Kristen Cox, center, with her family

Kristen Cox, director of Utah Workforce Services, puts you at ease the minute you meet her. A ready smile follows you, although her eyes sometimes trail -- Cox is legally blind. She sees only a fraction from one eye; she lost her vision when she was in the 6th grade. Maybe it's the peaceful aura that surrounds Cox, or maybe it's her accomplishments in light of her adversity, but whatever the source, her credibility was tangible as she spoke to the McKay School as its 2008 Honored Alumni. Cox spoke on the subject of thriving in uncertainty.

Teacher Education Chair Winn Egan introduced Cox by first asking her teenage son to relate what he appreciated about his mother. Without flinching, the tall and athletic young man stood up and praised his mother as a good role model who does not hesitate to tell him to "pick it up" when he needs to be encouraged. Beginning her presentation, Cox seemed as delighted by her son's introduction as her audience was.

Alluding to recent headlines, Cox began by talking about her reasons for choosing the topic title "Thriving in Uncertainty: How Complexity, Discomfort, and the Unknown Can Work to Your Advantage." She said, "People are in a lot of churn, a lot of angst about these changes." Cox explained that she has noticed that people who deal well with change have a grasp on three principles: they are able to manage discomfort, they are able to walk into the unknown, and they are able to deal with complexity.

Managing Discomfort

"I'm blind," Cox announced. "This cane is not what my youngest believes -- a light saber." She explained that after having a baby in her late 20s she decided she had to really learn to live blind. Cox signed up for what she called blind boot camp. One exercise included being dropped off in a city park. The purpose was learn to be competently mobile in a large city. After finding that she was moving in circles, Cox became very frustrated. That was when her instructor gave her life-changing advice. "You need to be able to walk through your confusion," he said. "You are not going to know any more than you do now until you take the next step."

Cox told her audience that these words were a profound lesson. And then she advised them "At some point in your life you have to be able to master your fear. We spend immense energy avoiding what makes us uncomfortable." She continued, "Until we go to the place we fear, our lives are dictated by our environment, not us."

Walking into the Unknown

Reading Matthew 14, Cox described Jesus walking on water, and Peter asking to join him. "What is so amazing to me about Peter" said Cox, "is not that he fell, but that he got out of the boat." Declaring that the world is rich with opportunity, Cox asked her audience, "Are you willing to get out of the boat?"

Returning to her point that humans often structure their lives around fear she pointed out that we choose to live based either on faith or on fear. "One will take you to great things, although you might fall, or be embarrassed, or even fail sometimes, but you will be better off for it."

Driving the point home, Cox noted that she has rarely found a problem that can't be dealt with. Referring again to the example of Peter, she said, "When you fall, either climb back in the boat, get a life jacket, or ask for Christ to pick you up."

Dealing With Complexities

According to Cox many things in our world are complex. She explained, "For me, complexity is when you have a lot of variables that create a very dynamic decision tree."

To illustrate, Cox related how her office is trying to create a model of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) caseloads. Expressing that no one is capable of accurately predicting what people across Utah are going to do from year to year, she added that life often requests predictions, and during these times many people want life to be black and white. "When our template doesn't work we get miffed. Maybe there are things that are more grey than black and white," she suggested.

Dealing with complexity, said Cox, requires a willingness to take some deep dives instead of simply skimming the surface of an issue. "Few people in this world are willing to take deep dives," she said, counseling her audience to delve into subjects and examine their layers to determine real value and meaning.

Universal Application

With her topic so appropriate to today's societal events, the filled room seemed to soak in Cox's perspectives. Yet Cox acknowledged the universal impact of her message and its ultimate source, when she noted, "God built uncertainty into our lives. Don't be frustrated or angry--that's just how it is. Change is what it life is about."

27 October 2008