SHOW NOTES from Episode 10 of Wayfinding Wisdom. Click here to listen.
Welcome wonderful humans.
You’re listening to Wayfinding Wisdom – the podcast where each week we offer up 10-20 minutes of stories & strategies to help you navigate the complex waters of modern-day life with intention & confidence.
I’m Alice Chen – coach, experience designer, and fellow wayfinder…
Last week I shared three strategies I use when I don’t know something that you can try on for size in your life if you feel called to:
I talked about:
2. Identifying and building on what you do know, then getting very specific about what you don’t.
3. Choosing language & framing that helps you state in a state of curiosity & emergence: “I’m curious about… and I wonder how this will play out…”
And I promised you two more strategies, so that’s what we will talk about today: 2 more concrete things you can do when you find yourself face to face with the unknown and all that goes along with that.
I remember having lunch with my grandfather back in my early 20s, not too long after I’d graduated college, and him asking me “So what’s your long-term career plan?”
And me being like, “I don’t really have one beyond what I’m doing right now,” (at the time I was teaching elementary school with a national service program) and him getting wide-eyed and saying “You need to think ahead. You need a plan.”
I remember feeling like “SHIT! I need a plan. I better get a plan”
I can’t totally discern in hindsight whether I personally felt like I needed a plan before he said that, but after he said that I sure felt like I did and was behind in getting one.
So I got into a frenzy trying to “figure out” my life plan. But aside from generating anxiety for myself, I’m not sure I actually created much of use or value.
I was able to string together a list of sequential goals that I could present to him and others who asked about my plan – first I’m going to get this kind of training, and then I’m going to apply for this job in this industry and then from there I’m going to work up to this kind of a role. It all sounded good, but I often didn’t feel much investment & motivation around any of the things on my list.
I find that I’m not alone in feeling like I should have a plan when I get to the edge of my known world and to assume without much inquiry that a “useful” plan should take the form of what I just described – a series of linear steps and progressive goals that build on each other and towards some pre-established outcome or destination.
This is part of our social conditioning.
And yet, I’ve also found that these kinds of plans rarely help me find my way forward when I’m in a state of not knowing. Instead, they put pressure on me to know and know now and know eloquently which gets me away from the deepest truth I’m experiencing – that in my current state, in my current location I DON’T KNOW, and I have to discover, experiment, learn my way forward into knowing.
So one of the actions I take when I recognize that I don’t know something is to set aside focusing on ten steps down the line and turn my attention to what’s calling me next.
And to practice discerning that answer to that question with my whole body – heart & gut – not just my head.
My mind wants things to make sense and to roll up into something reasonable & logical. But that’s not always the nature of the journey I’m on. And sometimes the “logic” of my individual choices only makes itself known in retrospect, after I’ve engaged in a series of seemingly “illogical” actions.
Let’s take the example of a career trajectory. Have you ever looked in on career choices you’ve made that in the moment seem a little all over the place only to discover in hindsight that there’s a clear link between why you left Job A and went to Job B? That’s what I mean by this.
When I was a teacher and then a gallery assistant and a community organizer I don’t think I really could have seen how that might lead me to running my own coaching & consulting practice at the time but now, with the beauty of hindsight I can see how those things were leading me here.
Over the years, I’ve more and more consistently chosen to acknowledge, trust in and operate from this principle rather than resist it.
I’ve seen how often my heart knows things that my mind doesn’t want to acknowledge. How often my gut knows the immediate next step even when my mind resists that step as “not enough.”
So when I don’t know, I practice getting quiet and tuning into my heart & gut and inquiring: “What’s the next immediate step here?”
Here are some simple examples of what this literally sounded like in my world last week:
What should I do about my cancelled wedding?
I don’t know.
Okay, so what’s the immediate next step?
Focus on your best friend’s wedding. Leave your own alone right now and circle back.
Is it safe for me to fly right now?
I don’t know.
Okay, so what’s the immediate next step?
Stop asking a yes/no question because it’s not going to get you anywhere. Reframe your question: “What level of risk am I willing to take right now?”
Should I hire a social media consultant to help me grow my brand?
I don’t know.
Okay, so what’s the immediate next step?
You just started doing SM, just just get 2-3 rounds of consistent SM out and see how it goes.
Sometimes the answers that arise in my heart and body aren’t the ones my mind would prefer to hear. It wants more. It wants something else and it prefers to focus on its desire for more or different over just doing the next thing.
I know this about myself; I’ve witnessed the effects of this thousands of times in my life – long periods of spinning and spinning and mentally insisting on more and going nowhere. It happens a LOT when I enter “I don’t know the territory.” I escalate into anxiety quickly.
So I pair this listening for the next step with my whole body practice with the practice of taking that step regardless of whether it makes sense or not, or regardless of whether it feels like enough or not.
Just like I parent myself by self-soothing, I also parent myself by reigning myself in when I begin to escalate.
