Examining the Accidental Life

I only have two basic moods accounting for most of my waking hours: one marked by mild to severe ennui, and the other by a rushing energy. Refractory state and burst state. I seem to have largely random-walked through an accidental life so far, imposing barely any discipline on this basic, ungoverned, binary life process. I have no thoughtfully constructed scaffolding of habits and rituals in my life, just a few accidentally set ways. My biggest adult achievement in that department is learning to floss regularly.

I do have a rare third state though, one that only seems to appear only when I am in certain kinds of places, like off-season beach resorts. Like Cannon Beach, on the Oregon coast, a couple of weeks ago. Or the Outer Banks several years ago (which inspired my 2009 post, How to Think Like Hercule Poirota personal favorite).

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By definition, off-season means most humans don’t like these places during these times. Most waterfront businesses are closed. There are no peak-season activities on offer. You’re out on a mostly empty, slightly chilly, grey, and cloudy beach. It’s a satisfyingly atemporal environment.

Something about such outings deeply relaxes me. And after years of doing such trips, I think I am beginning to understand why. I think it is because my natural home state is being peacefully lost. Going to a place that, temporarily, doesn’t know what to do with itself,  is one good way to be at peace with being lost. An environment that doesn’t know what to do with itself, and is in no particular hurry to find out, is an an environment that doesn’t know what to do with you. And much of the stress of being lost, after all, comes from the environment pestering you to do stuff.

I like not knowing where I am, where I am going, why, or how I am going to get there. And I like it when the environment leaves me alone in that state.

***

We aspire, in mostly unconscious ways, to relate to the world through certain preferred emotional states. We consciously cultivate intelligence and work to develop the prowess to take on the world, but we don’t think too hard about cultivating a specific emotional stance towards the world. Until we’ve already developed one that is.

Some aspirational moods are recognized even by teenagers. The dream of being a fighter pilot is partly a dream of relating to the world with ice water in one’s veins. The dream of being a musician is partly a dream of relating to the world through a mood of euphoric exhilaration. I am guessing here of course, since I am neither.

Some — perhaps actors are an example, I wouldn’t know — aspire to a great breadth and depth of emotional experience, spanning a whole tapestry of moods.

Most people though, prefer just one state, or a cluster of related states. I made a speculative inventory of emotional states people seem to aspire to:

  • Accepted: 33%
  • Loved: 21%
  • Winning: 12%
  • Fun: 10%
  • Right: 5%
  • Satisfied: 9%
  • Striving: 4%
  • Content: 2%
  • Onenesss/Nothingness: 1%
  • Other: 3%

Of course, people spend most of their energy denying their real aspirational state and pretending to pursue another. But that’s neither here nor there.

Being lost as a preferred state is some small fraction of Other. Yes, I think I’m a rare precious snowflake that way. I have not met many others who enjoy being idly lost.

Not GPS-lost. Life-lost.

As we get better acquainted with ourselves over the years, and accumulate, consciously and unconsciously, the behaviors that eventually come to define us, we also begin to develop a slowly deepening relationship with our emotional home state. We learn how to approach it from various other states, orbit it through our rituals, restore it after unexpected disturbances, and so forth. A big part of growing up is learning emotional self-regulation, and a big part of that is recognizing the home state you preferentially regulate to. Our adventures are defined as departures from, and returns to, the home state. I suppose this is what it means to stay grounded.

None of this works very well though, if you want to organize your life around being lost. For starters, want and organize are ways to stop being lost.

***

To be lost is to have a destination but not know how to get there. To be deeply lost in the way I like to be is to not have a destination. To make that deeply lost state your home is to be willing to linger wherever you are indefinitely. So long as it is not too smelly or otherwise viscerally unpleasant to all humans of course.

The distinction is the one between ambiguity and uncertainty. If you don’t know where you ought to go, that’s ambiguity. If you don’t know how to get there, that’s uncertainty.

UncertaintyAmbiguity

One good way to remember the deeper definition of being lost is the line, no matter where you go, there you are. 

I first encountered the line, in its joke form, as Oliver’s Law of Location, in Arthur Bloch’s classic compilation of mordant witticisms, Murphy’s Law.

