‘Wayfinding’ – 4 Guiding Principles For Creating A Clear Direction In Life
“People don’t realize that the future is just now, but later.” – Russel Brand
After publishing my previous article on the importance of personal foresight, I got into a bit of hot water. A few people got back to me, saying they were experiencing too much short-term uncertainty to come up with anything resembling a long-term vision.
In some respects, that’s fair enough. Visioning can be challenging even at the best of times, and COVID-19 didn’t just throw a spanner in the works for most of us, it chucked in the whole damn tool rack. Yet, the reason why so many people struggle to think about the long-term isn’t COVID-related. Often, they simply misunderstand what a vision is supposed to look like.
Visioning doesn’t involve picking the precise destination of where you want to end up in ten years – listing how many properties you’ll own or how many certificates will be hanging on your wall. But it does involve choosing a clear direction of where you’re heading and who you want to become along the way.
Many people think in absolutes. They assume there’s one single happy future out there and it’s their lifelong mission to figure out how to get there. But accepting there are many happy futures possible, each quite distinct but equally fulfilling – makes creating a vision much more fun.
In one of these universes, you might be working as a location-independent freelancer and living in a lovely house on the coast. In another, you’re a hotshot executive with an excellent work/life balance and a lovely terraced home you’ve nearly paid off. And maybe in yet another universe, you’re a respected maths teacher living as part of a throuple (yes, that’s a thing) in a conscious community in Glastonbury. Three different universes – all perhaps equally satisfying depending on your values.
Applying this kind of ‘multiverse’ thinking and appreciating that there’s isn’t one ‘right answer’ when it comes to planning the future allows you to tread through life a little more nimbly. Decisions suddenly become less binary – good/bad – because you know there are many possible lives out there for you – all different but rich and meaningful in their own way.
Visioning then becomes the art of figuring out what your definition is of ‘rich and meaningful’. In this article, I’ll use ‘wayfinding’ – the ancient Polynesian technique of navigating the seas – to highlight the four areas you need to get clear on when coming up with a definition.
Life lessons from Moana
If you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably been living under the same rock as me. Moana tells the story of a little Samoan girl who steals a canoe and – against the orders of her village elders – ventures beyond the safety of the reef to stop an environmental catastrophe from happening.
The story depicts the colonisation of the central and eastern Pacific islands – still considered one of the greatest human endeavors ever. To appreciate how significant an adventure that was, just picture the hundreds of tiny little dots of land spread across thousands of miles in the largest ocean on the planet. Now imagine nearly every single one of them getting settled in just over a hundred years.
We don’t know the reasons for this sudden migration, but we do understand why it happened so quickly. After all, Polynesians were absolute masters in the (nearly) lost art of:
“Wayfinding – the skill of figuring out where you’re going without knowing how to get there, and without the help of modern navigation.”
To explore the world around them, they used nothing else but their intimate knowledge of canoe building, ocean currents, bird migration, seasonal winds and celestial bodies. These were all passed on from generation to generation through song and stories.
Vision: the bottleneck of talent
Even long before a dude developed a cough after sautéing a bat in garlic butter, many of us were already going through life without much direction.
Some took pride in being the kind of person that ‘goes with the flow’. And to be fair, being agreeable and light-footed can be a great approach to life. The flip side is that, without making conscious decisions about where you’re going, you’re merely delegating important decisions about the future to fate, or worse – to others.
Going with the flow can quickly become an excuse for seeking out a hedonistic life on auto-pilot. But all it takes is a rip current to come along in the form of a break-up, COVID-19, a terrible employer – and that little floaty you were happily bobbing along with is suddenly lost at sea. And just like the dumb chicken in Moana, you’ve become a hapless accessory in someone else’s heroic journey.
Heihei, Moana’s clueless rooster adrift at sea
Likewise, a lot of capable and motivated people eventually discover that too much planning hasn’t led to a rich and meaningful life for them either. Yes, they’ve set career goals and got ahead in life driven by copious amounts of grit and a powerful desire to be someone. And then one day, they look in the mirror, not knowing what it was for and not liking who they’ve become.
The issue here wasn’t a lack of planning, but a lack of understanding about what a ‘rich and meaningful’ life should look like.
Author James Clear says:
“Vision is the bottleneck of talent. Most talent is wasted because people don’t clearly know what they want. It’s not a lack of effort, but a lack of direction.”
