Where Are You Going In Life?Feb 27, 2023
I spent a couple years in Omaha in my late 20s. When my friend Marcel came to visit toward the end of my tenure there, he suggested that we go explore downtown.
"Where do you want to go?" I asked. "Let's just explore," he replied.
Just explore. Park the car. Get out. Wander around with no specific agenda, entering places as we passed them, checking out what the area had to offer, staying as long as it struck our fancy to and moving on whenever we felt ready. I learned more about Omaha in that weekend than in the entire time I had lived there. Marcel opened my eyes to a new way of approaching life, one of exploration, of being curious, of being open, of almost expecting to find treasures if only you’re willing to look for them.
In the years since, one of my favorite games has become what I call Left, Right, Straight. Whether it’s in my own neighborhood, another part of my city, or a new location all together, I find it fun to approach each intersection with the question, “Left, right, or straight?” Then I go with my gut, and let chance call the shots. By allowing myself to be open to exploring, to getting lost, to wandering aimlessly, I have stumbled upon some really cool finds that I would have missed otherwise. In my own Kansas City, I found hidden gems like beautiful buildings and great shrimp tacos, free back-alley concerts, a book fair with local authors, and fire dancers. In Puerto Viejo, I found this amazing jungle trail right next to the beach that became my favorite walking path. In other cities, I’ve found the best passionfruit daiquiris, a beach cove with a glorious sunset view, street musicians, graffiti murals, impromptu rap battles, galleries, the most absolutely adorable red trench coat that I never knew I needed, and more amazing meals than I can recall.
In short, I’ve had so many unexpected special experiences and moments of pleasure because of random chance combined with a willingness to wander, with an air of curiosity but no goal other than seeing what unfolds before me.
To be fair, I have also had some letdowns and missed opportunities with Left, Right, Straight. Like the time I ended up eating mediocre soup from a knock off Panera at a shopping center in Chicago – Chicago! How many incredible culinary options are there in that city!? – because my wanderings took me way far from anything else. Probably more often, though, it’s not a letdown, per se. It’s just... Meh. Nothing new or particularly interesting. Nothing memorable. Just lots of time being lost and lots of lost time.
Yet, I continue to embrace the game.
As I was playing recently, letting my mind wander where it wanted as my body did the same, I thought about this game as a metaphor for life.
How often do we wander aimlessly? When is that a good thing and when is it not? What’s the balance between exploring and allowing life to surprise you versus marking your destination and charting your course straight toward it?
When You're Lost
I’ve spent a lot of time in life being lost, both literally and metaphorically. Back when I still drove a car, though I was able to see well enough to operate a moving vehicle, I wasn’t typically able to read a lot of the street signs. That meant I frequently missed my turn. Most of the time, it was no big deal. I recognized almost immediately that I made a mistake and could easily get back on track. Sometimes, though, not so much, especially in the days before GPS. More than once, I ended up in unfamiliar territory completely turned around. Yet, somehow I always managed to get where I needed to go. Even when I was hopelessly lost, when I might as well have been playing Left, Right, Straight because it was a complete guess which direction would put me back on course, I could continue, correcting and adjusting with each turn or stopping to ask for directions until I found my way.
Because I got a lot of practice at it, I got pretty comfortable being lost. I learned to trust that I’d eventually find my way. Even in life, when I have periods of feeling lost, I know that I can get back to my true North.
We can’t do that, though, if we don’t know what our true North is.
That's why it’s important to take the time in self-reflection to get clear on who you are and where you want to go with your life. What matters to you? What do you want to be defined by? What parameters are plotting your course? Without that, you’re playing a lifelong version of Left, Right, Straight and hoping that you get lucky enough to stumble across something worthwhile. Maybe you will...and maybe you'll end up with mediocre soup.
Stay the Course Or Venture Into Uncharted Waters?
We need to do both.
Having a direction in life helps guide the choices we make and the steps we take. It keeps us from wandering aimlessly, squandering our precious gift of time. Sometimes, though, being too myopic means missing out on the wonderful treasures that life has to offer. There is value is exploring, in playing Life’s version of Left, Right, Straight to see what we encounter and what we learn from those new experiences.
What Happens When You Get Misguided?
One day in San Jose, my friend Natalie and I decided we were going to adventure and explore. We had a destination in mind – the National Theater – but no timeline for getting there. We knew the general direction we needed to go – toward the city center – so we hopped on a bus heading that direction and hopped off when it looked like we were getting close. It worked out beautifully.
The return trip was a different story. There were dozens of buses in the city center, all heading to different parts of the city. In our limited Spanish, we asked bystanders and bus drivers, “Are you heading west?” the direction toward our Airbnb. After tons of confused looks, head shakes, and nos, one driver just smiled and said, “Get on.” We breathed a sigh of relief as we took our seats.
Thanks to technology, we could see our location on a map in real time. We watched, alternating between relief and anxiety, as we alternated between heading west, then turning south. Then west again, and then south. Should we keep going? Should we get off? Finally, when we turned east, we realized we were heading way off course. It was dark, in a city we were unfamiliar with, and we didn’t know where this bus would end up. It wasn’t the time for Left, Right, Straight. We hit the stop button, got off, and went with Plan B, calling an Uber.
I took the lesson as this: explore, especially when you have the time and the opportunity. Don’t be afraid to try something that you’re not sure will work out. But, ultimately, have a clear enough sense of where you want to go that you can hop off the bus when it’s going the wrong way. Even when others tell you, “This is the right bus. This is where you need to go or what you need to do,” know that they might be wrong. Perhaps it's right for them, but it might be wrong for you. Know yourself and your true North. Then trust yourself. And be willing to get off the bus in the middle of nowhere to get back on track when you need to.
With that, I’ll leave you with some questions to consider. What are your guiding principles? Your personal GPS coordinates, if you will? How do you know when you’re having fun playing Left, Right, Straight about to be delighted by something unexpected and when are you just squandering time wandering aimlessly? Worse, when are you on the wrong bus? And when you realize that you are, do you have the courage to hop off and find a way to get back?
"The wisest men follow their own direction."
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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