For College Graduates (and the rest of Us): Don't Pray for "Guidance"

Last week, I watched my sister, along with many college seniors, don light-blue gowns and walk off the stage into the unknown. It felt like a metaphor for all of us: If graduating is about embarking into a new phase of uncertainty, then we are graduating all the time, no matter what our age. The reason why the unknown is scary is because we feel we do not have the capabilities to meet its opaque, yet-to-be-discerned challenges. Of course we don't have them; that is why it is called the "unknown." 

"Bridge to nowhere." Flickr user: xdmag.

"Bridge to nowhere." Flickr user: xdmag.

Driving a car for the first time is super-scary at first because you don't have "driving skills." But you do have the ability to plan and anticipate, to make quick decisions, to use your senses in a concentrated manner; you just need to be operate these "adaptive skills" (I call them that because they transcend any particular context) together in a new context, along with a basic belief and confidence in yourself. You have, in other words, the capacity (adaptive skills + belief) to learn and develop the right capabilities. While capability is about the ability to execute well in a specific situation, "capacity" is the combination of adaptive skills and right beliefs that allow you to tackle any situation. So while you may lack the relevant capabilities, you may still have the right capacity. 

Let me use an example relevant to recent graduates: I was hired basically right out of college to conduct research for a CEO who regularly gave speeches and wrote articles to mainly corporate audiences on why and how businesses should adopt more moral and values-based paradigms. Here I was, with zero business experience, trying to convince people to move away from a status quo of which I was not even familiar. Although I had never researched or written a single piece of business writing, much less a business speech, in a few months, I started playing a critical role in shaping his writing, speaking and thinking. 

Although I lacked the relevant capabilities - no traditional recruiter would have looked at my resume - I did have the right capacity, thanks to my liberal arts education.  It trained me in the art of crafting a logical and persuasive argument, of making connections among disparate things, of taking an idea and using it as a lens to illuminate current events, of questioning dominant ideas and norms even if they are laid out by those in charge. All of these adaptive skills turned out to be more important than if I were a daily reader of the Wall Street Journal (I wasn't). 

I learned this distinction between capability and capacity from former Lieutenant Colonel, J.C. Glick, who used to run Basic Training for 4,000 men and women in Fort Jackson, the largest locus of Basic Combat Training for the Army. Glick introduced several innovations to how the Army traditionally trained its soldiers, moving from a model that produced specific capabilities to one that developed human capacity. For Glick, focusing on "capability" means that one ends up focusing on developing people to meet certain criteria; in contrast, focusing on "capacity" means that one is developing people to reach their unique and full potential. In the former, the "criteria" hold the power; in the latter, humans do.

This distinction should not be unfamiliar to Christians. We have seen this pattern before. Before Christ leaves the disciples and ushers in a new phase of uncertainty, they ask him when he will return the kingdom to Israel. He does not answer the question, does not give them not a plan for how to run things in his absence (in fact, he tells them that it is not for them to know the times and dates that the Father has set), but he does promise them "power when the Holy Spirit comes." He does not want them to wait around for him to issue commands on what to do and say. Indeed, when the Spirit descends upon them, they come truly alive. With the Spirit inside of them, they are preaching, healing and boldly speaking truth to the formal powers that be. 

He came, died and rose not to give us answers, but power. 


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Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.