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The Power of Getting Lost

The Power of Getting Lost
Cousin Tanner, totally lost.

You find the best stuff when you have no clue where you are.

Summary of today's post

  • We tend to think getting lost is a bad thing, but it has legitimate benefits for our mindset, health, creativity, and more.
  • You'll learn six reasons why getting lost can be so great ...
  • ... and three great ways to get lost.


  • Today's post, like all Monday posts, is free for everyone. Enjoy.
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Podcast version of today's post

Now onto today's post ...

I've been rucking more than usual lately to prepare for a long event I'm doing in June.

I do a long ruck every Saturday or Sunday, covering slightly more ground each weekend. (Here's the full training plan for those interested).

Last weekend, my cousin Tanner and I met early for a long desert ruck. Cousin Tanner and I—yes, we call him "Cousin Tanner"—have a storied history of getting lost in the desert together.

This day was no different.

We'd covered many miles of a long looping trail through Red Rock National Conservation Area when it occurred to us that the ground under our feet no longer looked like a trail.

Desert trails can be tricky. Sometimes they're well-worn dirt paths. Other times you may have to hike over a giant plane of unmarked red rock. When the rock fades back to dirt, that well-worn path is often nowhere to be found.

And so it was with us. After a long uphill rock climb, we'd lost the trail.

We were standing on a ridge and could see where we'd parked the car a few miles and a thousand or so vertical feet downhill.

Cousin Tanner said something like, "I think if we just start going downhill, we'll find the trail." So we started descending. We carefully hiked down talus slopes, descended cliffs, stepped over cacti, and wiggled down shoots.

After twenty minutes, Cousin Tanner voiced what we were both thinking: "Well, we're definitely lost again."

It's a funny thing. Centuries ago, humans charted the unknown using rudimentary compasses and the night sky. Long before that, Aboriginal cultures navigated thousands of miles across Australia's vast interior using the songlines. We made our way to the moon 60 years ago.

But Cousin Tanner and I—and probably you, too—can still get lost at a state park located ten miles from a Costco.

Humans manage to get lost everywhere. In the great outdoors, well-marked cities, big-box shopping outlets, grocery stores, museums, and everywhere else.

Yet we tend to think getting lost is a bad thing. Depending on where and to what degree, being lost leads us to panic or, at least, become frustrated.

There are likely some good evolutionary reasons for that reaction—in the past, getting lost in the vast wilderness with our rudimentary "gear" was dangerous. Not knowing exactly where we are today still flips that evolutionary switch.

But this is often a misdirection. Today, getting lost is rarely fatal. We have GPS, GoreTex, hydration bladders, cell phones, signs, and the like.

Getting lost has legitimate benefits. In fact, some of the most interesting experiences of my life have occurred while I was trying to figure out where the hell I was.

When you get lost, you often end up finding much more than you bargained for.

Six benefits of getting lost

There are, at least, six grand benefits of getting utterly lost.

1) You get more thrills

When you know where you're going, you have more expectations of what you'll find.

But years of psychology tell us predictable, expected outcomes aren't that interesting. We get more psychological thrill and value from unpredictable, unexpected outcomes and rewards.

Getting lost thrusts us into a new and unpredictable world—and we're more likely to remember, cherish, and tell stories about what we find there.

For example, Cousin Tanner and I stumbled upon a giant lake formed in a big Red Rock bowl by runoff from a recent rainstorm. This lake appears for just a handful of days every few years—and we were there for it.

2) You get mindfulness without the meditation

The American Psychological Association notes that being more present leads many benefits: Less stress, fewer negative thoughts, more focus and happiness, better control of our emotions, etc.

But how do you actually be present? Meditation is one way. But getting lost will get you there too.

The writer Rebecca Solnit wrote, "to be lost is to be fully present ... Getting lost seems like the beginning of finding your way, or finding another way."

Scientists in the United Kingdom recently found that we're less likely to be present when we do something predictable or known to us. Instead, we’re far more likely to be lost in our heads.

But we’re forced into presence and focus when we do something new. This is because we can’t anticipate what to expect and how to respond.

I experienced this. My mind would drift off as Cousin Tanner and I walked the known path. But I had to pay full attention to every step and detail in the environment as we tried to get un-lost.

3) You learn new ideas and skills

When you're doing something familiar, you might be improving skills you already have. But you're less likely to be developing new ones.

Getting lost thrusts you into new situations that require a different skillset—and you often have to learn on the fly. This is likely why London School of Economics scientists wrote, "intelligence is correlated with openness to novel experience.”