By applying the four principles I’ll set out below, you’ll build a great compass to help you stay on course even if the destination itself hasn’t revealed itself yet.
Finding direction in life
In my previous article, I offered practical tips on how to visualise your future self. But how can you do that, when life has a habit of throwing several curve balls at once?
Let’s assume your future is determined by 50 per cent planning, 25 per cent serendipity and 25 per cent catastrophe. Wayfinding allows you to prepare for the shitty disappointments, as well as the equally inevitable good luck life will bestow upon you along the way.
Getting clear on the wayfinding principles that determine a rich and meaningful life will stop you from getting too specific of where you’re headed. They are your logos, your core values, your past self, and your future identity.
Together, they provide a set of personal guidelines you can consult any time, to know whether you’re on track.
Logos means reason in Greek, but I’m using it in a slightly different context. First coined by neurologist and existential psychologist Victor Frankl, logotherapy states that:
“The primary motivation behind every person’s actions is to find purpose and meaning in life.”
According to Frankl, there are three ways to uncover purpose and meaning:
· Through work and deeds
· Through experiences and encounters
· Through the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering
As a holocaust survivor, Frankl had first-hand experience with massive suffering. He said it was his drive to publish an unfinished manuscript (which later became the classic Man’s Search For Meaning), that allowed him to survive the concentration camps.
Frankl believed there’s an important distinction between purpose and meaning.
Purpose refers to what you do in life and who you do it for. Meaning relates to why you do it.
Let’s say you’re a barista who loves their job. You enjoy it because serving yummy mummies with third-wave coffee (what & who – purpose) allows you to promote high-quality and ecological artisanal products (meaning). Or, doing the weekly shopping for your elderly neighbour (how & who) gives you a break from playing The Sims all day – helping someone out in real life instead (why – meaning).
Frankl discovered that people often become psychologically damaged whenever their search for meaning becomes blocked. That’s why a lot of my work as a life coach focuses on helping people redirect their actions towards what feels meaningful to them, and away from meaningless activities.
But here lies a problem: how to distinguish between what carries meaning and purpose, and what doesn’t?
Now go and become a social media influencer, my child.
First of all, when I speak about meaning and purpose, I’m not talking about finding out the Supremely Divine reason you were put on this Earth. That’s a pretty narcissistic concept anyway, and it puts a lot of pressure on you to find out what it is.
Instead, let’s assume that you’re just a tiny slice of consciousness that accidentally got caught in a human body while your biological parents were scrambling their DNA together after a few too many Margaritas. In other words, there’s no innate reason for you to be here, and neither is there one for me be to here.
The question therefore isn’t ‘why am I here?’, but more: “Now that I’m here, what can do with my time that’s important?”
Taking out the supernatural makes the idea of meaning both practical and immediate. Some find meaning in saving lives as a fireman. Others find it in keeping the fire station as clean as possible. But for an activity to feel meaningful, it needs to satisfy what Luis A Marrero describes as five fundamental human strivings:
Love: Being surrounded by people who genuinely care for and respect one another, as well as the environment.
Peace and peace of mind: Feeling safe, protected, and at ease. Others having your back.
Happiness: Being mindful of — and grateful for — the good in your life. You’re content.
Engagement: Doing interesting things with stimulating people in exciting places.
Prosperity: Feeling that life is worth living. You’re growing intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, financially, and experientially.
Creating experiences that improve those opportunities for love, peace of mind, gratitude, engagement with others, and prosperity, will help you live a more meaningful life. Anything else won’t.
That is why understanding your logos is the first and most important pillar when it comes to figuring out your direction in life.
#2: Personal values
Us coaches love helping people uncover their values. It’s fun work, and it provides clients with immediate clarity around what’s important to them. That makes it the second guiding principle for wayfinding your future.
“Your personal values are the fundamental beliefs you have about yourself and about how the world around you should function.”
You may be conscious of them or not, but they’re the rules that guide all your decisions. They represent everything you stand for and anything you won’t put up with.
Whenever I put people on the spot, they’ll tell me their values are something like ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’, ‘love’, or ‘justice’. After suppressing a little yarn, I’ll always encourage them to dig a little deeper. And lo and behold, most of the time they don’t even make the final list. That’s because they’re virtues which – unlike values – relate to cultural norms rather than individual ones.
“Personal freedom starts when you start living life according to your personal values, not those forced upon you by your family, peers or your community.”
