Trust, Uncertainty, and Risk

Our Head of School, Matt Gossage, shares his thoughts on the role trust plays when students face uncertainty… 

I can still recall with vivid detail a conversation I had with the head coach of the varsity baseball team at Westminster/Atlanta in the coaches’ locker room long after everyone had headed home for the night. Lamenting the fact that his team was constantly taking a pounding that spring, the coach, a bright individual and well-respected coach, had moved into societal and psychological realms to come up with answers.

He concluded that the parents of his players and the faculty at our school had masterfully worked together to create great kids and wonderful students who would always choose to defer, pause, consider, reflect, and oblige over launching without a second thought to attack a baseball, take an extra base, or dive for a line drive. In aspiring to develop good students and good people, we had eliminated a fearlessness that could translate into competitive drive and had replaced both with cautiousness.

Because I was younger than the baseball coach, I listened. And because I was the Director of Admission, the coach asked me to facilitate a conversation with himself and the Dean of Students. Although we never had that extended conversation (thankfully), I have often thought about this baseball coach’s analysis.

My thinking has revolved around a series of questions I have asked myself through the years. Why do some children appear to be born with the fearless gene? They are the children who boldly and naturally run up the sliding board, jump off the bed, and stand on the monkey bars. Are these children born this way? Or do their parents nurture such fearlessness at a young age because they never flinch or run to rescue when their children collide with a sibling or a coffee table?

Although they certainly mean well, do schools and parents, because of the safety we believe compliance offers, lead children to being dutiful over being daring? Have I parented in a way where our children, when attempting anything, think more about being right than going for it? Has this present generation of parents nurtured fearlessness and the willingness to be daring nearly into extinction?

Over the last several years, the faculty and administration have spent considerable time discussing the significance of incorporating into living and learning the habit of taking risks. By risk taking, we are not talking about foolhardy behavior, but we are talking about behavior that can lead to growth. Risk taking can lead to exciting things such as breakthroughs on the stage, canvas, or playing field.

So risk taking sits atop our habits of spirit in the construct of Adaptive Expertise, and courage (the willingness to take risks) is right there in the heart of our core values. All of us realize the process to cultivate risk taking is much more complex than just imploring our children to be courageous so that they can become risk takers.

At our opening faculty meeting in August, the teachers and I began to explore the role trust plays in risk taking. We talked about a model that so often confronts our children and us in this life.

Uncertainty always looms as the big monster hunkered down between trust and risk. In one sense, this big monster of uncertainty calls trust and risk to be present. If things were clear and if there were certainty, trust would not be needed because we would see what we need to do. Because the outcome would also be obvious, we would not be called to risk. We simply would have to act in ways we have acted before.

But in this model, we have the monster of uncertainty. Trust and risk, as meager as they may be in the heart and mind of the child, sit on either side of the hulk. As humans (young and old), we long for certainty. Certainty brings comfort. Our responses can be the tried and true ones. Uncertainty paralyzes us because we cannot see all there is to see, and the response, more than likely called on, is new to us.

The presence of this uncertainty, however, is the reason why the construct of adaptive expertise is so compelling. Our children will inherit more of this monster uncertainty than any generation that has come before them. In August, the faculty and I discussed the opportunity we have on a daily basis to create an environment where students learn about the role trust can play in moving through uncertainty and attempting something bold and important.

The environment is built upon an approach that emphasizes the incremental. Let’s tackle diving off the side of the pool and master the uncertainty that comes with that before taking on the diving board and the high platform. With each incremental step trust grows, and the monster uncertainty is made smaller. And the risk does not seem as daunting.

The environment is also built upon a cycle of response. In the pre-launch phase, the teacher/coach/advisor speaks to the student/player about the belief the adult has in the young person’s preparation, commitment, and person. As the student works through all the mental gyrations before the launch, the clearest voice is the one of the adult in her life saying, “I believe in you.” The echo becomes the young person’s own will saying, “I can get this.”

The launch becomes an action of full trust. The teacher/coach/advisor is right there at the conclusion of the test/play/contest to express what he valued about the effort, what fulfillment he saw in the student’s face, and what the two of them can work on for the next attempt. The launch moves right into setting the stage for the re-launch because the experience of the first attempt becomes the foundation for developing an even deeper expertise and an even stronger sense of trust.

Our hope this year is to maximize trust to make the monster smaller and to fill the school year with students seeing the benefit of taking risks.