I next encountered it in visual form: a cartoon of an emanciated man stranded in a vast, featureless desert, dying of thirst, crawling up to a large billboard. The billboard is a map showing a large, featureless desert, with a marker labeled, You Are Here. 

It was my favorite joke for a long time.

Then I discovered that a bunch of annoying meditation types had appropriated Oliver’s Law with high gravitas, and turned it into some sort of profundity about mindfully living in the moment. Meditators ruin everything.

Chilly and grey off-season beach resorts are places that happen to be temporarily lost in the negative space of the hurly-burly. Wherever you go, there you are. So long as you go in the off-season. Otherwise you’ll probably end up wishing you’d never gone ziplining.

It took me a long time to understand that being deeply lost is a very anxiety-provoking state for most people. That it can be a preferred home state is a thought that I suppose strikes most people as insane. It is a state that most people like to deny. They even take umbrage if you suggest they might be lost. No, I am not lost! Of course I know where I am going! Of course I know how to get there. To remark that someone seems lost is to accuse them of incompetence at life.

Speaking of jokes, I used to really like this joke as a kid:

Q: What was the camel doing in Alaska?

A: It was lost!

Getting deeply lost is an achievement. Camels in Alaska deserve congratulations.

I don’t like the line not all who wander are lost. The implication is that being lost is an undesirable state. Looking back at my life, the important turning points have been my successful attempts to lose myself and stay lost. The main point of wandering is to get lost. Feature, not bug.

Getting lost, by the way, can be a cunning plan to not get won, even though that’s just a side effect of the state. People spend way too much time worrying about winning and losing. They should worry more about being won and being lost. In a finite game, it is better to win than to lose. In an infinite game, where the goal is to continue playing, it is better to be lost than be found. Because being found is often the same as being won by somebody else in some annoying game they’re playing.

The opposite of there you are! is are we there yet? The question of the child in the back seat who has tired of playing punch-buggy and I-spy.

It is ironic that I spent almost a decade of my life studying the question, are we there yet?, since I’ve hardly ever asked it of my own life. I studied the question for years, in the guise of control theory, with healthy doses of subjects like planning, scheduling, command and control, path-finding, and mapping.

With hindsight, it all seems like anxious over-compensation and denial of truer motives. I thought I wanted to be in control, and was in denial about the fact that I actually wanted to be lost.

I am not one of those people who has a lot to say to his younger self, but I suppose I’d have at least a clever  and useless one-liner for 21-year-old me, just as he was making the choice to specialize in control theory: do you even Jung, man? I am pretty sure 21-year-old-me would have told almost-42-year-old me to get lost. And I’d will have won the exchange decisively with already there! before vanishing in my time machine.

If my psyche were a country, it would mostly be an ungoverned anarchy. Except for a brief period of three years, between 2002-05, when I was autocratically telling myself what to do and actually kinda doing it, I haven’t really been governing myself.

I am not entirely incompetent as an adult. I can put on my GTD space-suit, put things on my calendar, put on a social mask that presents a neat, well-governed, and useful API to others, and head out into the harsh outer space of Knowing Where I Am Going.

But it does drain me. Fortunately, I seem to be getting by fine spending only small amounts of time in my personal behavioral outer space.

***

To not be lost is to know where you’re going, why, and how you’re going to get there. To not be lost is a sensible state. It’s a state you can optimize. You can figure out better ways to get wherever you’re going. You can consciously design your habits and rituals. You can track your moods, and figure out cunning plans to spend more time in your preferred emotional states.

But you cannot do these things if your preferred state is a state of being lost. You cannot plan to get lost. All you can do is crash out of whatever plan you’re pursuing at the moment. You cannot consciously design habits and rituals around being lost. All you can do is let your habits and rituals unravel.

To be deeply lost is to be disoriented, without a defined sense of direction, a destination, or a scheme of values with which to relate to your environment. This is a state in which you actually can see the world around you. Because you are not unconsciously pre-processing it into obstacles and ways, on-track and off-track, useful and useless, before it even hits your awareness. I like being lost primarily because I like seeing where I am much more than I like knowing where I am going.

