For all who wander (and wonder)

‘Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.’ Voltaire

We live in uncertain times. And, the less certainty there is, the more we seem to reward the pretense of certainty.  We see this globally in the rise of authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism. In the corporate world, we diligently look for visionary ‘unicorns’ to appear and accept winner-take-all economics built on the ‘next best thing.’ All this trickles down to individuals being able to deliver an ‘elevator pitch’ with clarity and certainty on just about any topic.  Resumes and CVs similarly look like we know what we’re doing and can do it all, from generating profit to saving the planet in our spare time. The problem is that, as mentioned above, the world is not that certain. 

Walk around the campus of any large technology company in Silicon Valley, amidst a sea of talent and ambition, and you’ll find they’re an anxious lot. In spite of amenities and affordances that most workers in other industries and other settings can only dream of, there is paradoxically an air of tentativeness about the role and responsibilities of technology in society, and society in general.  In particular, there is little comfort for the thousands of H1B visa holders, whose opulent lifestyle is dependent on their employers’ ability to keep them in a country of immigrants that has seemingly changed its mind about the value of immigrants. It seems that no matter how smart and driven (and rich) you are, you may still live in a world characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty. 

Given the capricious nature of life, many of us are unsure of what it all means. Being human, of course we try our best to make sense of what’s going on around us. The primary models of success many of us have inherited or absorbed from our family, educational and cultural background are biased towards intellect and natural ability, coupled with discipline and tenacity leading to steady, upward progress and ultimately toward success and happiness.  The ‘ladder of success’ metaphor permeates and persists in society, even though it is increasingly difficult to realize.  In its worst-case scenarios, the pressure to perform from family and friends often becomes insurmountable, leading to all sorts of counter-productive and/or destructive behaviors. 

Rather than create false certainty or offer clear-cut steps to success, I believe most of us are wandering through life. As such, wayfinding is an essential part of the journey, but unlike the ‘ladder to success’ metaphor, being lost some of the time and/or taking our time to find our way is not necessarily failure, it is simply part of the process of learning, and even if we aren’t learning, we are at least living. (Don’t tell your teacher I told you that.) Wandering, as well as wondering, seeking adventure, and exploration are not cop-outs from the rigors of success, they are the foundations of knowing who you are and what you really want to do in your life. Even more importantly, they teach you about life itself.

For the past 40+ years, I have been observing people as they encounter challenges and make sense of their experiences. For the first 10 years, I was an Outward Bound instructor and later I became a professor in a business school.  In the case of Outward Bound, over the course of a three or four-week expedition, students face physical and mental challenges, including hunger, thirst, heat, cold and the vagaries of wilderness weather and team dynamics.  You learn a lot watching individuals from all sorts of backgrounds encounter obstacles and conditions in teams, which are formed quickly and more or less randomly.  What varies more than the weather or team success is the way that individuals make sense of their experience. Are they having fun, or are they miserable? It’s mostly in the mind.

As a business school professor, I have taught ‘normal’ courses in management and organizational behavior, but for over 20 years I have played the role of Game Overall Director (GOD) of a business simulation, which runs through an entire 10-week quarter. In the simulation, teams are formed based on talent and role choice (CEO, CFO, Marketing Director, etc.), not on pre-existing friendships, and each function has to perform well if the team is to perform well, so teamwork is an enormous challenge in that setting too. Like my Outward Bound students, the biggest challenge for my graduate students, is not gaining market share, but how to make sense of their experience—before, during and after the event. 

Like any good teacher, I do my best to ‘frame’ the experience with my students, but many individuals with strong skills and abilities end up not having the experience they expected, and some ‘weaker’ student teams have the time of their lives, regardless of the financial (in the business simulation) or physical (in the Outward Bound courses) results they achieve. Of course, occasionally great teams just spontaneously ‘happen,’ and ‘teams from hell’ do exist.  But, a more profound reason for this conundrum (i.e. high skill > bad experience; low skill > good experience) is that while we (society in general and education in particular) promote ‘challenge’ as an opportunity for personal growth and development, we fail to offer a sufficient range of metaphors and other meta-meaning options for those struggling with ambiguity in unpredictable situations, which seems to characterize more and more of modern life.

