Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Art of Navigation

“Happiness is a direction, not a place.” Sydney J. Harris

I remember a friend of mine telling me that many years ago when he served in the Special Forces they used a special navigation technique.

When they were traveling through unfamiliar terrain at night, it was impossible to always know their exact position. So instead of plotting an exact route before setting out, they would study the map and look for two landmarks which marked the direction they wanted to travel.

The landmarks could be a railway track on one side and a river on the other for example. Then all they had to do to get to their destination was keep moving forward and keep within the railway track and the river.

Along the way they were free to explore anything of importance, safe in the knowledge that they were still on course.  

Sometimes, I think life can be a bit like navigating through unfamiliar terrain at night. It's hard to know exactly where we are and frequently the unexpected is just around the corner. 

Just like real navigation, we have a number of choices about how we plot a route through our lives.

One choice is to just go ahead with no direction whatsoever and wander about aimlessly. We’d still end up somewhere but that somewhere may not be very pleasant.

Alternatively, we could plan a very specific route, 10 paces forward, 5 paces left, 10 more paces forward etc. The problem with the specific route is that if we make one mistake we are totally lost. Living such a restricted life means we don’t benefit from the richness of life’s experiences. As soon as we stray from our plotted course everything can fall apart and so we can live in constant fear of putting a foot wrong.

A third choice is to simply use landmarks to let us know when we stray too far from the route. We still have a general direction, we know where we want to get to and we’ve studied the map in advance. The difference is that we’re free to explore along the way, free to experience the richness of life.

We may not be taking the most direct route but we’re moving in the right general direction. With such flexibility we’re open to whatever happens in the moment and we can respond to opportunities that we could never have anticipated.

Here are a few ways we can use landmarks:

1) Study the map in advance
I think it’s important to know the general direction we want our lives to go. Time passes quickly and if we never think about where we are going we can end up full of regrets. Why not take out the map? Where would you like to go, what looks interesting, what excites you?

2) Identify the landmarks
As we think about where we’d like to go we can start to think about how we’d know if we strayed too far off course. Sometimes the landmarks can be quite abstract, a feeling of frustration or guilt for example. Thinking about previous times in our life when we knew it was time for a change is a good way to identify our own landmarks. Then, as soon as we hit those landmarks we know it’s time to check our course and readjust our direction.

3) Explore
When we know we are on the right route we can go out and explore and really enjoy the journey. This is where life is really happening. In fact, really this is all there is so we need to make the most of it. Go out and play, take in the view, savour the unexpected!

4) Re-check the map
Nothing is ever static. Our dreams and direction change. Sometimes we all need to re-check the map. There’s no point in holding on rigidly to an old route which no longer serves us. We may want to go somewhere new, we may even have to find new landmarks. If we never re-evaluate, we can get rusty, we can get too comfortable with the route we already know and that signals the end of our growth. Taking some time to periodically re-evaluate our direction can help us to remain fluid and engaged with life.

Most of all, have fun on the journey. I personally don’t think life should be all about schedules, goal tracking and struggling to achieve some abstract definition of ‘success’. I prefer to use just the minimum number of tools I need to make sure I’m not wandering aimlessly and let the natural ebb and flow of life take care of the rest.

Image courtesy of Stuart Anthony


  1. This was a great metaphor. I'm glad to have come across your blog via Paulo Coelho's blog. I often feel that "paths" are not always the best metaphor for life choices, but as you mentioned, landmarks or certain benchmarks that are signs that we are headed in the right direction.

    Thanks for the post.:)

  2. Thanks Cora, It's great to have you as a reader :)