If 4th-graders Can Achieve World Peace, You Can Conquer Uncertainty. Here's How.

If 4th-graders Can Achieve World Peace, You Can Conquer Uncertainty. Here's How.

Business December 15, 2020 / By Larry Robertson
If 4th-graders Can Achieve World Peace, You Can Conquer Uncertainty. Here's How.

You might not believe it, but ten-year-olds have a lot to teach you about how to reach your own goals.

For many, these are unpredictable, even troubled times. In such times, what can we reasonably set our sights on accomplishing? World peace, of course. What first presents as a punchline, in fact holds a vital lesson for entrepreneurs, leaders, in truth, anyone--even, as it so happens, fourth-graders.

In his 2013 book, World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements, teacher John Hunter described an exercise that each year for nearly forty years now he has introduced a fresh new crop of 10-yeard-olds to at the start of each new school year. The game goes on for 10-weeks, a lifetime for an elementary schooler. It's not just for fun that Hunter dedicates half a semester to this real-world simulation either. As Hunter writes, "Everyone from the superintendent on down to the first-grader, is under enormous pressure to answer quickly, to be certain, to know rather than to wonder, inquire, or sit quietly with a problem." You don't have to substitute 'CEO' for superintendent, or 'intern' for first-grader to understand what Hunter is describing. Everyone is living our own version of this right now. The demands on us all are great. Our typical response is shared too: we seek firm answers, ones we expect to come immediately, instead of building the habits that actually help us attain the skills we need most to successfully navigate uncertain times. World Peace is about building those more effective habits. And if fourth-graders can do it, you can too. Here's how it works.

As Hunter wrote, "Every year my fourth- and fifth-grade classes are divided into four imaginary nations, plus a religious island tribe and a nomadic desert clan. There is a United Nations, a World Bank, two or three arms dealers, and a weather god or goddess, who controls the vagaries of tsunamis and hurricanes, determines the fate of the stock market, and tosses coins to determine the outcome of battles and coups d'état. The children are provided with national budgets, assets, stores of armaments and portfolios outlining fifty global crises." Not one or a couple, fifty. "Then they are given ten weeks to save the world."

Here's an interesting twist (one worthy of an article all its own): Hunter tells the students that 'all' the crises must be solved for the world to be saved (they are actually interlocking crises). He also instructs that every participant must end up better off. It's a fascinating exposure to the powers of common ground and compromise. But more intriguing, here's what Hunter finds makes the teams most effective and most likely to succeed. "The students who move more easily within the Game are the ones who, from the beginning, are more comfortable with ambiguity, flexibility, and emptiness" (in other words, not having an immediate answer or a permanent one). They're also the ones, Hunter says, willing to step back and question, truly, thoughtfully question, not once, but as a matter of habit and better, to do so with others.

In four decades, Hunter says he's never seen two outcomes that are exactly alike. Translation: there is no one answer in an uncertain world. There's no guarantee of getting to an answer either. At first blush, it sounds like a risky proposition, for the students, and indeed Hunter, to walk this path in the first place. But the power afforded by the habits formed as they do is undeniable. It changes the dynamic. It changes the likelihood if what might otherwise be seen as wishful goals. It changes the participants too.

In short, it is the repeated and habitual acknowledgement and engagement with ambiguity, flexibility, emptiness, and inquiry--not the denial of it, or the hope that a single answer will fix it all in place--that is true power of World Peace. Hunter wants his 10-year-olds to absorb that experience and form that habit in every pore and every thought. He doesn't even tell them the questions. On their own, they arrive not simply at solutions, but at clarity as to what they truly care about, and at an understanding of the habits it takes to achieve it, repeatedly, collectively, and confidently.

Embedded in a child's game are lessons every organization need embrace, now more than ever before. Hunter offers an added lesson for leaders too. I'm just the facilitator," he says. "The students run the Game." It's a potent reminder that it's the many, not the one, that will lead is to more adaptable, resilient, and successful organizations in a world that may get more peaceful, but will remain uncertain for a long time to come.

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