This isn’t a deep or subtle point. It is not a big insight that hits you after your tenth day of disciplined meditation practice (yet another example of meditators ruining everything). So you have to work really hard to not understand it. Fortunately, much of the world, with the exception of off-season beaches, is set up to help you fail to understand it.

One of the most interesting conversations I keep repeating with people concerns the orientation element of Boyd’s OODA loop. The other three elements form a closed loop: observe-decide-act. It’s a basic feedback control scheme. An abstract machine to operationalize are-we-there-yet? Soon the kids will be able to ask Siri that question in a driverless car. Basic rocket science.

Orientation though, is fundamentally an ungoverned recognition: there you are! To switch orientations is to jump from one feedback-controlled O_DA regime to another. But the jump itself is not generally governed by a feedback loop. It’s what we highly trained experts call an open-loop process.

You can create well-behaved “outer loops” from such open loops under specific controlled conditions, but there’s no such thing as a general re-orientation method. If that outer loop becomes very predictable, and you can guarantee re-orientation within a predictable time (transient under thirty minutes, or your OODA-pizza is free!), then you’re really just creating a more complex orientation, not re-orienting.

The idea of re-orienting quickly, through what is known as a fast transient, is very appealing. You could even define the maturation of any sort of expertise as the gradual speeding up of transients.

But it isn’t true re-orientation unless there is a non-zero probability that you might end up in an arbitrarily slow transient. An open-loop process is a process that can get you lost indefinitely. Which means you have to be prepared to enjoy that state. Assuming of course that you don’t get lost to death.

***

The funny thing is, being truly at home in a lost state makes it very easy to see how to not be lost. It becomes obvious where you ought to go. The right ways to organize activities, plan, execute, and monitor progress all become obvious without much hard thinking. The moment that you truly accept being lost is often the moment you reorient in a flash of insight.

See, it’s not being lost that makes all these things hard, but the fact of not accepting the feeling of being lost. The impulse to get away from the lost state becomes so overwhelming, the state becomes a trap.

This phenomenon, I think, has been at the heart of everything I’ve been able to do for others. I get lost in the company of people who need to, and because I personally enjoy it enough to linger, it seems to slow them down long enough that they can re-orient faster.

When I first began doing executive coaching work, it bothered me that the activity seemed so close to therapy. I don’t see myself as a therapist type. I am not a great listener. I am not particularly talented in the compassion and emotional labor department. I don’t have deep, rich emotional reserves with which to backstop the traumas, negative energies, and toxic emotions of others. I am not deeply interested in others’ early childhood stories for their own sake. I snap at people. I’d be a lousy line manager.

I can’t recall when I began using the term sparring partner to describe what I do, but now that I’m a few years into doing it, I understand how it is nothing like therapy. My friend Jane pokes fun at me by calling me a “pet philosopher” to my clients, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. Being a sparring partner is mostly like being one of those annoying Disney sidekick characters who hops around, talking way too much,  getting sidetracked, dashing down random bunny trails, creating unnecessary trouble, and generally derailing the action while the hero or heroine is trying to stay focused on doing hero/heroine stuff.

There is the Hero’s Journey, and then there is the Annoying Disney Sidekick’s Journey. The latter is mostly about enjoying being lost, and helping others enjoy the state too. Or at least productively visit it for a bit.

With hindsight, a great deal of my writing seems to have been an extended exploration of how to get lost, enjoy the state, and perhaps linger there a heartbeat longer than you think you want to. Crashing, escaping, going feral, chasing wild thoughts, being an illegible person, forming accidental connections: these are all aspects of the art of getting, and staying, lost.

***

The last 14 months or so have been a bit brutal on me. I have been less lost than almost any other time in my adult life, and it’s not an entirely pleasant experience for me. One part of it, oddly enough, has been travel, which I used to associate with getting lost.

The last year has been the most intensive travel year of my life: Chile, Switzerland, London, New York, Colombia, Dallas. I’ve been larping globe-trotting mover-and-shaker. With the exception of a quick trip to Hawaii and the recent getaway to Cannon Beach, it was all  very purposeful stuff, doing Breaking Smart workshops.

The workshops themselves have been demanding work, 99% O_DA, only about 1% _O__. All are we there yet, very little, there I am!