That literally sounds like me taking a firm and loving tone with myself when I notice resistance – the same tone I used to take with my students when I was a classroom teacher and that I take with my dogs when they escalate – no-nonsense nurturing.
I say things like:
“Mkay. Deep breath friend. Deeeeep breath. I know you’d prefer a different answer or a more comprehensive one, and I feel you. And also, we are getting ahead of ourselves here. We are getting on a train that leads to nowhere. Let’s reign it in. Focus on what’s happening right now. Deep breath. You are here. You are alive. You are safe. The present is your business. The future is not right now. Deeeeeep breath. You got this! Just do the thing and then take it from there.”
Lovingly keeping myself within a manageable emotional sandbox helps me stay present with the discomfort of the unknown without becoming completely overwhelmed by it.
I really believe in serendipity – when somehow the universe presents you with just the right “thing” at just the right moment – a conversation with a friend that’s exactly the balm needed on a trying day, an opportunity that perfectly aligns to the vision I just articulated, a piece of wisdom offered that’s the critical piece of a puzzle I’m trying to solve.
I love these moments – they feel like magic, and they give me perspective and remind me that there’s an intelligence & organization about the world that lives beyond my human ability to comprehend.
I don’t hang on these moments or sit around waiting for them. I don’t count on them happening at any particular moment in time and I know that I can’t create them through sheer force of will & effort.
And also, at the same time, I recognize that moments of serendipity are part of our life journey and if I have any role in experiencing them, it’s in putting out my truth and keeping my eyes open.
And so, when I don’t know something, I’ve started practicing sharing that with the universe and with the people I know.
That sounds like a lot of different ways.
“Something I’m unsure of right now is…”
“A few of the questions I’m grappling with right now are…”
“I’m sensing something is going to emerge on x front, but I don’t know what that is…”
“I’m wanting to do x…and I’m not yet sure how to make that happen.”
“I’m putting it out there that I’m searching for…”
I put my unknowns out to the world and sometimes the universe responds with some serendipity – wisdom, a connection, an opportunity that brings the next level of clarity, shows me the next step on my journey, helps me build the path forward through the unknowing to the known.
Recently I felt a desire to be in a community with more people who were using writing to process their experiences around their various intersectional identities in the world.
I did some “googling” and research and nothing came back to me that felt quite right. I didn’t know how I was going to “find this community,” so I started just naming aloud that I was currently feeling called to this kind of space in conversations and exchanges with others.
And then one day, a friend reached out and shared that she was forming a memoir writing group for people who wanted to just what I was hoping to do. She said she “sensed” I might be interested.
There’s the serendipity.
I wasn’t attached to it. I couldn’t predict it. I couldn’t Google my way into it, but by naming what I didn’t know yet how to find, I was able to receive it.
This naming and sharing what I don’t know is a newer practice for me, and It feels scary and vulnerable and clunky and awkward in a way that some of the other practices I shared about don’t at this stage (bc I’ve been practicing them for much longer).
I find myself sharing and then wondering if I’ll be judged or getting hyper-vigilant looking for the universe or others to respond to my inquiry and feeling frustrated when it’s not happening.
This is okay though – because then I get to go back to some of these other practices I use when I’m in the unknown – the self-soothing, the focusing on what I do know, and being clear about the very specific thing I don’t, the listening for the next step with my whole body, the just do it.
And that’s how I find all of this stuff works together to help me turn towards & be with the not knowing in my life rather than avoid, resist or deny it.
Am I perfect? NO. And also that’s not the goal.
I don’t need to live a perfect life. I don’t even want to live a perfect life. I don’t know about you but perfect feels so stressful to me – and it blocks a lot of my desires.
I want to live a full life, a rigorous & examined life, a life of adventure & play & contribution where I am truly alive & experiencing all that is – the heartache and the joy.
I want to be alive – and for me, being alive means doing things that are scary & out there in ways that challenge me rather than send me into chaos. And that’s what this is about for me.
In the end, I truly believe that there are many paths through the unknown, many ways to approach, turn towards and walk into it.
Today we talked about:
- Focusing on the next step (rather than the 10 steps) and taking it regardless.
- Creating the conditions for serendipity by sharing what we don’t know.
These are just a few “I don’t know strategies.” And I want to hear what others you’d add to this list.
Nothing you’re learning is too small to share and who knows when & how it might provide some much-needed serendipity to someone else.
So please do share. You can do that on my Instagram feed @wayfindingwisdom.
Do follow me on Instagram – I’ll be posting some of the reflection questions and key points from this episode there…so you can apply some of the things we talked about to your life and in case you were so absorbed in listening that you didn’t get to write stuff down.
And if you enjoyed today’s podcast and want to have it delivered to you every Wednesday morning, head on over to my website at www.wayfindingwisdom.com to sign up.
As always, I’m grateful for you and your presence in the world. I look forward to seeing you back here again next week. We’ll be talking about…
Until next time, be well, be brave, be you.