We have been helping youth at risk of success for over 20 years. We do this by connecting youth to employers, who become helpful role models. What I have learned over the years is that the generalizations we make about “at-risk” youth are almost always wrong.
Take Gary, for example. Gary was a 16 year-old youth, who was court-ordered to our program after he was arrested for a felony theft. Here is Gary’s theft story.
One hot summer day Gary and his friend decided it would be fun to go canoeing on the Connecticut River, but they didn’t have a canoe. So Gary went into Wal Mart and bought a Coke and saved his receipt. Then he and the friend went back to the store’s sporting goods department to pick-up a canoe. Gary put his Coke receipt between his teeth, picked-up the canoe with his friend, and started to walk out of the store. When asked to show his receipt, Gary flashed the receipt between his teeth, and the clerk let them leave without checking the receipt. Gary and his buddy went canoeing.
Of course Wal Mart had a video camera and Gary was later arrested. During his court arraignment the judge had a hard time not smiling as he heard the facts of the case. When I met the judge a few weeks after Gary’s case, the judge started to smile and said, “Brilliant kids like Gary are often overlooked and we need to teach them how to use their brilliance in a positive way.”
We often make negative “instinctive” generalizations about youth like Gary when in reality many youth are really very bright and they get over-looked in our social system.
Recently I read that Bill Gates said the book Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling was “one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” Naturally, this intrigued me not only because Gates is one of the smartest and successful people in the world, but because I have always admired Hans Rosling’s ability to explain complicated things easily. For example, watch this 19 minute Ted Talk piece Rosling called How Not to be Ignorant About the World.
What I found interesting in Factfulness was how Rosling describes how 10 natural human instincts often lead us astray. As I thought about Gary, the youth I wrote about above, I couldn’t help but think about the “Generalization Instinct.” Using links to Rosling’s wonderful website Gapminder, I have listed below how Rosling describes the 10 Instincts:
- Gap Instinct– Recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be.
- Negativity Instinct – Recognizing when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful.
- Straight Line Instinct – Recognizing the assumption that a line will just continue straight, and remembering that such lines are rare in reality.
- Fear Instinct – Recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.
- Size Instinct – Recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive (small or large), and remembering that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number.
- Generalization Instinct – Recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly.
- Destiny Instinct – Recognizing that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes.
- Single Instinct – Recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions.
- Blame Instinct – Recognizing when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future.
- Urgency Instinct – Recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is.
I can see why Bill Gates found Rosling’s book so important – I can’t stop thinking about how these 10 instincts impact my thinking every day. I hope they help you think and lead differently.