Wayfinding: How to Get Unstuck

You know that feeling of being stuck? In your job, where you live, in traffic… It’s a terrible feeling. You think: this isn’t where I’m supposed to be. You’re certain there’s an ideal you out there… an ideal life you should be living but aren’t. You beat up on yourself because not only are you not where you want to be, but you don’t know where you want to be in the first place.

When we feel stuck the first thing we do is build psychological traps for ourselves. We ask the wrong questions. What should I do? What’s my ideal life? These questions – these normal questions we ask ourselves when we’re stuck – are counterproductive in getting us unstuck, and here’s why:

  1. Questions like this place an enormous amount of pressure on you. The pressure to know how things are going to turn out.

2. They assume there is only one perfect version of you that exists which makes decision-making an impossible, paralyzing exercise. 

3.  Progress isn’t made through thought-experiments. Human brains have evolved in such a way that although we’re capable of complex thought and problem solving, we tend to learn the most through trial and error.

Imagine for a moment that your GPS is trying to navigate you without a map, without satellites and radio signals telling it where you are, and without you specifying a destination… It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll end up where you want to go, right? Now imagine that you took a step in the direction you think you’re going, and received feedback on your location… If you continued this process you’d start to understand where you are, where you want to go and how to get there. This process, called wayfinding, is used in design thinking.

“Wayfinding can be defined as spatial problem solving. It is knowing where you are in a building or an environment, knowing where your desired location is, and knowing how to get there from your present location.”

Dave Evans, the product marketing lead for Apple’s mouse team, recently discussed the challenges of building new products on NPR’s Hidden Brain. “One of the challenges engineers and designers face”, he says, “is how do you build something when you don’t know what to build?”. To help Apple’s team answer this question Dave would employ design thinking and wayfinding strategies. Dave soon realized how those same principles of design thinking could be used to help others in designing their lives. Here’s how it works:

# 1. Realize there is more than one version of you in there. This is not about becoming your idealized perfect self. This is about looking honestly at your situation and asking, what room do I have to maneuver?

#2. Be oriented into action. When in doubt, do something. Take one step in the direction you think you’re going, test it out, fine-tune according to the response and try again. This is like beta-testing for your life.

#3. If you have a problem that isn’t actionable, in other words a problem that you can’t change, it’s not a problem. It’s a circumstance. (For example, if you are 5’2″ and want to play professional basketball, your height would not be a problem it would be a circumstance.)

#4. Accepting your circumstance, although challenging and possibly even heart-breaking, will ultimately free you up to pursue something else.

#5. Write down three unique versions of the next five years of your life. Three different careers, different paths, different lives you could imaginably pursue.

#6. Pick one of these three versions. Once you articulate what the options for your life clearly are, you’ll feel much better about choosing who it is you want to be.

#7. Ignore the “Are you sure? Did you settle? Is this really your passion?” questions. These place an incredibly unrealistic demand of hitting this high bar. Are you really passionate enough? Who the hell knows if they are. No one knows the future. Stop being paralyzed by the fear of deciding what to do and just go out and try things.

#8. Be constantly in beta. We are all wired uniquely, gifted with different skills and talents. There isn’t one thing you can do, there isn’t one perfect career, there are many.

So there you have it. Start building prototypes of your life… Pay attention to which prototypes you enjoy building more than others. Get feedback, go back to the drawing board and try again. Do this indefinitely and you will gain traction to the question “what should I do with my life?” but better yet, you will get unstuck.