I recently read “5 Counter-intuitive Habits of Truly Authentic Leaders”, by Maseena Ziegler and #4 on her list, “”They use their time in the wilderness well”, really hit home with me. It is safe to say that all “wilderness” metaphors are derived from the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt and spending 40 years wandering in the wilderness before being allowed into the Promised Land. What follows are my synaptic connections with “being the wilderness”.
- For me, being in the wilderness is all about change and no one covers this better than William Bridges in his seminal work, “Getting them Through the Wilderness (A Leader’s Guide to Change”. Using the story of Moses, he provides an actual workbook for the people side of change as well as examples and ideas of addressing these challenges. The connection with Ziegler’s article is Bridges’ “neutral zone”. This is what he refers to as the space between the letting go of the old and beginning the new and it is not a place people normally want to occupy for very long. It is uncomfortable and ambiguous and these are things we do not like. We seek homeostasis which is when a system is constant and predictable. As a rule, people do not like when things are in a state of flux. There is no better example of this than going on a road trip with kids (and some adults) and being constantly asked,”Are we there yet?” The downside to this desire is that creativity, growth, and change happen in the wilderness so if we avoid the wilderness, we avoid these opportunities (which is why it made the list of “counter-intuitive habits”). This is also seen in another model called the “j-curve”. Here we see that when we want to change something (policies, processes, or learn new skills) we will normally see a decrease in output in the short term while these changes are incorporated in the system and then we will see increased output and greater levels of success. The problem is that most people expect instant gratification and we are not wired to accept any type of dip in performance. When it comes to this, we just have to remember that we cannot go from mountaintop to mountaintop without going down into the valley.
- We can also find insights and thought provoking works on the wilderness from American poet William Stafford in his work “Traveling Through The Dark”. In this poem Stafford relates the anguished story of hitting a doe with his car and determining the deer was pregnant but still makes the decision to push the carcass (unborn fawn and all) into the river below as was common practice on this dangerous road. The final two lines of the poem are, “I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—, then pushed her over the edge into the river.” In the wilderness, we are often faced with heartbreaking decisions that not only impact of us but others as well. The reality is that when these situations happen, a person has to make the decision and live with the results. This is where Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism are brought into play and we see that it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice the few so that the many survive. This philosophy was also championed in modern pop culture by Mr. Spock in The Wrath of Kahn.
- Robert Frost also provides insights into the need for the wilderness in his poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. This very simple yet powerful poem shows the innate “need for time to reflect” engaged in battle with “the need to work”. The final stanza beautifully summarizes the human condition, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” I believe we all have the pull within us when we are in our own version of “the woods” seeking solace from our respective “promises”.
Regardless of context, we all need “the wilderness” in our lives in both a metaphoric and real way. In order to grow, we need quiet time to disconnect and reflect on our lives. If we are constantly doing, we are not thinking and we need to think (don’t take my word for it, check out Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory). In order to do this we need to disengage from the “do more” mentality and stop measuring success by how many things we check off the list. As Einstein was credited with saying, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”.
We have to fight the need for psychological comfort and seek the wilderness on our terms or we may be thrust into it by someone else. We can never rest and think we have reached our home and the wilderness cannot be held at bay because it will find its way into our lives.
“Being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol’ dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!” (Nietzsche)
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” (Campbell)
Here’s to hoping you are never the same again!