Learning from experience has such power, but too often our personal reflection defaults to ‘how could I have done this better?’ and not ‘what story am I living or reliving here?’  The problem with many of our educational programs and institutions is their emphasis on incremental credentialism (from gold stars in kindergarten to executive education ‘badges’), not learning as a long and winding road. How does this behavior or performance fit into, not just my ‘learning,’ but into my ‘life?’ One way to see learning in the context of life is through metaphor.  Seeing experience as metaphor allows us to improve what we’re doing, but more importantly it also provides the opportunity to contemplate ‘why’ I am doing what I’m doing. Minimally, in my experience, metaphors can help us make sense of what we’re going through, that is to say they can help us make sense of our lives.  

For example, following the Christchurch (New Zealand) earthquake, a university student made his way to the site of the disaster and worked tirelessly for weeks with other student volunteers rescuing and recovering people and property from this horrible natural disaster. The work was filthy, and progress was frustratingly slow, but the student ‘army’ of volunteers poured themselves into the daily slog.  When the student returned home, he was exhausted, but he also became quite depressed.  He had just done the most ‘meaningful’ thing in his life, but he could not make sense of it in those terms. He could not articulate the meaning of the mission he had just completed.  Hearing this story, I would suggest that the student’s experience in the disaster zone was a ‘rite of passage,’ of transforming his happy-go-lucky university self into an adult who could make a difference to a real-world problem.  Debriefing each day’s activity would not necessarily reveal the overall picture of the whole experience in relation to his journey through life, whereas seeing it as a rite of passage would ‘make sense’ and perhaps help his transition after the event. 

Often it is easier to see the whole experience after the fact, and often it is helpful to have someone to help us reflect on what we’ve done, but it is often the case that we lack the stories that might reveal the wholeness of what we’ve experienced. Seeing the whole cycle of an experience can lead to greater understanding when we encounter similar episodes in the future.  In 1941, as Kurt Hahn was developing his philosophy and ideas that would evolve into the Outward Bound movement, there was a great and urgent need for young sailors to be prepared to go to war at sea. Hahn’s early programs were designed to enhance the likelihood of young sailors surviving at sea during the hardships of war, including shipwrecks.  Subsequently, the mission of Outward Bound is providing experiences that prepare novices for challenges later in life.  It is based on the principle that prior experience generally makes us more resilient in the face of adversity, because we have the confidence to say, I’ve been here before and I made it, so I will make it through this hardship.  In short, surviving one shipwreck makes you more confident, even when you feel your ship is about to sink.

Fortunately, we don’t have to sink ships to prepare people for shipwrecks, but we do have to throw them into the sea, metaphorically, if not literally.  We as humans can transfer the learning from one experience to another. By definition, metaphoric learning means transferring meaning from one context to another.  Importantly, this allows us to also transfer the confidence derived from overcoming obstacles and challenges experienced on an adventure course, or travelling independently in foreign lands, or working as a volunteer in a developing country, to other personal and professional challenges.  One gift we humans possess is that of seeking and finding meaning in events—good or bad—long after they happen. It’s not so much that everything happens for a reason, but that meaning is possible from everything that happens.

There are, of course, multiple metaphors that might explain the same experience and no one metaphor that explains everyone’s learning experience. Nor, should the search for a single, unifying and/or overarching metaphor for your life be the end result of reading this book. Powerful though they may be, there are limits to metaphoric learning.  I have written about the dangers of over-reaching the connection, i.e., when simple, short outdoor pursuits, like abseiling or running a rapid are construed to be ‘just like’ the complexities of organizational life.  That simply isn’t the case.  Similarly, we can become addicted to our favorite metaphor (often based on sport).  Even if your organization feels like a yachting race to you, that metaphor may not resonate with others, and therefore they miss your meaning.  While inspiring, the stories presented in this book are not to suggest that you should drop what you’re doing to start a quest.  If you nod in empathy or recognition as you read, that’s great. If you’re entertained or inspired by the antics and attitudes described herein, that’s also great. My suggestion is to hold these notions lightly, to see what insights, if any, present themselves to you. 

Despite their limitations, metaphors are enormously powerful in helping us to learn and make sense of life.  They can provide the necessary ingredient of perspective that is necessary to find meaning in a life that otherwise looks like a series of disconnected events.  We are all experienced.  Our day-to-day experiences stack up as we go through the years.  But, how often do we reflect on what those experiences mean, or could mean, if we thought about them differently?  The magic of experiential learning is that you can learn while you’re involved in an action or activity; you can learn immediately afterwards, during a debriefing session; and you can relearn more and different lessons looking back on the experience years later. 

