How Do We Navigate All the Uncertainty We’re Facing?
Most days, we don’t perceive change as it happens. And then there are days where change is the whole story. My day that ended in a midnight search and rescue helicopter? Neatly in the second bucket.
People hate change, we’re told. And, yet, have you noticed how much people love new shoes, new jobs, and new romance? It’s not “change” that we humans hate; it’s the uncertainty that change brings.
Uncertainty is why so many companies insist it’s time to “come back” to work; they think it’ll return us to “normal.” Uncertainty is why some stay in sucky situations; They’d rather live with the known awful thing than risk the hurt of trying and not finding something awesome. Uncertainty is also why leaders struggle to create the needed culture change; they can’t figure out how to do the dance of co-creation, so they either lead too little or too much.
I do a lot of work with leaders to help them navigate change. Strategy, after all, is building the plan to get from “here” to “there.” So in coaching teams or leaders, I help them shift away from “this” and towards “that” to build what’s next.
Then, I had this experience of literally getting lost in the wilderness. It shook me. But as I described the experience to a friend/coach, she said, THIS is what you do, who you are. And she encouraged me to share the experience with you, given how many of us are navigating uncertainty these days.
SO, SO YOU MADE A LOT OF MISTAKES
I started from camp on the cloud-covered morning around 10 am, expecting to do a six-mile round trip hike to Mitchell Peak. I followed an upward trail to the rocky scramble at the peak to admire the 360-degree vista. I wore shorts and a t-shirt and felt chilly on the mountain despite the noon sun. At 12:30, I started my return. The trail I was following, it turns out, was not a trail but water runoff. (It had rained the two nights prior.)
Around 1 pm, I knew I was lost. (Not only lost but off trail, in the wilderness.)
At 2 pm, I realized I was f**ked.
I had run out of water. I had no compass, no map. I had no food. I had no warmth nor shelter. My inner dialogue about this was loud. I berated myself for walking out of camp without essentials. I judged myself for not fitting into my pre-pandemic hiking clothes, which is why I didn’t have the right gear with me. I thought of why I was alone in the backcountry in the first place, that I was—yet again—divorcing.
YOU’RE THE NORTH STAR AND THE COMPASS
To find my way out, I had to get fully present.
The weird part about uncertainty is how much we humans want to control, analyze, or feel wrong about what’s passed, as if that could change any part of the present. When one is ashamed, one is frozen in time. Shame not only freezes us, but it also leaves us unable or reluctant, unwilling to be in the moment. So I spoke aloud to ground myself. To the shame I felt at that moment, I said, I have to let you go. I took breaths to calm my nervous system. If you listen to the noise of the past (or invalidating people), you’re not centered. Just as a physical compass lets you know where you are relative to the Earth’s magnetic poles, grounding oneself —Onlyness— is a compass to orient in life.
Then, I decided which way to head based on what I “knew.”
I figured that my biggest problem was water. I had already run out of the 30 ounces of water I had brought with me hours before. People can live for long periods in exposure, cold, and without food. But dehydration causes a fast set of problems.
If I went back up the mountain, I would guarantee there would be no water. I studied where the sun was in the sky and the topology to get a sense of where I was. I figured out that, while I ascended the western slope, I was likely now on the eastern side. I thought back to the topo map I had looked at three days prior. I recalled that the ridge I was following would descend—if memory served, which was a big-ass if— towards a lake. I imagined that if I could follow the eastern ridge cross-country, I might find that lake and get to the established trail, which I could then follow to a meadow, where I recalled a cut-through to Marvin Pass and, from there, navigate back to camp.
That became my “strategy.”
PULL YOU DOWN FASTER THAN A SUNSET
I was relieved when I found the lake and the maintained trail I had “planned” to seek. Well, relieved doesn’t quite capture it. There are no words.
Yet, I was still miles from where I needed to be.
I hadn’t had water for six hours, which I was feeling. So I searched for a stream, found one, and drank just 20 ounces, hurrying. The coming sunset meant a new danger.
By the time I reached the meadow I was aiming for—Rowell Meadows—I had gone another four to five miles uphill (the descent on the mountain’s eastern slope meant an unrelenting rise). I was hustling and soaked from the effort.
I was shivering even before the sun moved into the shadows.
My Apple watch stopped tracking around 12 miles, but by the time I reached Rowell Meadows, I had probably hiked 17 miles with 4,000 feet of altitude gain. With just 70 ounces of water. I was wearing the wrong (wet) clothes and certainly not enough clothes. I was shaking hard, a possible early sign of hypothermia.
And yet, I was just 2.3 miles from camp. And I wanted—needed—to get there.
AND YOU CAN’T SEE YOUR WAY OUT OF IT
While I “knew” there was a trail junction in Rowell Meadows to Marvin Pass, I couldn’t find it. I searched one direction of the meadow and then the other.
