In 2011, serial entrepreneur and bestselling author Seth Godin wrote a manifesto on taking initiative, called Poke the Box.
In his book, he references a study by Dr. Jan (pronounced yawn) Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany, investigating the human tendency to walk in circles when we are lost.
Curious, I researched Souman’s study further.
In 2009, Souman left six participants in the Bienwald forest in Germany and three participants in the Sahara desert without any kind of navigational instrument. Each person was left alone and tracked by GPS. All of the individuals who walked on an overcast day, when the sun was not visible, walked in circles. Those who were able to see either the sun or the moon (one participant was left in the desert at night) were able to walk in a straight line. Souman concluded that “humans tend to walk in a circle when no external directional references are available.”
In other words, without a map or some kind of landmark, we are lost. Our instincts will not lead us in a straight line, only circles.
Godin references this study in an attempt to illustrate a more motivational takeaway for getting started. He writes, “Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them.” Even though Godin is thinking along business lines, for me, he still misses the mark.
How can the same mind that got you lost also get you back on track? How can you create the map if you don’t know where you are? With no compass, no landmark, it’s scientifically proven we’ll circle and circle and never make it out.
We need landmarks. We need signs. We need a map.
So how do we take the literal findings of Souman’s study and apply them to the metaphorical maps of our own minds and lives? How do we get un-lost? How do we stop walking in circles?
I love maps. In college, during my study abroad in Ireland, I would come home each night and unfold my paper map of the city of Dublin. I would study intersections and street names, highlight shortcuts and alternate routes, challenge myself to find new ways to get around the city.
In the weeks before I moved to New York City, I would lie in bed at night and flip through guidebooks, digging into the maps, trying to memorize the names of neighborhoods and train lines. My goal was always to look like a local, never look like a tourist. Head up, eyes forward, act like you know where you’re going even when you don’t.
Souman took his study one step further, examining the theory that individuals are direction-biased, favoring one side over another possibly due to leg length or strength. To test this theory, he blindfolded some of the participants. Deprived of visual cues, the participants did not walk in one direction over another as anticipated. Instead, they tended to veer back and forth.
According to Souman, “Small random errors in the various sensory signals that provide information about walking direction add up over time, making what a person perceives to be straight ahead drift away from the true straight ahead direction.” A little left here, a little more left here, a tiny bit right—all the missteps taken in an effort to walk in a straight line once again resulted in participants walking in circles.
In 2010, the year after Souman’s study and the year before Godin’s manifesto, I, like one of Souman’s blindfolded test subjects, was walking in circles. I had been living in New York City for a couple of years, waiting tables and waiting for life. Head up, eyes forward had become head down, eyes closed as I tried to steady myself against what felt like a deluge of bad luck.
I was in need of an external directional reference. I needed to get un-lost. I needed a therapist.
Godin says draw your own map, but I’d been doing that and my map just looped around and around. The participants in Souman’s study, who were able to walk in a straight line and avoid walking in circles, had an external directional reference: they had the sun and the moon. Those in Germany had the landmarks of the forest that the desert did not provide. They had something outside themselves, outside their instincts (which aren’t as trustworthy as we’d like to believe) to guide them in the right direction.
I’m not an athlete (unless there is a Pure Barre Olympics I don’t know about), but I take a lot of inspiration from the way professional athletes approach their lives. They have one job. Win. Everything they do in life orbits around that singular goal, and there simply is no time for distraction. To win, professional athletes have coaches, they have training partners and nutritionists, personal chefs and massage therapists, meditation specialists and acupuncturists. They outsource every area of their lives to a person that does it better than they can.
They use someone else’s map.
When I arrived at my therapist’s office for the first time in 2010, I felt an enormous sense of relief. I could finally put down my map. It wasn’t working anyway. It was a security blanket that brought me no security. I am too close to my own life to get any distance from it. I need perspective and guidance. I need someone else’s map.
I’ve worked with the same therapist for years. She knows me better than I know myself. Her map is my most prized possession, and I prioritize meeting with her over almost everything else in my life; I consider her my mentor, someone whose life and approach to life is one I look up to.
We meet several times a month. We talk on the phone. We discuss the steps I am taking in my own life to give more and take less. She shares her map with me and shows me on my own map when I am starting to walk in circles again.
I’ve had a life coach. Her map was nothing like anything I’d ever seen before. It was limitless, 4-D, a map from another galaxy. I have a writing teacher. Her map uses much more beautiful nouns and verbs than mine. She encourages me and pushes me to go deeper here, pull back over there. I have friends and family, people whose maps I check out like reference books from a library.
I rely on the maps of others, maps that are well-worn and dotted with landmarks of experience.
In John E. Welshons’ book When Prayers Aren’t Answered, Welshons recounts the story of a frustrated student who confronts a great Buddhist teacher. The student tells the teacher that his teachings are contradictory. He demands to know why he tells one student one thing and another student something different. The teacher tells the student his teaching isn’t contradictory at all. When he sees one student going too far left, headed for a ditch, he tells him to go right. When he sees another student all the way to the right, headed for the edge, he tells him to go left.
He knows the path in a way the student does not. He knows it dark spots, its cliffs and its ditches. He is the map. He keeps his students on the path.
I can walk in circles, waiting for the sun or the moon to appear, waiting for direction to come to me—or I can do something different. Godin goes on to write, “If you’re brave enough to draw one [a map], people will follow,” but I think if you’re brave enough to say I’m lost, you’re much more likely to be found.
Kate Parrish is an MFA candidate at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She writes a weekly blog at Aiming for Okay, a site dedicated to finding peace in the middle, away from the extremes of too much or not enough.