One way to open up ourselves to re-learning from our experiences is to tell our stories. Stories allow us to ‘see’ what we’re talking about and that seeing can provide new perspective, which affords new insights. The stories I have chosen to tell here allow us to see experience in context and that context offers one version of new meaning to the experience.  As contexts change, so does the meaning that we derive or attribute to our experiences.  For example, many story lines of our lives are only visible when the context of more experience, new settings and/or new actors appear on the scene.

Oh, and there’s one more thing about stories, they are fun to read or listen to. They transport us to faraway places, they help our minds wander in a good way. I cannot live your experience and you cannot live mine, but stories can connect one human experience with another. They allow us to feel empathy for others, even, and perhaps especially when the other’s story is very different from ours. Stories are software for the soul (if there is such a thing).  While I have tried to include stories from a wide variety of people and places, I will admit that the stories I have gone back to or captured tend to be biased towards my days in the wilderness and my more recent work with professionals from a variety of fields. I am aware that my choices (and access) represent an ‘elite’ sample, but for the purposes here, I hope there is sufficient human commonality to suit a range of readers.

Ultimately, however, this book is not just about stories. It is about making sense of experience.  If a story or story within this volume helps you make sense of an experience, that is great. If not, then hopefully the people and stories recorded here are interesting in their own right.  Moreover, I am not suggesting that the archetypal stories presented here should become a template for your particular life.  My intent is to offer a new perspective on the life you have already lived, so that you might gain another perspective on your personal experience so far, and perhaps reshape how you think about your experiences in the future. Finally, in realizing that all who wander are not lost, you may be inspired to let life take you further afield, to find new pathways and horizons beyond what you ever dreamed possible.

This book is for the wanderers of the world—those who are not sure how this is all going to work out.  It offers different ways to think about wandering. It’s also a reminder for all of us not to take life’s twists and turns so seriously.  When things don’t go exactly as we had planned, it’s not the end of the world, or even the end of the road. When we hit a roadblock, we may need to recalibrate our route or wait a while, but the journey continues.  I believe that many of us, young and old, are actually doing this, but don’t let ourselves admit it, because at every stage of life it seems we’re expected to have a plan.  For those with experience and wisdom, it’s a reminder that chances are you didn’t get where you are by following a straight line.  And, if you did, maybe now’s the time to follow a less straight line, to wander a little more aimlessly and see what more life has to offer. This book is for those who missed out of some great stuff, but still found life to be full of other great stuff, for those who didn’t get into their parents’ first choice of schools, but who received a great education (and possibly less student debt). For those who cashed in their study grant to go to Mexico. It’s for those who’ve done well, but who can now honestly admit to their grandkids that most of what they’ve achieved was as much luck as good sense, of being at the right place at the right time. 

For those who are doing all the right things, I hope to offer another, perhaps more interesting, narrative to your success. I’ve seen a lot of talented people who work very hard (probably too hard) and don’t see the heroic aspect to their lives. I see a lot of folks at all ages who may seem to be wandering aimlessly through life, who don’t appreciate that perhaps they are on an odyssey, a quest or ‘walkabout’ that perhaps they should not rush, but savor in order to learn from their wandering. This book is also for the many hyper-organized souls who wish they could simply let go and see what happens. I see people, young and old, who would like to put their smart devices down and connect with a simpler, less-frenetic, more-analogue world, but need some reassuring role models to see the value in such a vision.

The aim of this book is to help us think differently about our personal experiences, with the hope of perhaps discovering new meaning within them.  It is based on stories that others have shared with me, from doctors, scientists, soldiers and software engineers, corporate executives and entrepreneurs. There are stories from airline pilots and gamers, as well as mountaineers and river guides. There are stories drawn out of shy characters and stories recounted from master story tellers. Along the way, I add a few stories of my own. I am writing as someone who has wandered through life and hope to connect with those who feel they are wandering, or who wish they could wander more and climb the ladder a little bit less. I have chosen stories and interpret them through themes of wandering, namely adventure, exploration, seeking, solitude and settling down.  Real-life characters in this book shared their experience, while I translate that experience to illustrate a metaphor or analogy others may share.  There is nothing new in the metaphors I present here.  Indeed, they are as old as humankind. Reading contemporary stories through an ancient lens hopefully offers new ways to see the whole picture of our own lives, here and now.  I like to say they are stories for our time from all time.