“...to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender…” - Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

During our fifth Community Connecting Conversation of 2023, we explored the gifts of getting lost and finding our way through the unknown. 

Recently, many are saying that we are facing a meta-crisis.  Meta-crisis, in short, is our inability to make sense of the many interwoven and potentially existential challenges we face as a species and who we are now in this “time between worlds”.  I resonate with this, as I (and many of my friends and clients) are experiencing a profound sense of having lost our bearings … of no longer being able to locate ourselves or familiar paths and signposts.  This can create a lot of anxiety, but if we can surrender to it, there are profound gifts in the “lostness”.

Getting lost allows us to learn to manage our nervous system responses IN the discomfort of the unknown, and to hone our wayfinding skills. Both of these are critical skills in today’s world where, more often than not, we have no well-worn paths or maps to follow not only in our physical or business landscapes but also in our inner worlds.  Sometimes, we need to get lost to find ourselves.  

While we may recognise the value of the practice of getting lost, often, our preference for comfort and convenience gets in the way. Nowadays, we seldom allow ourselves to get lost, instead relying on "certainty merchants" like GPS, recommendation engines and the like.  

Beyond discomfort, many of us experience extreme anxiety when we are truly lost. It can trigger primal fears from times when being alone and lost potentially meant certain death. In From Here to There, Michael Bond writes, “Lost is a cognitive state: your internal map has become detached from the external world, and nothing in your spatial memory matches what you see. But at its core, it is an emotional state. It delivers a psychic double whammy: not only are you stricken with fear, but you also lose your ability to reason.”

“90% of people make things a lot worse for themselves when they realize they are lost. Because they are afraid, they can’t solve problems or figure out what to do. They fail to notice or remember landmarks.  They lose track of how far they’ve travelled[…]”  Stress and anxiety affect the cognitive functions we need for wayfinding:   we ‘see the trees rather than the forest’. It is how most of us behave when we’re highly anxious: the big picture eludes us as our cognitive map disintegrates. A common problem faced by air ambulance crews is the inability of those making the emergency call to identify where they are or describe their location; no one gets smarter under stress.”

Mostly today, when we feel lost, we are not truly in an existential crisis, but our bodies don't know this. The same stress hormones that create the extreme responses Bond describes above happen to us when we feel lost and adrift at work. And the same confusion and inability to think straight can seriously undermine our decision-making. This is why developing a practice where we can literally build our wayfinding muscles is critical, not only for us, but also for our children.

In her wonderful book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: 

“The word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies or go beyond what they know.

Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private life conspire to make it so. A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant, and those of children are entirely absent. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places… I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.” 

Developing a practice of getting lost.

A person is traveling in a new city.
Image Louis Hansel, Unsplash

Despite all of the discomfort, we have all experienced the inspiration and unforgettable experiences that come from surprise encounters or discoveries off the beaten track. The best way to really experience a new place, like a city we haven’t visited before, is to get lost and wander for a while.  And the best way to a novel idea is to allow ourselves to get lost in thought, to allow our minds to wander.

When we allow ourselves to get lost, drift through a landscape, and open to the unexpected, we reconnect with uncertainty and go beyond our certainty merchants. This provides a space for our intuition to come online, for dots to connect, and for new perspectives to emerge.  This is true in life but also business … innovation more often flows from serendipity than design. 

“Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvellous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice …calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.”   - M.R. O’Connor

There is no recipe for developing a "getting lost practice"; it will differ for each of us, but we believe it starts with being and practising COOL, so here are a few COOL Wayfinding waypoints we explored.

  • Courage …  go beyond the familiar and “disband your army”.  Practice negative capability (“To rest in doubt, being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."  ~John Keats ~
  • Openness … draw on multiple forms of knowledge, including intuition.  Be open to letting go and unlearning old “selves” and certainties.  
  • Observing … Pay attention to signs and patterns. Discover new waypoints.  Notice your triggers and emotional responses without judgment, and learn to calm your nervous system responses in the unknown.
  • Lightness … Hold your own assumptions and strong opinions lightly: recalibrate & make adjustments often … don’t be afraid to admit and make course corrections. Don’t forget to notice the beauty along the way.

We ended the session with this wonderful poem by David Wagoner.  We invited attendees to read silently and reflect on it for a while.  We extend that same invitation to you.

Stand still. 

The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. 

Wherever you are is called Here,
and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
you are surely lost. 

Stand still. The forest knows where you are. 

You must let it find you.

(Lost, by David Wagoner )

Continuing the series of posts on topics discussed during our COOL Connecting conversations in 2023, let's look at one of the most interesting topics we covered: Trust, Confidence and Complexity.   (If you haven't signed up to join our COOL community, you can do so here).

