Lost and Found

February 10, 2014 | By Nathan Heleine, Cofounder & Chief Creative Officer

Part 1: The art of getting lost is almost lost.

I get lost all the time. On my better days, I get lost intentionally. Lost can be much more than a step in the wrong direction or an act of aimless wandering. Lost is not necessarily dumb, blind, confused, or misguided. Lost is not a ship without a rudder. Surely, to be lost should not imply that one is forgotten, and it should never be mistaken for mere absence.

Lost can be purposeful. Lost often leads to finding and creating. Lost can be, and frequently is, rewarding. Lost is an honest, open state of questioning. And in order to find the things worth questioning, you have to start by getting lost.

From one field guide to another, Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

“That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse 'los’, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.”

What does it mean to get lost these days? Does it have anything to do with place, or is it simply an earnest choice to disconnect? To get lost completely can be seemingly impossible, at least within the patterns of an average day of work and play. We are fed a constant stream to consume and process. The devices in our pockets pinpoint our position in the world, both actively and passively. And even the slightest implication of being lost leads us to astonishingly efficient tools to remedy the situation.

I don’t have an immediate answer to this question; cue the search engine. I don’t know where I’m going; cue the GPS-enabled map. I didn’t make a plan; cue SMS. I’m slightly bored or lonely; cue the whatever-fills-the-gap app on my mobile device.

Have we even really experienced what it means to be lost, or is that feeling, and our physiological response to it, lost as well?

We are ravenous connectors. We confirm ourselves, our thoughts and actions, our locations, and even our intentions, through increasingly digital interactions that promise to connect us. Why do so many of our generation (defined by cultural and technical mindset, not by age) feel the need to connect this intensely? Perhaps because connections have become quite enigmatic—sometimes meaningful in precisely the ways we expect, sometimes every bit as meaningful in new and surprising ways, yet sometimes not at all what they promise to be. Today’s connections are increasingly becoming more commodity than experience, more perception than reality.

New conduits for connecting abound in the digital world. They’re hard to avoid, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because they afford us a new kind of richness within certain modes of interaction. From time to time though, in order to challenge and explore our understanding of the world, we need to disconnect.

The explorers and inventors who mapped and built the physical world did so largely by venturing off the well-trodden path, by looking elsewhere, by getting lost. At any given moment, whether you find yourself in front of a screen or on an adventure off the grid, remember to wander. And don’t fear the space it will create for new pathways and discoveries.

Again, from Solnit:

“For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

Part 2: A road runs to and from obscurity.

Lost might seem to be a lonely proposition, but it has a close companion in obscurity. And much like being lost, being obscure tends to get a bad rap. Most definitions of the word carry the negative implications one might expect.

Consider these definitions instead:

  1. Obscurity - The quality or condition of being unknown
  2. Obscure - Far from centers of human population

Many of us seem to be quite concerned with the whims of a faceless crowd, while failing to nurture the relationships we hold most dear. We count our “friends,” but what percentage of them really count? Everyone and everything can be a brand, and our brands can be measured by the weight of our networks, by digital street cred in the form of followers, by the incessant ping and patter of the digital huzzah. Does this really make us happy? Does this really bring success? For a select few, maybe. For most, no.

Perhaps we should rethink the value of obscurity.

Despite the awesome things being built for the digital world, scaling networks up and out just doesn’t always work. They break down. The social contract gets murky. Our interactions get awkward at best and downright ugly at worst. And we group think everything. The crowd can be powerful and insightful. It can also be just plain dumb.

Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine says:

“After all, the world’s bravest and most important ideas are often forged away from the spotlight—in small, obscure groups of people who are passionately interested in a subject and like arguing about it. They’re willing to experiment with risky or dumb concepts because they’re among intimates. (It was, after all, small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and the novel.)”

There is value in being unseen, in living quietly with your ideas, in keeping your work close and your community tight. By doing so, you concentrate first on what you know and believe to be true. If you don’t know what you believe, you’re forced to figure it out. Obscurity does not have to limit learning or outside influence, so this isn’t a case of “ignorance is bliss.” Accepting obscurity enables an inward focus, which can lay the foundation for things that have immense value for smaller networks, and may even scale beautifully beyond their initial intent.

So, obscurity, much like the act of getting lost, can be a chosen path. And while some will find joy in obscurity as an end in itself, there’s still an upside for those of us who have our doubts: the path doesn’t end there. From obscurity can come insight, understanding and genuine invention. In a world where everyone is jostling to be seen, obscurity might even become one of the most essential ingredients to becoming un-obscure, and rightly so.

Live small and prosper.

Originally published via fieldgui.de in 2011.