Before 2015, I almost never repeated a talk, let alone refining a day-long workshop over multiple iterations, so it was a new experience for me. Living an anarchically ungoverned life is not exactly the same as living a random life (it’s very hard to live randomly; believe me, I’ve tried), but conscious repetition and deliberate improvement of a behavior is definitely not a state of being anarchically ungoverned.

So even though it has been a rewarding year financially, it has not been exactly relaxing. I have not had as much time to be lost as I am accustomed to.

It struck me, as I returned from Dallas after the most recent workshop last week, that this year of globe-trotting, despite much of it being paid for by others, and comfortably business class, is in some ways the opposite of the kind of travel I scrounged and saved for two decades ago.

I remember saving aggressively to fund a summer backpacking trip to Europe in 1998, on a shoestring budget (which I bragged about for years after). Then there were the years and years of road trips, short and long, criss-crossing the US multiple times.

Those were good times. Peacefully lost wandering times. As close as you can get in the real human world to hitchhiking the galaxy, armed only with a towel.

It is becoming harder and harder to get and stay lost these days, even though I’ve even made it part of my job now. Not least because, after a couple of decades of neglect, it has finally become impossible to ignore the things that suffer if you enjoy getting lost a little too much, such as health, retirement savings, fat losings, and good posture.

So grudgingly, I have to admit. I am no longer the cheerfully lost illegible nomad I once was. The lost wanderings are slowing, and things that look disturbingly like clear goals and straight paths are starting to show up in the trackless desert that I’ve been treating as my home for years. The accidental life is turning into a somewhat more purposeful one.

Life after nomadism is, unfortunately, beginning for me.

I’ve had a good run though, and there’s still a grey, empty beach a few hours away from me most of the time.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. “not all who wander are lost”

    Actually, I think you put that beautifully in perspective. Those who wander are not lost as in “they do not know how to get there”, they simply don’t know where to go, or do not care.

    In you 2×2, it feels like the difference between “learning” and “deeply lost” is that when you’re learning, you still want to go somewhere, you just don’t know where yet. You could be deeply lost while still knowing how to get to lots of place, you just wouldn’t have any particular desire to get there.

    Interesting stuff anyhow.

  2. I feel for you. I’m a content guy, rather than a ‘lost’ guy. I just like to be in one place, quiet and still, and to experience the subtleties that normal activity, even very light activity hides. Unfortunately, these precious moments usually require solitude (if you try to share them they smash into a million pieces), and solitude, between work and relationships, is becoming increasingly hard to find.

  3. Wondering if you’ve fleshed out a schematic to gauge whether the apparent desire to be lost isn’t actually just chronic denial or escapism. If it doesn’t have to be productive or structured/time-bound, how exactly do you differentiate this state from happy forgetfulness or what you call living randomly?

  4. felixxx says:

    finding dory

  5. State of nothingness/oneness is the more powerful version of being lost; an experiential singularity.

  6. I think enjoying feeling deeply lost is a bonefied super power. I suspect most people who experience this feel profoundly isolated – something altogether different from solitude. Spending too much time there leads to madness.

    And I completely get how your coaching work could be like therapy. With no points of reference, one can hallucinate (like the ganzfeld effect). Perhaps your calm and ease in such places is a mollifier because it provides one. Isn’t that exactly what a therapist does?

    Maybe you’re more of the therapist type than you give yourself credit for.

  7. This essay has a wonderful elegiac quality that speaks to my own life journey. Being doleful, like being lost, is not necessarily a bad thing. I think the curious foxes (as opposed to those grounded hedgehogs) probably experience alienation even in the midst of the very familiar. There is always something more to be discovered or known. Perhaps that is why the arrival of the rare _O__ is so gratifying.
    The benefit of age is the realization that the unknown is almost always uncomfortable rather than fatal; so it’s OK to leave behind the pressure to learn and embrace the state of being deeply lost. If off-season places lend security to this transition, then by all means they should be sought out.

  8. That wonderful “finis terrae” feeling, it overcomes me at the most unexpected moments. I’ve had that happen to me on an empty beach in Livorno in October, or on a stretch of beach near the lighthouse in Messina/Sicily.
    Love your musings Venkat.

