Monday, May 26, 2008

Situational Awareness

Sometimes, we are to our children as the Acme Corporation is to Wile E. Coyote: we supply equipment that enables the pursuit of some objective, only for the pursuit to end in misadventure. While these are certainly opportunities to teach responsibility, determination, or just better hand-eye coordination, they are also opportunities to help our children develop situational awareness.

From the perspective of executor, it is difficult to critically root-cause the reasons for our successes and failures. We must learn how to externalize so that we recognize the difference among execution failure (the Coyote flying of his own volition with the aid of the Acme Bat-Man costume, only to slam into a mountain because he didn’t have his eyes open), situational failure (being run over by a truck whilst setting a trap using “free bird seed” as the bait), and structural error (powering up the outsized electro-magnet and attracting every sizable metal object – steam rollers, boats, busses – in a very large geographic region and thus becoming the target of his own plan.)

By looking holistically and retrospecting an entire situation and outcome, we learn that it is worth iterating through some pursuits (note to self: keep eyes open), while others are just outright bad ideas (question to self: could what I am about to do become a self-targeted missile?) And it’s important to know when we failed but have no data points on the fitness of our solution, as the proverbial truck will trump the best laid plans of coyotes and men.

Society doesn’t necessarily value this. It encourages us to deny responsibility and be victims of outcomes rather than responsible for them. Is not the Acme Corporation responsible for the misadventure of the coyote? Does the manual to the Bat-Man costume explicitly require that the operator keep his or her eyes open at all times? And what business do they have selling such a powerful electro-magnet in the first place? Whether the coyote is a Super Genius or not is irrelevant; the Acme Corporation is culpable!

Understanding as completely as we can the spectrum of events that form both situation and result allows us to take better informed decisions and improve our quality of life. It gives us independence and greater confidence in our future actions, things we do not get if we deny the responsibility we have for our fate. But it is up to us to develop this capability - and stress the value of it - to our children. In a blameless society, constructive-critical self-assessment is not something our children are likely to learn from anybody else.