Flight of the Fledgling: Adolescents and Risk

fledg·ling also fledge·ling (fl j l ng). n. 1. A young bird that has recently acquired its flight feathers.

One of the most common images of necessary risk is the baby bird, poised on the edge of its nest.  There comes a time when every strong and healthy little avian creature struggles up to take the plunge, and if it doesn’t figure it out on its own, it’s momma’s job to push it out, for its own good.

In our species, the teenage years are the human version of a period for taking necessary risk.  The necessity of the process does nothing to mitigate how nail-bitingly stressful it is to behold; but now and then considering risk-taking as a developmental task for adolescents can help adults be a little more patient and understanding as our baby birds flop their way into the world.

Young people don’t wake up one day as responsible, functioning, healthy adults.  They learn a lot by trial and error.  I’ll never forget my own introduction to smoking tobacco.  My decision was influenced strongly by adult behavior and by my general conviction that I needed to try on this behavior if I was going to ever move forward to become “grown up.”  I was thirteen years old on a student exchange trip to France, and I was the youngest student in our group.  My absolute idol was a high school senior on the trip from my school system who was tall, rail thin, totally sophisticated, and mysteriously beautiful.  For some unknown reason she let he hang out with her.  She smoked Dunhill cigarettes, which are made by British American Tobacco company and generally considered “luxury” cigs.

"Remember that fledgling birds are learning to fly and when you see them on the ground, leave them be and bring your pets inside. Courtesy of Wildlife Images."

Of course we all know that there is nothing luxurious about cancer, phlegm, and emphysema, but you can’t really convey that to a fledgling, not all the way when you are competing against a powerful if misguided instinct to develop into an adult.  Thankfully, smoking never really took off for me, and I believe one of the reasons is that my father gave me a story that “allowed” that to happen.  He told me once that he really tried to be a smoker (which to this day cracks me up).  He tried cigarettes, pipes, and various other techniques for consuming tobacco, but at the end of the day he “just didn’t like it.”  As simple as that is, I think it created a different paradigm for me than anything any other adult was selling.  I will always be grateful for dad showing me that putting down something you pick up is a choice that can be successfully implemented, and especially for admitting that he wanted to be cool but eventually decided someone else’s definition of cool was not going to run his life.

This to me is the ultimate risk in many ways for all of us, and maybe the last great wing pump before we can really soar.  Teens are going to try things, sometimes dangerous things.  They want to find out what happens, yes; but they also want to find out where certain behaviors and choices fit in the framework of the adult they are trying to become.  Of course this is rarely a conscious process, but if we watch kids taking risks and remember they are not necessarily permanent decisions but learning processes, it can help.

Some risks will be unacceptable, and should be explained as such.  Kids will still probably try them anyway, but as they make their final decisions about who they will be as adults they are likely to remember what we told them.  “I tried that.  I chose not to make it part of who I am today.”

That message can go a long way.

Image source: Salem-News.com

Taking a Risk on Terrible Lizards

From “When Was the First Dinosaur Discovered?”

Way back in 1676, Robert Plot, the curator of an English museum, described and drew a thigh bone that he believed belonged to a giant man. Although that fossil disappeared without a trace, the surviving illustration suggests that it may well have been part of a “Megalosaurus.”  Later, in 1822, large teeth discovered in England by Mary Ann Mantell and her husband, Gideon, were thought to be the remains of a huge and extinct iguana. It wasn’t until 1841 that British scientist Richard Owen came to realize that such fossils were distinct from the teeth or bones of any living creature. The ancient animals were so different, in fact, that they deserved their own name. So Owen dubbed the group “Dinosauria,”which means “terrible lizards.”

My friend Sara hooked me up with this TED video that explores issues of schools and creativity – more specifically, does our educational system and prevailing philosophy create such a fear of failure that children are dis-incentivized to take the very risks of failure that lead to break through discoveries?  It’s a really good watch and listen, but my favorite part was this simple concept:

If you are afraid to make a mistake, you will never create anything original.

My child is deeply in love with dinosaurs right now.  As we were playing the other day and I explained the first dinosaur discoveries, how they were made, what people first thought, etc.,  I was overcome with how absolutely insane the first people to publicize theories about their paleontology must have appeared.  Talk about risk!

OK, we found these bones.  They are really big.  No, bigger.  A bit bigger.  Right.  That’s what I said, yes.  No, more like reptiles.  Not really sure yet.  Uh huh.  No, pretty sure they were in the air and water too.  Looks like just about all over the world.  How long ago?  OK………are you sitting down?

Creativity is not just about art.  Creativity is, as Sir Ken Robinson explains in the video, at its core about the willingness to be wrong; maybe more than a little bit wrong.  It’s that risk that leads to new discovery, to shifts in our understanding of what is real and possible that have the potential to change everything we think we can do.

This year, let’s support more students in their willingness to take risk, and to be wrong.  We may say that’s not what we expected, is it?   Way to go trying to figure it out on your own.

I’m proud of you for taking that risk.

Image credit: Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau

The Slow Walk to Truth

Niels Bohr

Physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

I’ve also heard this translated as the difference between trivial and profound truths.

So often we are pushed to choose sides around issues that don’t really lend themselves to black and white “sided” decisions. When profound issues are reduced to the dynamics of trivial issues, we lose out as individuals and as a community of human beings when we accept the pressure to name one thing completely right and the other completely wrong. There are elements of rightness and wrongness in all the decisions we make about profound issues, though you might never know it the way our culture demands allegiance to extreme ideas.

Opportunities to see the subtleties in a quest for truth are everywhere.  I recently read an article examining the ethical issues and evidence surrounding public campaigns to promote specific health behaviors in the Journal of Health Policy, Politics and Law that has a great line in it:

“It is all too true that the American public does not understand the concept of risk. They also do not understand the nature of science. Science does not answer questions, in the simple sense of the phrase – it refines them incrementally in its approach toward understanding natural processes.”

I love the idea of the refined, incremental approach to understanding something. It seems so important to internalize the idea that we are always in the process of understanding life’s most significant issues, and that complete understanding is an unrealistic goal. This illustrates the relationship of faith and science and their overlapping dimensions, not their stark opposition in every case. I can switch a word or two and get another sentence that works for me:

“Faith does not answer questions, it refines them incrementally in its approach toward understanding spiritual processes.”

It seems to me Bohr’s principle of profound truths applies. It is not faith or science, it is elements of each that illustrate the best, most comprehensive version of understanding our world.

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Photo credit: Atomic Archive

Bohr developed the theory that explains the structure and action of complex atoms. During World War II, Bohr fled his native Denmark to escape the Nazis. He travelled to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to advise the scientists developing the first atomic bomb. He returned to Copenhagen after the war and later promoted the peaceful use of atomic energy.  Today’s post revisits some Esse Diem ideas from April 2009.