How to lose your self and find your way
A few years ago I facilitated a workshop for some execs from a supermarket business. We were staying in a converted manor house close to a motorway with mediocre coffee and little jars of sweeties that no one ever touched. It was a tight programme that ran over 3 days with time only in short breaks to huddle with colleagues to talk over problems.
But one afternoon I found myself ducking out during an exercise to take a rest in my room. Outside my window a grassy bank rose to meet scraggly woods at the edge of the conference centre. I prized open the double glazed window and vaulted up the bank into the trees, running madly around in the hedgerows.
I broke through branches and thorns, changing direction constantly and delighting in the randomness of what I was doing. It lasted maybe 10 minutes, but on that brief crazy run I experienced a freedom I had missed for years; a wildness that ‘normal life’ had left no space for or had simply planned out of existence — despite being self-employed and apparently ‘doing my thing’. Nor did the neatly organized structure and safe business language of our offsite provide this reality for the delegates we were serving.
I had the keenest sense, like a caged animal, that something was missing without knowing what it was. I would have chewed off my own arm not to keep living that way.
Ever since that time the search has guided my life — to find that freedom, a life that’s worth living — because it feels good rather than just about bearable when I’m drinking strong coffee.
And finally, I think I’m close to finding it — though it’s not where I expected it to be.
Hearing ‘wildness’ the mind thinks of wild-eyed men, vision quests or living in the trees. But wildness is internal and simple and truthful. It doesn’t require extreme weather training or an expedition in the rainforest.
Wildness is simply not knowing.
Not knowing is scary, disorienting and easy to avoid, and if your mind is anything like mine it will keep inventing reasons why it needs to structure, predict and organize everything in advance. Which will seem like a totally reasonable thing to do — until you start to notice that nothing really works how you hoped it would.
To live, to really live, to pick up off the ground the fruits of insight that we need to transform our lives, we need to be available for the unknown. We need to experience our own emptiness, where creativity happens and rules don’t exist. To walk into the dark and to breath deep.
We can do this together, too: but we need to structure things in such a way that we feel free rather than fearful and constrained, so that we can put aside best behavior, follow our noses and see what comes out of our mouths when we let it. This is as possible in business meetings and brainstorming sessions as it is in forests and in playgrounds.
Over the last few months, I have experienced the possibility of journeying with colleagues into an unknown space where we can harvest insights and ideas that change businesses, lives and one day (who knows?) may possibly change the world.
But how? What does it mean in reality to travel into the ‘wilderness’ together, and how should you set things up to invite the insights that you need, even if it’s only for a 20 minute meeting?
A few starter tips:
- Be prepared to have no idea: abandon in advance any intention of taking credit for knowing stuff; you will have no idea what is going to happen, and that’s how it needs to be. In the process you will have to face some degree of vulnerability — i.e. you may have no idea what to say or how to organize the process at all, even if you are ‘in charge’. Warn everyone in advance that that is what a leader is.
- Meet without an agenda: There’s a massive difference between having a goal and having a plan. When you come together with a clear intention (e.g. to create a strategy) but with no clear sense of how to get there, the way is open for you to find something new. This works for two day leadership summits as much as it does for 10 minute meetings. People start contributing in ways that they often hold back in more organized settings. They feel excited; something new is happening.
- Go somewhere different: it doesn’t have to be the Gobi Desert, but if you want new results you need a new starting point, somewhere the mind’s conditioning is not triggered by familiar sights and distractions. Give yourself or your colleagues some space; invite the unexpected, create opportunities for silence and connection to the vaster world around you.
- Sense into everything: the secret to meeting without an agenda is to sense what wants to happen next without leading it: you start to notice when you let things go that there’s a sort of collective intelligence that is doing the real work in the room. It’s that which you want to be empowering (rather than your own ego or other people’s fears). Your access point is feelings: What are people feeling, in their gut, in their emotions? Ask them; share. You need to check in with each other periodically to figure out where the conversation needs to go next. “There seems to be a lot of energy in this topic, shall we carry on?”
- Be free: let yourselves off the hook from having to produce anything good. If the goal of your meeting is simply to achieve nothing and feel ok about it, you’re already ahead of 99.99% of all meetings in the whole world — where people get stuck by desperately trying to achieve something and then failing miserably, while trying to cover it up.
- Undistract: finally, agree in advance that no one will use their devices when you are in session. If you need to do something urgently, ask permission and leave the room.
So that’s my guide to being wild, indoors or in the trees.
That’s the roadmap I’ll be using this spring when I meet for a second time with a group of entrepreneurs in the Sussex woods to see what happens when we let go of agendas and open ourselves to the unexpected, in an atmosphere of trust and humour, ready to make the mistakes we need to follow the road less traveled (if you’re interested, see below).
So please let me invite you to join us, in spirit if not in person: for at least a part of every day let go of your tasks, goals and urgent ambitions and see what happens when you sit back, lie back or walk quietly into the wilderness—silent or alone, loud or together — determined to achieve nothing other than what presents itself magically on its own.
I’ve got absolutely no idea what will happen next.