Finding Direction – 3 Ways to Blaze a Clear Path Through Life’s Forest

The compass.  It’s a magnetized north-seeking needle inside a circular housing marked with 360 degrees.  People have used them for over 2,000 years to find their way through the wilderness.  We may not be leading exploratory expeditions these days, but finding direction through the trackless reaches of modern society is no less difficult, or important.  Here are a few ways I think we can update the compass to help us find our way.

Finding Direction - 3 Ways to Blaze a Clear Path Through Lifes Forest

Getting Oriented

I learned how to navigate through the woods as a Boy Scout in Virginia.  Rotate the compass bezel ring to the heading you want.  Hold the compass level at your chest.  Turn your whole body until the red magnetic needle lines up over the red painted arrow.  Whatever way you are facing is the direction you need to go.

To follow that heading accurately, all we have to do is sight down the length of the compass, and pick out an object directly in the line of view.  Maybe it’s that big white birch tree in the distance.  Then, simply walk there.  Once at the tree, take another sighting and repeat the sequence until we get where we we’re going.

This process of “dead reckoning” with a compass can help us navigate our way through the woods, but there’s something that it won’t do very well at all.

Land Navigation Test

A few years after I left the Scouts, I found myself deep in the pine forests and scrub oak of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia.  We needed these same compass skills to pass the Army’s land navigation test. 

Hundreds of us new lieutenants navigated to a succession of points scattered throughout the woods.  Our final destination was one of dozens of identical wooden posts sunk in the ground, identifiable only by a letter and number code.  They were maybe 100 feet apart.  Not a lot of room for error.

Mid-test, after hours of tromping through the woods, you might encounter another lieutenant breaking through the underbrush.  He’d be dressed the same, look the same, and seem to be going in about the same direction.  Still, there was no way to know if he was headed to the same post.  Chances are, he wasn’t.

The shortcoming of the compass is this:  using it to follow someone else’s heading won’t take us where we need to go.  At the end of the course, if we both write the same alpha-numeric code on our answer sheets, one of us will not be progressing to the next phase of the curriculum.

Why am I sharing all of this?

False Headings

Because life is like a forest full of lost lieutenants. 

We are all struggling to navigate our way through thickets of ethical dilemmas, tough career choices, problematic relationships, and risky temptations.  Many of us seem to be going in about the same general direction.  We may even try to appear confident about the heading we are on.

But we aren’t always, are we?  Perhaps we glanced away, and when we look back up, we find that nice birch tree is actually one of several – which one was “ours?”  

In times of doubt or decision, what do we do?  The same thing all humans do.  We look at what everyone else is doing.  Psychologist Robert Cialdini called this “social proof.”  If enough other people are doing something, that makes it OK for us to do it, too.  They may even become self-righteous if we don’t.  But there is grave danger in simply following what everyone else is doing. 

At Fort Benning, following someone else’s heading is a sure way to flunk the navigation test, and get an invitation to some bonus weekend corrective training.  In the rest of the world, these false headings are likely to take us to places that are more complicated, counter-productive, and pointless.

We need some kind of compass to help us navigate through this thick underbrush of distraction and get to a place worth going.  What can we use?

Three simple ideas for you.

Finding Direction

Collect Quotes.  I started collecting quotes in school.   When I came across a phrase that captured some quality I aspired to, I wrote it down on an index card.  Forty years on, I still have that stack of cards in my desk.  For maximum effect, keep them in view – rotate a few onto the cubical wall, use them for book marks, stick them to the mirror or the refrigerator. 

For lots of ideas, I’m always adding new quotes to the inspiration gallery.  One of my favorites:

“Loyalty is not compelled, it is inspired.”
– Michael O. Wheeler

Write your Obit.  Writing the obituary we hope someone will one day write about us can be a great way to help us navigate through the forest.  What legacy do we want to leave?  How do we want people to remember us?  What have we done to make the world a better place? 

Find some quiet time, maybe leaf through a few examples, then put pen to paper.  Once we write it out, we can do some reverse-engineering to figure out what we should be doing now to merit those glowing words from the future.  More ideas on this at this helpful website.  

As a starting idea, Steve Jobs’ obituary says this:

“The world is immeasurably better because of Steve.”

Vocalize your Values.  Many organizations have taken the time to list the values they want to guide their decision-making.  Scouts have their 12-point law, the Army has its seven values, doctors have the Hippocratic oath.  There’s no reason we can’t do that for ourselves.   

Make a list of qualities, and define what each means.  Keep it short, like these examples, and keep it handy for when decision time comes around.  The reason we think of Scouts as good kids may be because the first of their laws is this one:

Scouts tell the truth and keep their promises. 
Honesty is part of their code of conduct. 
People can depend on them.

Other Options

There are other candidate compasses for finding direction out there.  Books of faith, and schools of philosophy come to mind.  Perhaps, but a thick book or philosophical treatise can be like the forest, too:  broad, complicated, even impenetrable. 

The compass simply points north.  We have to keep it simple that way, too.  To make one of those other sources useful, condense it onto a single index card.  That way we’ll be more likely to pull it out and take a sighting when we need direction.

As a good starting point, most world religions ascribe to some version of this clear compass heading:

Do unto others only as you would have them do unto you.

Whichever of these compasses we decide to use, the thing is, before we take a single step, we take a sighting.  We find that large birch tree in the distance and fix it firmly in our minds.  Only then do we step forward, and now we can do so with confidence.

Finding Direction – The Takeaway

When teaching map and compass, one of the points of emphasis is that precision is important.  An error of just one degree will throw us off target by nearly 100 feet after only a mile.  If we get sloppy, the only thing we can be sure of is that we’ll end up at the wrong post.

With life’s compass, the takeaway is that we have to be equally careful when it’s time to decide.  If our aim is to go directly from point A to point B, there is no short cut; a straight line is the only correct option.  Cutting a corner, or turning a blind eye  “just this once” will only send us off on the wrong heading.

The other noteworthy point is that navigating is a repetitive process.  Take a sighting with the compass.  Walk to the tree. Sight again.  Walk to the boulder.  We constantly return to the compass to make sure we are on our correct heading, and not someone else’s.  That’s how you pass the navigation test.

In finding direction in the forest of life, the thing for us to do is not to look to see what Lieutenant Jones is doing, but to pull out our own compass and take a sighting.  Get a good look at that distant land mark; ignore all the other lost lieutenants, and start walking.  

If you are careful and consistent with this practice, others may notice your actions and gravitate towards you.  As Cialdini observed, there is something very attractive about a person who knows where they are going and why they are going there. 

Keep it up.  But don’t be surprised if you find a growing group of people following you through the woods.  There’s another name for this phenomenon.

It’s called leadership.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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