Wandering is not generally thought of as a positive. We equate it with aimlessness, confusion, idiocy – if you are wandering, then you must be lost. Did you realize that under normal circumstances, most of us spend about 30% of our waking moments with our minds wandering away from the task at hand? During these pandemic weeks and months, a lot of us feel like we are wandering an unknown landscape the majority of the time. Since this is “unprecedented” as we have heard over and over…it feels as if we are building the plane in the air with no flight plan and no known destination.
Sometimes we may see “wandering” as a weakness. We tell ourselves we ought to be focused, at work in front of endless zoom meetings, improving ourselves with new skills, organizing our online photo albums, trying out new recipes, updating policies and procedures, cleaning out closets, or perfecting our abs. We categorize the days we get much done as a “good day” and those we don’t as a “bad day”. Historically, some in the field of psychology would have even called “mind wandering” neurotic – really feeding the myth of the long-suffering, ruminative, creative genius. Interesting how times change…
Personally, I love wandering the unknown. Wandering is a part of family heritage, my childhood, and, honestly, my DNA. My grandpa was a patrol officer in the Swiss Army securing the border between Switzerland and Italy in the Alps. He and my uncle were hired scouts throughout WWII. Growing up, some of my favorite memories are of my uncle taking me on hikes near his hunting cabin in Cavaglia and pointing out ram or other big game animals. When he was ready to go outside, he would put on what I called his Robin Hood hat (check out my Instagram post for an actual picture), grab a walking stick and head for the door. We would hike and enjoy each other’s company while wandering. Growing up, having moments with my dad fishing or with my mom gardening or with my siblings building a fort in the woods…moments, where my mind would wander, was who I was and also where I was at my best.
These early adventures grew into many of my adult “wander inclinations” such as hiking, boating, biking, and kayaking. Just a few short weeks ago on a hike through the San Juan Mountains in Telluride, I was reminded of this – so easy to forget with the busyness of life. I was reminded how much I love the intense, thick silence that heightens the sound of a single bird calling from far away as I walk through the birch trees. I love the warm breeze and rocky paths that force me to take slow, deliberate steps, pause, and pay attention. I crave solitude and the peace I feel hiking into a cluster of steep rocks knowing that no one else in the entire world knows exactly where I am at that moment. I marvel at the years that were required to uncover boulders from beneath the earth and round their edges with the water and wind; reminders of just how brief is the span of years given to the most fortunate.
We are all impermanent. Those boulders, the sun, the trees, the beautiful blue skies, the landscape—muted browns, blues, greens, and grays—makes me feel small in comparison to the greatness of creation. Mostly, I love the thoughts that arrive unexpectedly during these connections with nature; often solving a riddle in my life or an idea that might have an impact that I could not otherwise find my way out of or into. As I told my family on one of our last hikes of the trip, as we approached the summit and looked down on the gorgeous town of Telluride nestled in the Rockies, the longer I spend in nature wandering, the more I feel centered and become more of the “real” me.
In actuality, many of history’s most important ideas and discoveries have been the result of wandering in the psychological and physical unknown. Einstein claimed his most important insights arrived unexpectedly when he was supposed to be thinking about something entirely different. During the Great Plague of 1918, Sir Isaac Newton thrived being at home and away from his professors. He described that time as “the year of wonders”. And the list goes on and on…
There have been so many inventions that were created during a slowdown or reset in the economy when people had time to “wander” a bit. These include Scotch Tape, Monopoly, the iPod, fluorescent light bulbs, Twinkies, and the photocopier. Not to mention, that more than half of the companies in the current Fortune 500 were founded during a recession! Many companies are highly aware of this…in fact, there is even a highly effective business practice called Management by Wandering Around, or MBWA. It involves wandering through the divisions of your company with no agenda in mind at all other than simply to be present. MBWA apparently helped William Hewlett and David Packard build a business empire. How much do you allow yourself to wander in your business?
Of course, what we are going through goes well beyond a recession or a slowdown in the economy. This is something that none of us believed would happen in our lifetime. But, my belief (I’m a silver lining kind of girl) that crisis is here to wake us up. Crisis is a pattern interrupt…it is a turning point, a time of change, a redirection, and calls us all to rise above the noise, to see the bigger picture, and find a higher meaning. Crisis calls us all differently but universally to let go of the structures, the beliefs, and the stories that are no longer needed, so we can see each other and live with a renewed perspective. It is a chance to catch our breath and approach things a little differently than we might have otherwise done.
Like everyone, I have moments of anxiety in the midst of this pandemic. I sometimes cannot yet see a path forward for my millennial children, for my company, or for our divided nation and world. I often project confidence, but I know I am mostly making it up as I go. From my conversations with other leaders and my own family dinner table, pretty much everyone seems to feel the same way a lot of the time. We are together in our struggle with the uncertainty.
When any fear or pessimism set in, I work hard to remember that wandering is not the same as being lost. Far from it. Instead, it is the rarest of opportunities to summon our courage in the face of danger; to journey as if alone in the mountains—slowly, deliberately, and sometimes mindlessly through the beautiful and the harsh on our way to that summit that I spoke of earlier. Looking forward to the day when we look back and can see the big picture and make sense of it in our own way. Don’t waste this precious time waiting for it to be “over”. Reflect, wander a bit, dig in, and make something big happen!