what is your true north?

02/21/2011

by anne lueneburger

Recently one of my clients forwarded to me some research by Jan Souman, a post doctoral researcher focusing on perception and motion. Jan has published a paper entitled Walking Straight Into Circles. He writes that “common belief has it that people who get lost in unfamiliar terrain often end up walking in circles. Although uncorroborated by empirical data, this belief has widely permeated popular culture.”

So Souman set about testing the ability of humans to walk on a straight course through unfamiliar terrain, tracking them over several hours with GPS. And indeed he found that “participants repeatedly walked in circles when they could not see the sun.”  When blind folded, moreover, they walked in often surprisingly small circles though rarely in a systematic direction.

He concludes that “veering from a straight course is the result of accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system, which, without an external directional reference to recalibrate the subjective straight ahead, may cause people to walk in circles.”

As I thought about these findings, I was struck by their similarities to the more figurative journeys we are on: partnership, career, life. Without a point of reference, our paths are rarely linear.  To be clear: sometimes it is during detours that we have our most rewarding and formative moments.  But it is these formative moments that shape the sense of our ‘true north’ as we grow and mature.  And when we lack a true north, we often struggle to triangulate and get our bearings, correct course and reach our destination beyond the neutral.  Or, as David Campbell said: if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.

Following this analogy, coaching is effective when it facilitates the client’s (re-)discovery of the sun as a way to navigate our way.  And coaching is rewarding when the client sends along research like Souman’s, ending with “Thank you for making me aware of my blindfolds … and helping me take them off!”


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