Becoming familiar with your core values is pretty straightforward. Find yourself a list with the most common ones and pick out those that speak to you deeply. The real interesting work is in defining what each of those values means to you, and how you live by them daily.
For example, the value of ‘freedom’ to me might be roaming around butt naked in a pink feather boa in the Burning Man desert. For you, it could mean owning a beautiful mansion as an expression of your financial autonomy and love for design. Likewise, ‘love’ for me might mean a spiritual, emotional and sensual desire to connect with people, while for you it might involve helping out your local Church group with the Christmas raffle.
Aside from the fact that I’ll probably have more fun than you (fun being another value), my interpretation of freedom and love is no better or worse than yours. Indeed, there’s no hierarchy when it comes to values. And yet because they’re so vital to our identity, we’ll often fight tooth and nail for them.
Having well-defined personal values will guard you against making choices that work against who you are. It also allows you to test your decision against whether you’ve made it based on the values of those around you (parents, peers, society), or your own.
#3: Past self
Perhaps slightly counterintuitive, but a good technique to decide what you want for your future is to keep an eye on significant past experiences. Indeed, developing your hindsight skills is a great way to improve self-awareness.
To improve those skills, Abraham Maslow – best known as the author of the hierarchy of needs – recommended listing our peak experiences. Rather poetically, he said:
“Peak experiences are the rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.”
For some, they involve the birth of a child or falling in love for the first time. Others prefer memories of tripping balls on mushrooms in Goa or jumping out of an airplane.
Whenever I work with someone new, one of the first questions I ask is what their favourite memory is. Everyone grumbles because nobody’s ever asked them that question before.
Getting clear on what makes certain experiences so delightful for you can be really helpful. Come up with your top ten of peak experiences by imagining that you’re having a near-death experience and life flashing by before your eyes. This exercise is known as a life review. Make a list by recalling at least one top memory for each year you’ve lived from the age of six. If you have diaries or photo albums, you can browse through them.
Alongside all the positive, also do a mental review of your fundamental fears, displeasures and anxieties. This might feel a bit uncomfortable, but reflecting on and accepting your failures will allow you to move forward.
As the third wayfinding pillar, a life review will help you create a better understanding of your current and future self. You’ll start to appreciate the journey so far while receiving valuable clues about where to go next.
#4: Future identity and personality
Most people don’t know the difference between identity and personality.
Identity is something you create yourself based on your logos, your values and your past experiences. Your personality is how you then choose to express that identity. In other words, your identity relates to who you are, while personality reflects how you behave. Neither are fixed.
Organisational psychologist Dr Benjamin Hardy believes people get too attached to their personality.
“Identity drives behaviours which, over time, become personality. Your personality — the sum of your consistent attitudes and behaviours — is merely a by-product of identity.” – Dr Benjamin Hardy
The implication is that by changing how you act, you also change your personality. In psychology, this is known as self-signalling. For example, let’s say that you rarely wake up before 10am, and therefore your belief is that you’re not a morning person. If you now consistently wake up at 6am for two weeks straight, your actions will no longer suit the belief that you’re not a morning person. Your conscious mind notices the discrepancy, and over time you’ll stop referring to yourself as a late-sleeper. So, by altering your behaviour, you’ve effectively changed your personality.
Unfortunately, we’re biased to think that who we are today is exactly who we’ll always be.
That’s bizarre because you can ask anyone if the person they are today is the same person they were ten years ago, and they’ll resolutely say no. And if they do say yes, they’re probably lying, or they’re not growing enough.
This illusion can cause us a lot of problems because by believing that we’re already the finished product today, we give up on our potential to change.
So, the fourth and final wayfinding principle involves accepting that who you are today is not yet the real version of you. By letting go of the notion that your personality is fixed, you can start visualising what that ‘finished version’ of you might look in ten years’ time. What are the behaviours they would display on a day-to-day basis towards their loved ones, colleagues, and total strangers?
Leading a happy life involves walking a tightrope between planning and letting go. Neither going with the flow too much nor being too relaxed will get you where you want to get to – as long as you can’t define a clear vision of a rich and meaningful future.
To get clear on that definition, use the four wayfinding elements of logos, values, past and identity. They’ll serve as your compass, helping you understand the person you want to become while allowing you to stay flexible on your destination.
And just like it did with Moana, that compass will guide you back home whenever you’re on high seas. Or just like it did with me, it might even get you to set up home on one of those tropical islands too.