Wanted in College Graduates: Tolerance for Ambiguity

“What answer do you want?”

“Just tell me what you want me to write, and I’ll write it for you!”

I once had a student in a literature class who almost had a panic attack when she found out, from the mock final exam, that the final exam would contain poems and prose passages that we hadn’t gone over in class, so that there was no way for her to memorize “the right answer.”

I don’t actually need 18 3-page essays on the role of literacy in education. Nor do I need 22 600-word news stories on the summer book discussion. I don’t want to see how closely you can follow my step-by-step instructions. I want to take off the training wheels and see where you go, on your own, without me holding the handlebars.

Here’s a great story about an editor who dropped a would-be reporter off in a strange town, telling him to find a story and file it in a few hours. I have created group video journalism assignments like this, but nothing this ambitious.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 2.26.14 PMIt was a Friday afternoon in late August and I had to report and write the story by 5 p.m. I had never been to Wilmington before and I didn’t know anyone else in town. I didn’t have a car. All I had was the notepad and pen the editor kindly gave me. For the next several hours, I roamed the streets talking to business owners, local residents, and tourists. I eventually found a story—about a tourism campaign the state was undertaking after a close call with a hurricane—and filed it on time. | But as the editor later told me, the article itself was not the test. It was my reaction when he dropped me off: he wanted to see what I would do in an unfamiliar situation. Other job candidates, he said, either panicked and asked for a specific assignment or they figured out how to get the job done. He wanted employees who could cope with the unknown on a daily basis. —Jeff Salingo