I don’t know where I am going, but I know exactly how to get there.” – Boyd Varty

In September 2023, we had the privilege of hosting master tracker Alex van den Heever on our monthly beCOOL Community conversation.  This was an extremely rich conversation, exploring the synergies between our world of wayfinding uncertainty in business and the ancient practice of wildlife tracking.  Alex and his partner Renias Mhlongo are regarded as two of the best trackers in the world and run an academy where they train others in this ancient practice.

Tim Ingold defines Wayfinding (or Waysfinding as we like to think of it) as “Knowing as you go, not before you go”.  During our conversation, it became clear that such wayfinding is a core aspect of tracking, where you simply cannot know everything before you set out.  As Alex rightly pointed out, “there is always variability in nature, so uncertainty is part of the job”.  

Being a tracker might seem quite idyllic, and it might not immediately seem like business leaders and trackers have much in common.  However, trackers often face many simultaneous pressures: accompanying (often naïve) people into a dangerous and uncertain environment while under pressure to perform and provide specific sightings.

So how do they do it?

Alex shared the following process with us:

  1. Find the track

There might be hundreds of potential tracks to follow, trackers need to cut through the noise to find the spoor (track) that matters.   This requires discernment and patience. A trap here is a bias for action, i.e. not taking the time to assess all the possibilities before acting.  In business strategy, do we have the ability and the patience to cut through the noise to find the signals (risk or opportunity) that matter?   In our experience, the ever-increasing pace of the corporate context undermines our ability to make prudent choices. (find out more – slowness blog)

2. Follow the track

“Wayfinding rests on being in the present moment, staying still, and becoming calibrated to the signs.” – Spiller et al.

Trackers stay present to their Curiosity and employ all their senses to attune to the signs around them.  They are paying attention to the track on the ground and other signs, like broken twigs, bird alert calls, etc.  Here, a trap is to become hyper-focused on one thing (e.g. the track) and miss other helpful signs – or become so focused on the lion track on the ground that you forget to look up and blunder into a dangerous situation, i.e. the lion!  Alex made a distinction between focused and diffuse thinking, highlighting that we need both.

What signs are we attuned to in business as we engage in strategic waysfinding?  Are we scanning broadly enough, e.g., do we know what is happening on the edges of our industries?  Are we aware of weak signals?  Do we pay attention to “alarm calls” or ignore them?  Are we so hyper-focused on meeting targets that we miss risks and opportunities right before us?

3. Lose and regain the track

Trackers know that losing the track is inevitable.  When that happens, it is critical to be honest, especially with yourself.  Denial is the trap here, as it is impossible to get back on track when you can’t admit to losing it.

This is probably one of the hardest things for business leaders – to admit when they have made a strategic error and need to pivot or start again.  We live in a world where dominant narratives equate competence with being right or knowing.  But just like the trackers, if we cannot admit that we have lost track as soon as we realise it, we make it impossible to get back on track and make things much worse.

4. Close the gap

This is where the tracker’s knowledge and experience truly shine.  Animals like lions move much faster across the landscape than humans can. Often, it is impossible to catch up to them, so the trackers must find a way to close the gap.  To do that, they tap into their knowledge of the landscape and the animal’s behaviour, and they use their imaginative capacity to create a narrative of where the animal might be going and why.  Trackers shift from following the track in the present to a form of anticipation – they attempt to leapfrog the animal to get ahead of it.  For example, they might consider the direction the lions are travelling; they might know that the lions haven’t made a kill recently and remember a herd of Zebra that they saw the night before not too far away.  From this, they might create a narrative that the lions will likely be found stalking the zebra and decide to leave the trail and head over to where they last saw the herd.  It is a form of continuous hypothesis building, adjusting as new signs present themselves.  

Here, hubris is a trap – being overly certain and ignoring what is in front of you, e.g. I know these lions; they always drink water this time of the day.  

In business, how often do we employ our imagination?  Or do we perceive it as soft or immature?  And how often does over-confidence in our previous experience cloud our judgment?  Can we remain Open to new information?  

5. Encounter

Finally, if all goes well it leads to an encounter with the animal.  Master trackers practice gratitude and remain in wonder when this happens.  It can be easy for the ego to get in the way here, but a good encounter is never certain in the ever-present uncertainty of the natural world.  In business, do we practice gratitude and celebrate our wins, or do we allow our egos to get in the way?  Do we value the journey or simply chase the next target?

Trackers, and business leaders need to be comfortable with uncertainty, which means that they need to be COOL:

  • to COURAGEOUSLY make choices, follow a particular track or strategic path and have the courage to admit when they have lost the track and need to pivot.
  • be OPEN to a wide variety of information, to being in continuous change and uncertainty and to being vulnerable and admitting when things go wrong
  • to OBSERVE their own tendencies to hubris or ego so that they don’t become trapped.  AND remain situationally aware, observing the various environmental signs to enable them to track an animal or strategy effectively.
  • And finally, they practice LIGHTNESS – they don’t take themselves too seriously, they use their imagination as well as their knowledge, and they never lose their sense of gratitude, awe and wonder. 

If you'd like to join our free beCOOL community and be part of future COOL Conversations, sign up here.

Learn more about Alex and Renias here.

“...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 )

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