  9. This reminds me of the Smog lyrics, “X number of pushups in a winter rates, sea-side motel.” I too like the shoulder seasons. There is some kind of insider/outsider charge I get staying, say, on one of the San Juan islands when most of the stores are closed and only the gas station is open on Thanksgiving. Or walking through the streets of Amalfi in shorts while the locals huddle in parkas and the taxi drivers seem mildly astonished to see a tourist; definitely my preferred mode when traveling. It’s like sneaking backstage after a play and finding the actors snoring on couches, scrolling through Instagram, filling in betting forms, ignoring the cheese plates, taking off the clown/opera makeup, that sort of thing. If Disneyland had a package deal where one could visit the employee lounges or tag along with maintenance crews or attend brainstorming sessions with ride architects, I’d sign up for that.

    The 2×2 in your article also leads me to bridge across to other preferences. For instance, for Design Thinking, I’m less interested in sticking dogmatically with West Coast, Mid Coast or East Coast schools, I prefer to throw them in a blender or even better to take a UK-based service design book and reverse engineer it along with some business management book from the 80s. Liking the band Duster is sort of like staying at a motel in Astoria in February, as is liking Lucien Leuwen for that kind of awkward, unfinished, “the restaurant is closed down for the season but you can get sandwiches in the bar” feel. Looking at history, I’ve found I’m more drawn to stories of Pantelleria and Ploesti than say Normandy. Maybe all this is less shoulder season and more contrarian, but it feels close or at least consonant.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a visual interpretation of our neural maps, tracing the large arterial thought valleys along with happy accident serendipity threads, in a giant Sankey diagram, as a way to depict the desert you mention and learn from traffic analysis how relatively nomadic you’ve been, or are?

  10. Beautifully said.

  11. Duckland says:

    Unfortunately meditators, mystics, and the like have ruined this article further than you acknowledge here. Whether you know this or not I don’t know. I wonder also how facetious you’re being about meditators.

    For examples, if anyone cares, I’ll just list some connections I noticed.

    Your Annoying Disney Sidekick is cognate with the Fool symbol, as interpreted in occult writings about tarot. The same symbol is found in the Tao Te Ching, the Sufi Wise Fools, etc. Shinzen Young, meditation teacher, calls this topic “don’t know mind”. He identifies versions of it in Greek thought (Pyrrho etc), Christian contemplation, and Buddhism. There’s a 7 minute Youtube video where he explains it. To find it just google “shinzen don’t know”

    “The moment that you truly accept being lost is often the moment you reorient in a flash of insight.”
    Shinzen also connects don’t-know-mind with spontaneous insight

    Spirituality/religion typically involves exploiting some deep biological drive. In fasting you subvert the need to eat. With chastity you subvert the sexual drive; with ritualized sex you spiritualize it. With mythologies about death you get false certainty about your death and so subvert fear of death (to an extent). Similarly for near death experiences, spirit quests, etc.

    It seems to me that the drive for orientation and clear answers is strongly related to the fear of death. We feel unconsciously that if we could figure everything out we can live forever. It seems that enjoying being lost is actually about overcoming the fear of death.

    In this sense what you’re doing is spiritual, and I now count you among the meditators who ruin everything :^)

  12. In the past year, I took a backpacking trip to Europe, week in Seattle, Vancouver, and Austin, and 2 separate road trips across the country. I’m 25 and just enrolled in graduate school, built a relationship with a significant other who is starting med-school, and – although I have a few more years to be a nomad – I’m seeing my purposeful life take root.

    Makes me wonder two things:
    Could there be an archetypal accidental life?
    Could we compare the accidental life to the wondering species in search for more variation – encouraging advantageous (psycho-social) evolution?

    Keep em’ coming!

  13. You might consider TL quadrant to be Faith: having direction but uncertain about its outcome

  14. Intéressant, que l’on soit ou non de son avis. L’auteur ne croit pas au réchauffement climatique et sature de tous les discours et contraintes écologiques. Argumenté avec humour, son discours passe bien. Dénigré avec cynisme, l&;l#172éco8ogiquement correct vole en éclats.