Finding the Right Direction: How do You Know Which Way to Go?

Life is full of choices; how do you know the right direction to take? 

The choice one woman makes while walking alone out in the American southwest can serve as a good example for the rest of us in how to choose the right path to follow.

[Watch the video above, or read the transcript below]

Alone in the Desert

Hi, I’m Ken from RapidStart Leadership where our goal is to help you learn leadership skills, build your influence, and make the world a better place through people.

In Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild there’s a short, funny passage that’s easy to miss, but I think is full of wisdom about choosing the right direction that I want to share with you.

Cheryl had a turbulent young life that included a broken family, poverty, and a brush with drug addiction.  When she lost her mother to cancer, Cheryl decided to try to break from her messy past and make a new start.

Finding the Right Direction: Pacific Crest Trail MapTo do this, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650 mile footpath that stretches from the US. Border with Mexico all the way through California, Oregon and Washington, to where it ends at the Canadian border.

She attempts this alone, with almost no backpacking experience.

As you might expect, she meets with adventure and plenty of challenges along the way.  She writes about many of them in a captivating style, but it’s a brief incident near the beginning of her hike that I think contains some of the deepest wisdom of the book.

She’s only five days into her journey through the southern deserts, and she hasn’t seen another person in all that time.  Still adjusting to the rigors of hiking long miles with an overloaded backpack, the heat is punishing, she’s tired, and everything aches.

She’s also perhaps a little fearful.  Earlier that afternoon she had spotted the paw prints of a mountain lion.  The tracks had followed the trail for a quarter of a mile before turning off.

Cheryl remembered news articles she had read of three different people killed by mountain lions in the past year.  She nervously sang songs out loud hoping to scare off any nearby predators and calm herself at the same time.

As the sun is lowering in the sky she rounds a point in the trail and comes face to face with an enormous brown horned animal bearing down on her.  As a Minnesota girl, her first reflex is to cry out, “Moose!!!” even though there is no one to hear her shout.

In the next instant, she scrambles off the trail into the scrub oaks and tangled brush.  Her heavy pack making her feel as if she’s moving in slow motion.  At every step her legs and arms are scratched by thorny branches. Still shouting, “Moose!!!” She grasped frantically for the yellow cord attached to her pack that is supposed to keep a whistle within easy reach.

Finally getting a hold of the lanyard and pulling the whistle into her hands, she hunkers down in the scrub, closes her eyes, and blows the whistle as long and loud as she can.

Eventually she runs out of breath and stops blowing.   She hears no sound, and panic begins to subside.  As her mind slowly clears she realizes that the correct name for the brown horned animal was not moose, but bull.

Finding the Right Direction: Texas LonghornIt was a Texas longhorn bull.  These animals can weigh in at over 2,000 pounds, and the distance between the tips of their horns can be as much as eight feet.  She was glad she did not get any closer to it than she did, but now she had a new problem.

Which Way??

She gathers her courage and returns to the trail, but has no idea if the bull went back where it came from, or had continued on down the path.  The beast could be ahead of her or behind her, she didn’t know which.

Every sound she heard terrified her, making her think that the bull was coming back.  She couldn’t stay where she was.  She had to choose which way to go.

In thinking about the incident later, she observed that her predicament was like many things.  It all boiled down to two simple choices.  To continue forward, or to retreat.

Retreat had its enticements.  The path was familiar, she knew exactly where it led.  She didn’t know if the bull was there, but at least there weren’t any mountain lions.

Continuing forward had its own risks, and quite possibly they were greater.  But to progress, to achieve her goal, to shed the past she was trying to escape meant that she had to go forward.  As she said in her book, progress so often required her to do the things that she least wanted to do.

She summed it all up in two simple but moving sentences:

I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward. And so I walked on. - Cheryl Strayed, Wild Click To Tweet

Right Direction – The Takeaway

Like Cheryl, it can seem like we are all walking on paths through the wilderness.  And maybe there aren’t mountain lions or Texas Longhorns, or even moose waiting to charge at us from around the corner.  But there is still the unknown, and the unknown is risky, it makes us nervous, uncomfortable.

And like Cheryl, retreat might seem safer, but it also means stagnating, walking the treadmill, not growing.  To grow often means accepting some discomfort, stepping forward into difficulty, and daring to do the things we might least want to do.

When these choices present themselves, I hope we will always have the strength to do what Cheryl Strayed did.

Want to know the right direction to go?  Keep moving –  forward.

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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