It's the habit and the hubris of parents and educators to ask, "What can we teach teenagers?" rather than the other way around. Yet, when it comes to using technology wisely, we would be wise to take a lesson from them.
In next weekend's first annual Wisdom 2.0 for Youth, founded by fellow HuffPo blogger Soren Gordhamer, panelists and participants will consider the question "How can we help young people grow in awareness as the world speeds up around them?" I posed that question to my high-school aged son and college aged-daughter last weekend and their bemused response was that they disagreed with the premise: They didn't see technology as a problem because they came of age in this fast, techno-driven environment. It's all they know. They were, however, happy to give me advice on how to better navigate their world.
Linear and nonlinear processing of information: It doesn't have to be one or the other
I work in a linear fashion and pretty much every project I take on has a clear beginning, middle and end. Until recently I was concerned when I saw my kids approach their projects in a different way. But after seeing the many ways that they have been able to successfully negotiate their way from point A to point B, I've begun to recognize that my perspective has been somewhat parochial.
The initial stages of solving a problem are often better suited to a process more akin to brainstorming than digging deep with an emphasis on making connections and recognizing patterns to better understand the scope of the problem. That's where a nonlinear approach comes in handy and the most obvious example of a nonlinear way to process information is the Internet. Going back and forth between reading an article and clicking through to various links is a networked approach to finding and organizing information that my teenagers have mastered and I'm still experimenting with. Jumping from one link to another, to see a picture, then hear a song and then back again to read a post can get in the way of the sustained linear thinking required for deep analysis and focus but it's tailor made for exploring systems, connections and patterns which are important aspects of problem solving.
When it comes to social media, don't take things personally
The place my kids have been most struck by the difference between us and them, when it comes to the Internet, is social media etiquette. Their bottom-line: "Don't take everything so personally." Thinking of Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter friends as just that -- friends who are on Facebook/LinkedIn /Twitter -- is a recipe for aggravation especially if we take every poke, like, email, text, tweet, status update and blog post as a communiqué in need of a polite response. Online boundaries, like in-person boundaries, are crucial but they're tough to define absent a context. Those of us who didn't grow-up on social media can look to our teenagers to provide one.
Short time, many times -- Text messages as an exercise in discernment
I had plenty of questions about texting before I figured out it was the most efficient way to communicate with my teenagers. What started as a convenient way to reach them turned into a honest-to-goodness "Aha" moment as I learned the power of communicating in as few characters (yes characters, not words) as possible. Text messaging became a metaphor for one of the most important meditation teachings I know for those who lead busy lives: Short time, many times. Meditating a short time, many times is one way to go when meditating for a longer period of time isn't practical. Similarly a strategy of short-texts, many-texts makes a whole lot of sense as a way to communicate with, and stay connected to, busy friends and family members.
My biggest surprise around texting was how quickly it became an exercise in discernment. To text I needed to type my message in fewer than 160 characters on a keypad the size of a driver's license, with my thumbs, forcing me to hone my message to its bare essentials. From text messaging I moved to Twitter wondering if there was anything I could say in 140 characters or less that's worth saying. Then, I began to look at the email in my in-box differently and the sinking feeling I often got when I clicked on a long email began to make sense. I became more mindful of the email I sent and of the time and attention I was asking of the recipient. When I got a long email I wondered if I had a moral obligation to write a missive in response? Could I wait to respond until I have more ease in my schedule? Did I have to respond at all?
Teaching by example
Today, my daughter called from college to revisit our conversation on technology and said: "I've been thinking about what adults have to teach us about technology and I think you can help us figure out when to turn it off." I wondered if she felt a little guilty for dismissing out-of-hand the idea that her dad and I might have any wisdom whatsoever to offer on the subject until she wisely added: "But first, you guys have to turn the technology off yourselves." Which brings us to the last of the questions that will be asked of Wisdom 2.0 for Youth panelists and participants next weekend: "How do we adults embody the very qualities we want to pass along to the young people our lives?"