The heat was unbearable. The old hotel concierge laughed at us: only French girls would come to Tuscany in the middle of August! We didn’t care. We were twenty years old, and we made it to Florence after a neverending bus journey.
We had no itinerary, hardly any money to spend, so we used to sit on the stone steps that run between the old buildings alongside the Arno, seeking whatever shade we could find. That’s where we would grab the teaspoons we’d packed from home and share a tin of sweetcorn for lunch.
We would watch the tourists hustle by, maps covering their faces to make sure they didn’t miss any of the sights, instead of taking in the beauty of their surrounding.
Hey, I get it. We stick to maps because the alternative, being lost, missing out or even worse, being wrong, is scary. I guess it comes from school, where we’re taught to use our brain. And that brain is trained to follow the rules, plan the route, and follow the map. With the map comes safety.
Navigating Unknown Territories
When you work for yourself, however, there is no map. That’s why so many of us creatives feel lost most of the time.
We try to make one up at best we can with everything we’ve learned at school, at work, by trying to replicate someone else’s path. But the truth is, living a creative life means that the journey is continually shifting. The path appears as you take steps.
Sometimes, a few steps feel great, and you feel unstoppable. Sometimes, you have to walk in the dark, hoping for the best only to realize you have gone in the wrong direction.
So you correct your course, you take new steps. Sometimes it feels like you’re going backward or like you’re walking in a circle. Sometimes a storm hits you by surprise, and for a while, you cannot take any steps at all. Sometimes you land upon a dream landscape, and you decide to stop there for a little while to catch your breath, reflect and recharge before taking new steps.
As humans, we have built a world ruled by strategy, data, knowledge, and facts—which means the thought of navigating unknown territories sans map is somewhat unnerving. And yet, we have a different kind of tool at our disposal.
Trusting Our Inner Compass
We tend to forget about it entirely as it doesn’t have an excellent reputation in the traditional education system: our intuition—otherwise known as, our inner compass.
Your inner compass is the little voice that nudges you in the right direction—the one that gives you that funny feeling in your gut when something doesn’t feel right. It is a real gem, but a grossly underutilized one. It has the power to steer you in the direction that is right for you in spite of the uncertainties brought by an ever-changing world.
I wish I could give you a shortcut to find and use your compass. There is no such thing. Like Anne Lamott said, “It’s very much an inside job.”
And one that requires daily attention, for the more you play with it, the sharper it gets. Here are a few things that have helped me fine tune mine, and I hope, will help you fine tune yours.
1. Be quiet, and let silence do its thing.
It’s a lost art, being quiet. We’ve forgotten how to be bored. We are constantly stimulated, distracted, filling every last bit of quietness with some white noise. Busyness and chaos are drowning your compass.
That’s why it is more important than ever to find ways to be quiet in one way or another. Meditation, prayer, walks, yoga, morning pages are all examples of activities that can help us create a little more white space around us, and allow that voice to speak up. It will enable us to develop a relationship with it, so that with practice, we can hear the subtle difference between our inner compass, and inherited self-limiting beliefs.
I’ll be the first one to tell you that taking a step back to do nothing “productive” goes against all our beliefs about success. It is hard to hit pause and to let go, even for a few minutes, when you’re not used to it. But with intention, it can become more natural.
2. Notice what your body is telling you.
Recognizing your inner compass is only the first step. You also need to tune into your body and the entire spectrum of sensations specific thoughts, words or pictures may bring. Your body thinks with senses and feelings too, even though we have become good at ignoring it.
What do you feel in your body when a boundary is crossed? When you hear something you genuinely believe? When you feel aligned? When you’re feeling frustrated or angry? These are all clues to uncovering the values that are non-negotiable for you, and therefore will guide you to your most authentic self.
3. Uncover your core values.
I tried to define my core values, as suggested in many blog posts and books. I concluded that I don’t think they are ours to define.
To truly live in alignment, our job is to uncover the ones already entrenched in us. How do you want to feel in your life? And why do you want to feel like that? What brings you utter joy and lose track of time? What makes you want to scream with anger?
The minute I let go of what I thought I should define as my values and focused on feelings, I hit the nail on the head.
4. Give yourself permission to make mistakes.
Society doesn’t like us to make mistakes. But mistakes are part of the journey: they will teach you what doesn’t feel right. Are they unpleasant? Of course, they are.
If you welcome them with the compassion you’d have for a child trying new things, you can correct your course with self-love and learn from it. You’re doing the very best you can. You should applaud yourself for trying new things and having the courage to be wrong, in a world where it is so much easier to follow the herd and not make any waves.
5. Let go of your desire for control.
The desire for control brings me to surrender. Yes, it is a tough one. As humans, we like to know things and feel the assurance that we have everything figured out.
The truth is, we never will. As we figure something out, circumstances will have changed. This new level of knowledge will change your perception, and you’ll find yourself at a new level—and achieve a breakthrough.
But when you think of it, surrendering to change and uncertainty is the only way to adapt to an ever-changing world. And when you do, taking steps in the dark won’t feel that scary anymore.
Calling all the shots is hard. But instead of covering your face with a map, try giving your inner compass a little more credit. Nurture it as it is here to help you navigate unknown territories and help you live by your values and towards your real purpose.
Accept and trust that you will never have all the answers, and at the same time, you have more knowledge than you give yourself credit for.
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