Thursday, July 09, 2015


(Situational) Tolerance for Ambiguity

Jeff Selingo has a good piece about the importance of “tolerance for ambiguity” as an employment skill.  He situates it in the context of his early days in journalism, when an editor basically dropped him off in a small town and told him to find, and write, a story by five o’clock.  Selingo notes that much of the work world involves the ability to figure out what needs to be done before anyone tells you, and that instilling that skill is part of the task of higher education.

I like the piece, and there’s a lot to it.  But in thinking about my own tolerance for ambiguity, I wouldn’t call it high or low.  It varies, and I think the major independent variable is my own feeling of competence in the situation.  When I feel like I can handle whatever the situation is likely to throw at me, ambiguity isn’t a problem.  When I’m utterly lost, ambiguity can feel threatening.  The key issue isn’t so much ambiguity or the lack thereof, but its possible outcome and my own sense of vulnerability.

If that’s broadly correct, then part of what we need to do for students is to instill some confidence that they can find solutions.

When I move to a new place -- something very much on my mind of late -- I make a point of getting lost several times.  I’ll drive around without a clear mission, or sometimes just take roads to see where they go.  It’s when I don’t necessarily know where I’m going that I discover surprising shortcuts, or places along the way that I wouldn’t have expected.  But I can do that because I have a basic faith that one way or another, I’ll find my way back to civilization. Now, of course, GPS can be useful as a safety net, but it still lacks the pedagogical power of engaged improvisation.

I don’t have that same confidence with, say, engine repair.  It would be nice if I did, but I don’t.  In that area, my sense of my own competence is shaky enough that the prospect of just taking parts out and seeing what happens isn’t appealing.  

In my teaching days, I remember noticing that when controversial topics came up -- when you teach political theory, there’s no way around that -- students would often flail verbally, more or less free associating, until they found a cliche that seemed to apply.  Once they had that, they held onto it tenaciously, using it as a weapon against any alternatives.  

It took me a while to figure out why they did that.  The cliche felt familiar and solid.  It offered clarity in the face of a charged and confusing discussion.  “I don’t know much, but I know this.”  I wound up spending most of the semester trying to help them get past that first impulse and to let themselves get a little bit lost in unfamiliar territory.  Until they were willing to wander -- which involved building a level of trust -- they wouldn’t really learn.

New graduates, when they get their first “adult” jobs, may fall into that same trap.  That’s part of the value of internship or co-op experiences.  If they can get some exposure to the culture of a professional workplace when the stakes are relatively low, then they’re less likely to make really mortifying rookie mistakes when the stakes are higher.  And to the extent that we can provide assignments and experiences in and among classes that give students the experience of getting a little lost and finding their way back, we may be able to build some of that tolerance for ambiguity in the kind of settings Selingo discusses.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found relatively effective ways to help students gain confidence that they can wander, without falling off a cliff?

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