If complexity is all around us, and in fact, it IS us. It permeates and impacts almost every aspect of our lives positively and/or negatively. Many truths we think we know or take for granted are upended by complexity.

For example, let's think about Trust. It is a general assumption that we need to trust ourselves (have confidence) and others to form and maintain relationships and be successful. In his book Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey wrote, "Where trust is low, everything takes longer and costs more." In other words, Trust is a currency that powers our ability to get things done fast and effectively. 

What happens to trust in ourselves and others when we face complexity?

  • As a leader, coach or consultant, how do we instil Trust in our clients or teams when we don't have the answers and can't guarantee outcomes?
  • Can we trust our senses in a world of deep fakes and AI?
  • Do we still know how to trust, i.e., what to base our Trust on?

Let's first consider Trust in ourselves or confidence. Where do you usually draw your confidence from? For most of us, our confidence comes from our competence or expertise, i.e. what we know and our ability to deliver. So what happens in complexity where continuous change and emergence mean we are always on the boundary between knowing and not knowing, feeling competent and incompetent? In a world with intelligent machines, what value does our knowledge have? Sometimes, our past success and existing expertise become liabilities. 

How about trusting our own senses? Can we trust our eyes and ears in a world of deep fakes? Can we trust our judgment?  

Perhaps we need to learn to base our confidence on our ability to learn, adapt, find new potential, relate, empathise and connect.  

Now, let's consider Trust in other entities or people.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer provided some interesting and concerning statistics. 53% of participating countries agreed that they were more divided than ever. Perhaps most alarming, the results seem to say that we cannot trust people who don't share our beliefs and perspectives. In answer to the question: if a person strongly disagreed with me or my point of view, 30% of people said they would help that person if they were in need; 20% said they would be willing to live in the same neighbourhood and 20% said they'd be willing to have them as a coworker.   

"If Trust is the new currency, we are heading for a global monetary crisis. Trust, the oil that moves the wheels of human progress, is seeping away from the very institutions that are at the vanguard of addressing the critical challenges humanity faces." - Vishal Patel.

Why is Trust seemingly eroding, and what does complexity have to do with it?

According to conventional wisdom (and ChatGPT), Trust is typically created and maintained by: 

1. Consistent, honest, and transparent behaviour

2. Meeting expectations and delivering on promises

3. Effective communication

4. Fair treatment and equal application of rules

5. Resolving conflicts in a fair and just manner

6. Protecting and respecting the confidentiality and privacy of information

7. Demonstrating empathy and understanding towards others

8. Shared values and goals 

Many of these factors become impossible in complexity.

• When dealing with unknown unknowns, we can only "know as we go, not before we go". This means we are wayfinding and experimenting. So mistakes, missed deadlines, unmet expectations, or broken promises are unavoidable.

• If our context is dynamic, what we think we know today may no longer be relevant or correct tomorrow. Sometimes, we must retract a statement or policy, change our minds, and pivot.

•Competing priorities and dilemmas mean we can't always be "fair", and some conflicts cannot be resolved. 

•Sometimes, we must act "obliquely", so being transparent and communicating openly is not prudent.

•Diversity and spanning boundaries are critical to our resilience. So, interacting and trusting others with different perspectives and values are unavoidable.

So, how, then, do we trust?  

Some other ideas we explored included the idea of Trust as an affordance, i.e. in the right conditions, an environment or relationship will afford Trust.  

  • Constraints - What constraints must be in place to create affordances for Trust?
  • Relationality/connection - what relationships are needed for "trust tagging" or the flow of Trust?
  • Time: Trust takes time; how do we scaffold it?  
  • Affordances are perceived directly, somatically, and psychologically. What is the role of intuition and gut feeling?

We didn't find definitive answers in our conversation (not that we expected to!), but we did explore the idea of defining simple rules or enabling constraints to scaffold or enable Trust. We considered starling murmurations as an analogy. Birds flock based on three simple rules: stay together (fly to the centre), match speed, and avoid collision. Murmerating patterns emerge when birds follow their nearest neighbour. Are there similar "simple rules" we can follow to help build and maintain Trust when the conventional ways are unavailable to us?

Two interesting heuristics emerged from the group. 

Beware of ...

  • Anyone who is "too certain". In complexity, you shouldn't trust someone who is sure they know what is going on and are certain about what will happen. Someone who is not curious or open to new information and lacks humility.
  • Anyone who shows up in ways that are incongruent with what they say. For example, someone who "speaks complexity" but isn't open to other perspectives or always wants to be right or in control.  

What are your trust heuristics? Contribute them in the comments below.

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If you're interested in exploring the topic a bit more deeply before we meet, here are some short links to explore:




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