On Being Lost

I’ve been thinking recently about being lost. I am interested in how people react to being lost. How their perceptions change.

Being lost is; losing track of where you are, where you want to go or losing track of how to get from one place to another. The first thing you do when you are lost is figure out where you ARE, so you begin to use your senses to “see” where you are.

For me, when I know where I am going, I have a feeling of not perceiving the going there. As if I am on autopilot. “I want coffee” goes my mind, so off my body goes to the Hypno Coffee downtown. I am not aware of the “decisions” I am making to leave the house, lock the door and walk down the street. It is like my mind is engaged elsewhere as my legs take me there of their own volition.

Now occasionally while pondering a bit too deeply about this or that, my autopilot disengages without me noticing and I walk too far down some street or another, and I find myself lost. Which can be a rather nice experience in a way. I feel myself coming down out of logic and thought, into my body to engage my senses and truly experience where I am, becoming embodied and engaging a different sort of intelligence. That first sensation of being lost… Where am I?

Often we don’t bother to truly engage with our surroundings, getting lost re-engages us in place, territory and context.

So, I had this (I think) nice realization that being lost has the side effect of, putting you, embodying yourself, in place.

One of my favorite parts of the Cynefin model is the name, which is a Welsh word meaning “a sense of place.” I quote the definition because, it is, I am told only an approximate and inadequate translation.

I enjoy finding stories or metaphors that invoke the “sense” of a cynefin. David’s How to Organise a Children’s Party metaphor is a great example of this, especially as seen through a manager’s or designer’s eyes. I often wonder though, what is the experience of the child’s party from the child’s or participant’s eyes?

In order to experience one of these “sensorial” metaphors I imagined, I ask people to imagine the last time they returned to high school or a place of significant meaning to them, a childhood home. Then I ask them to reflect, do there seem to be a different “set of rules” or expectations that “belong” to the space. For me these rules feel enforced by the place, even if the people I originally experienced the rules with are no longer there, haunted by expectations you might say. These rules are like what Andy Clark might call social “scaffolding”, all that is left in the relationship between my mind and this place. Finally I ask people, do you feel there is an exact line you crossed getting into the feeling of this place? Or is it more a fuzzy transition?

So, I think that being lost may be another one of these metaphors about the way cynefin feels. The way that being lost brings us into a cynefin, a sense of place. What would it feel like to be lost in each of the domains?

Driving down the road your GPS has led you to a road that no longer exists. The simple turn by turn instructions have failed you. You are going to need to explore a bit to get back on track.

Simple Collapsing into Chaos:
You left your house without a map, why would you need a map when you have your GPS! The GPS has led you down a long winding set of roads into the middle of nowhere, and promptly died. You’ve got a bit of an idea where you are, if you had a map you’d be able to point out where you are going. You don’t have a clue how to get there. People are waiting for you… (This works I think, unless you just “back track”)

Complicated as a non-expert:
You are staring at an extremely detailed technical map of the terrain you find yourself in. You know where you are going because you have marked it before, but the routes are hard to understand through the other markings on the map. You’ve brought a sherpa along with you, but you find discussing the map with him difficult. You are lost because you can’t speak the language of the map, you don’t understand the technical details well enough to plot your route from one point to another.

Complicated as an expert:
I was in Yosemite recently and these two climbers came into the local climbing shop. They had a climbing map, every detailed, but they had come in to ask the local climbing expert about his experience with a particular climb. How long should the rope be, what kind of hardware should they bring.

Experts know they don’t trust map completely, they know there is missing information, that the reality of the terrain can never be written. They rely on experience to guide them from one place to another.

The experience of being lost in complexity is like waking up in a strange place without a map. There are landmarks and moss on the trees, lots of local references, but you don’t immediately know which way to go. Being that you have no obvious destination, there seem to be several equivocally good options.
(There is a key piece missing in this metaphor; the idea that the space could push back, change or co-evolve in reaction to your exploration.)

You’ve awoken a drift at sea. There is nothing but sea as far as the eye can see, leaving you with no local reference, no map, no way to observe progress.

The lost of disorder is the feeling of waking up, while on a long trip from home, not sure where you are. It will resolve into a domain as you begin to observe your surroundings, though which domain is vague and almost unnoticed.