, assess knowledge of it, move on to the next. It's a system that allows thousands of teachers to teach millions of students across 50 states. An assembly line model that scales and "works".
A growing movement is to determine how to make noncognitive skills (aka soft/life/character skills) more prevalent in school curriculums. Technological trends and research indicate that a developed set of noncognitive skills will better equip students for 21st century jobs. For it's likely that the jobs that exist in 10 years do not exist today (e.g. the job "podcast booking agent" did not exist 10 years ago). Technology innovation will continue to disrupt industries and shift the landscape of jobs. Likely at an even faster pace than today. Students need to be ready to adapt.
Skills such as grit, empathy and gratitude can have a profound impact on a student entering the job market. I believe a student that displays grit and gratitude can figure out how to succeed in the job market, even in a role that may not be directly aligned to the cognitive skills they learned in school.
As an example, I graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Finance in 2009. One of the worst majors to have after the great financial collapse in 2008. My first job was as Operations Director for a startup online retailer. I was responsible for managing the warehouse and all aspects of logistics. I had no experience in logistics. I did not study it in school. And yet the noncognitive skills I developed throughout school (grit, empathy, confidence) empowered me to obtain and succeed in this role. I knew how to learn, and I had confidence that I could figure it out.
Today few curriculum allocate time for students to acquire knowledge blocks of noncognitive skills. How does a teacher teach topics such as "leadership", "grit" and "curiosity". What is the "2+2" equivalent knowledge block within grit? Often these topics are viewed as byproducts of a traditional curriculum or the responsibility of parents. A student that takes AP Calculus will develop grit as a byproduct of working hard and passing the AP exam. A parent will or should instill gratitude in their child.
And yet unlike all students learning "2+2" in school, not all students will have the opportunity to foster skills like grit and gratitude. A big challenge is establishing a baseline. What does it mean to pass or fail the topic of grit? What is the baseline? How much do we standardize what about grit is taught, versus giving teachers the flexibility to improvise? Is it a problem if what about grit is taught at one school is vastly different from another? Or is the biggest value just to make students aware that these are innate skills they can channel and develop? Just exposing them to these skills may spark their own interest in developing them?
Currently we leave it to chance that students will develop noncognitive skills while at school. Luck is the driving factor that places one student in a classroom with a passionate teacher focused on teaching these skills, versus a classroom where they are never mentioned. In order for all students to be able to develop noncognitive skills we must standardize a set of skills that all students should develop, establish a baseline for measuring them, and make them part of all school curriculums.
The subway in New York City is more than a utility. It's a microcosm of society. An environment where scenarios can symbolize abstract social topics.
So there I was.
Inside a crowded subway train. I stood in front of the doors, ready to exit at the next stop. As the train approached the station I felt someone push in front of me. It was a little girl determined to exit the train first. Her guardian stood by with a disapproving look but said nothing.
The scenario is no big deal. I had no need to exit first and easily took a step back to make room for the girl. And yet what bothered me was that neither I nor the guardian said anything. We let it happen - depriving her of a basic lesson in courtesy.
What if I had said something to the girl? Something like: it's rude to cut in front of people, you should be patient and wait your turn to exit the train.
Through one interpretation it's a favor. I offered basic courtesy advice that she may utilize in the future. I surfaced something she may not be aware of.
Yet through another interpretation I have ventured into "mansplaining" territory. Through my tone and word choice I just "mansplained" to this girl how she should behave. What if the girl actually needed to exit the train first and my condescending advice didn't help her at all?
The latter interpretation is becoming more common in our "politically correct" society. So even a simple comment on common courtesy can become misconstrued. The attention shifts from the comment to the intent.
The mansplaining interpretation makes my feedback personal. It implies that I said this to the girl because I'm a man, she's a girl, and I know better.
Yet what about the fact that she is a child and I am an adult?
Yet what about the fact that if she was a he, I would have said the same exact words in the same tone?
And this is why I have a problem with the word mansplaining. We already have a word for the scenario it describes: patronizing. What additional insight does the word mansplaining bring? Instead of value it brings harm and divide.
If you interpreted my comment to the girl as patronizing, that label is associated with that scenario. Gender stereotypes are not introduced. You acknowledge my intention (to teach a lesson in courtesy) but you disagree with my approach.
To interpret my comment as mansplaining, you now see me as someone that is reaffirming negative gender stereotypes. You don't recognize my intention (to teach a lesson in courtesy) and you fault me for trying because of my gender. You view me as patronizing and discriminatory.
And what can I say to convince you otherwise?
If you call me out in front of a group as mansplaining, that label is attached to me. People now evaluate all of my statements with the mansplaining lens.
I'm guilty without a trial.
And yet if you called me patronizing, the label attaches to the scenario. I was patronizing in that moment. The label doesn't persist. So future scenarios will be interpreted on a case by case basis.
A term like mansplaining is persistent. It attaches to people. It becomes a dark cloud that follows us, tainting everything we do.
So was I right to keep my mouth shut on the subway? I protected myself from being misconstrued. And yet I also deprived the child of a basic lesson in courtesy.