Frustrated, I considered going off-trail—cross-country between the two mountain peaks where I expected the pass—even though I had spent the better part of the day navigating toward established trails.
I was just so used to going as the strategy.
People do this in times of uncertainty: barrelling through by doing what they’ve always done instead of reevaluating if the strategy that got them here is the same strategy that will get them where they need to go.
But it explains why I started to follow a new trail going away from the meadow I had spent the entire day trying to reach. Soon, that trail turned into a narrow path with a steep drop on one side. And that part of me that understands danger turned me around and got me to pause.
I returned to the meadow. And hunkered down for the night.
I shivered, waiting. Waited for what? I have no idea.
In the same way that our bodies need food and water (knowing that without them, we die), we look for signs of certainty when ambiguity threatens our emotional psyche. But uncertainty is not a threat, as much as it is a discomfort. And discomfort is neither bad nor wrong. It’s not always a sign or a signal to stop. Discomfort is not just a necessary step in change; getting uncomfortable is at the root of all growth.
Change and comfort don’t coexist, but development and discomfort do.
IT’S A HELPING HAND WHEN YOU NEED IT MOST
When I first heard the helicopter in the air, I was inclined to ignore it. By this point, I had figured out a plan for what I would do in the morning (circle the full meadow) to find the trail junction towards camp.
But then I thought, wait, what. And I unburied myself from the bed of pine needles I had made and ran into Rowell Meadows on that moonlit night. Thinking, wow, this is a pretty good landing spot. And the helicopter came right to the meadow, right over my head, only to keep flying. (It turns out they weren’t using visual sighting but heat sensors, and my body temperature didn’t register.)
Oh well, I thought. That’s fine. I’ll be fine. I even thought of going back to my bed of pine needles. But then I thought, hey, it’s not like I have anything else to do out here. And so I watched the helicopter while doing jumping jacks to stay warm. It circled Mitchell Peak. Then, broader. And then back to Mitchell Peak. The search pattern was predictable. But, every now and again, it would stop its pattern to hover. At one point, it did so at the edge of the meadow. Right, where I was. Well, not that close; the field was immense.
But observing it got me thinking. They must be hovering for a reason.
This is how I found some backpackers. It’s what I’ve always loved about backcountry backpacking. The people you meet. They’ll share tips to discover an unmapped lake or, in this case, a puffer, a quilt, a wool hat, food, and their campfire to warm me up. Using their satellite phone, I sent word to a bestie. I had no idea she knew I was lost; that search and rescue had already reached out to her. But we got back a “yes” to my ask that she tell the police team that I was okay.
So it was a surprise that a few hours later, the helicopter returned and gently landed in the meadow. It turns out that when you are “missing,” the team doesn’t stop, not even if they put their eyes on you or when you tell them your plan to get back to camp at dawn. I tried to convince them, but Officers Ty and Mike kindly said, “Hey, we don’t want to force you, but we need you to come with us.”
Hence, the midnight helicopter ride to Fresno.
IT’LL COME AND MAKE YOU WHOLE AGAIN
Not long after I returned from the backcountry, a new client hired me via my website to help him spot his Onlyness as his birthday present for himself. He asked me a few times how my coaching process worked. I’ve always felt bad that I don’t have a “standard routine approach.” But I realize now this was not a happenstance. How I found my way is how I navigate change work; I coach someone so they have the skills to orient and navigate the world.
There are obvious lessons from what I’ve shared so far.
- Get present. Notice what is. Not what we want to be or “should be” but reality.
- Figure out where “there” is for any specific situation.
- Design a plan to get from here to there.
- Start, but stop as soon as that strategy has played out. Reevaluate.
- When uncertain, face the discomfort.
But the less obvious one is what I think most matters.
- How do you act (relentlessly) to advocate for your own life? Most of us can’t create the life we want, changing whatever needs to be changed because we don’t know how to center on that one thing we’re responsible for.
The key to handling change isn’t to defy uncertainty but to locate and lean on what helps navigate that change and remain steady in ourselves.
LOVE IS UNSTOPPABLE
When I returned to camp, a fellow camper Kathy said, “You didn’t need to be rescued; you rescued yourself.” Another person turned out to have called in a favor to get the choppers in the air and not wait the standard 24 hours to launch a search and rescue. She and I had talked the day before. She wanted me to know it wasn’t because she didn’t have faith in my abilities, but she knew that if I saw the helicopters in the air, I’d know that they knew I was missing. She said she got the chopper in the air “so I wouldn’t feel alone.”
And this is the thing that is so mysterious about how we navigate new terrain. I started the day thinking I was all alone because of the soon-to-be divorce and ended that 24-hour day surrounded by people who cared.
Five years ago this month, the Power of Onlyness was published. I wrote in it that when “we pull on that thread that only one sees, we find ourselves connected to the fabric of the world.” I live by it. Literally.