For example, I had a nice trial-by-fire of learning to navigate a rock chute while wearing a 30-pound ruck. (Hint: Take off the ruck and chuck it downhill.)

Some of the world's greatest discoveries occurred when we veered off course.

For example, insulin, X-rays, penicillin, new species, Playdoh, Cornflakes, superglue, the pacemaker, and the first evidence of the Big Bang were all discovered by accident.

4) You realize you're more capable than you realized

Joseph Campbell analyzed thousands of years of myths from all different cultures.

Many of these myths centered on the following idea: We truly learn what we're capable of when we exit the ordinary world and encounter adventure. It's part of what he called "the hero's journey."

  • We leave the known world and cross into an unknown world.
  • That world contains all sorts of new challenges that lead us to doubt and worry. We don't know if we'll make it out.
  • We want to quit and think we're not capable.
  • But we make it out by persisting—and that experience changes us because we realize that we're capable of far more than we realized.

Campbell found many hero's journeys began when the main character got lost. Getting lost brought them into a new world of new trials where they'd learn something revelatory.

This is the promise embedded in Misogi: We dance on the edge of failure so we can realize failure isn't that big of a deal—rather, it makes us grittier.

Research from Columbia University back this up. The scientists wrote, "The ability to flexibly learn in new situations makes it possible to adapt to an ever-changing world."

In other words, by exposing yourself to semi-controlled new experiences and places, you become more resilient to life's inevitable, uncontrollable changes.

5) You burn a lot more calories

This one is rather simple: Getting lost has a funny side effect of forcing you to move more because you've got to backtrack and bushwhack.

Cousin Tanner and I put in far more physical work per mile. Getting down the cliffy mountain was a fully-body workout that worked my entire upper body.

6) You get a dang good story

My motto when traveling to far-off places to research a book: No problem, no story.

Think of it this way: No one ever tells a story about the time everything went according to plan. The stories we tell are about the times things went off the rails.

Like the time our phone died and we got hopelessly lost in an unfamiliar city. Or when something wild happened—like a storm or wild animal surprising us.

Getting lost is a wonderful way to insert a problem into your life—and get a great story out of it.

Three good places to get lost

Before we explain good places to get lost, let's talk about how to get lost. I.e., the mindset you should take while lost.

A famous Zen proverb states, "let go or be dragged."

And so it is with getting lost. Don't panic. Go with the flow—view it as an opportunity. Let go or be dragged.

1) At a library or bookstore

The Seattle Central Library opened in 2004 and wowed people with its architectural design. But once people got inside, they all got lost.

Yelp reviewers complained plenty. A 2004 New York Times article criticized the building for being hard to navigate.

A labyrinth-like design might be bad for a place like, say, the DMV. But I think it's actually a feature for a place filled with shelves and shelves of books.

Some of my greatest, strangest book finds have come from ambling the library stacks at the university where I was a professor.

I'd often pick some general topic that I was interested in. Say, human evolution. Then I'd navigate up to that floor and start strolling the stacks. Back and forth with no real sense of where I was.

I'd pay attention to the books around me. I'd see a book with an interesting title. When that happened, I'd examine it's entire row. Then it's entire shelf.

The books I found while getting lost in the library influenced my work deeply—you'll find them referenced and cited in The Comfort Crisis, Scarcity Brain, and 2%.

2) In the outdoors near home

I am, of course, not telling you to get lost in bad weather. Or alone in locations far off the grid where you don't have cell service.

Rather, the outdoors in state parks and on the outskirts of town holds all sorts of wonders you aren't aware of. Much like that pop-up lake Cousin Tanner and I stumbled upon.

Go out. Explore these places. Take an unknown trail that leads to an ambiguous destination. Get a bit lost. Have fun, don't die.

3) In a new part of town

Research shows most of us slip into a predictable routine. We take the same route to work and frequent the same neighborhoods, restaurants, and businesses. 

But we have millions of blocks of small towns and big cities we're missing out on. These pockets of place and culture offer us a chance to learn, hear, smell, taste, and touch new ways of thinking about and being in the world with others. 

Author Priya Parker explains that her friend group started having semi-monthly "I Am Here" days. They'd leave their phones at home and explore and get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood in New York City together.

The group would enter a neighborhood and let the wind take them over a 12-hour day. It might lead to incredible meals, karaoke, getting their fortunes read, playing bocce with old men, stumbling on a fascinating museum—anything.

What places am I missing? Museums? Outdoor markets? Costco? Weigh in below.

Have fun, don't die, get lost.