On getting lost

Sonja Blignaut
3 min readJul 17, 2023

Being really and truly lost triggers primal survival anxieties.

Michael Bond writes: “Lost is a cognitive state: your internal map has become detached from the external world, and nothing in your spatial memory matches what you see. But at its core, it is an emotional state. It delivers a psychic double whammy: not only are you stricken with fear, you also lose your ability to reason.”

In this state, stress and anxiety affect the cognitive functions we need for wayfinding. Many people lose the ability to reason and do the exact opposite of what would be prudent for their survival.

“90% of people make things a lot worse for themselves when they realise they are lost. Because they are afraid, they can’t solve problems or figure out what to do. They fail to notice or remember landmarks. They lose track of how far they’ve travelled[…]

Michael Bond, From Here to There.

There are many different ways to be lost: We can be physically lost when we lose our bearings and can no longer situate ourselves in a landscape; socially lost when we are in an unfamiliar culture or we join a new team; mentally lost when we cannot make sense of our context or mental state. All of these can trigger fight, flight or freeze responses, however they don’t all have potentially life-threatening consequences.

During a recent monthly connecting conversation with our global Complexity Fitness community, we explored the topic of getting lost. We were surprised when we realised how much energy and resources we spend to avoid getting lost or rescue others when they feel lost. Our conversation reminded me of Diego Espinosa’s notion of certainty merchants, which I think is apt to describe our ever-present GPS and mobile devices.

Why all this talk about getting lost?

“The word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies and never go beyond what they know.

Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private life conspire to make it so. A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant, and those of children are entirely absent. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places… I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

- Rebecca Solnit

Brené Brown writes about the gifts of imperfection, similarly allowing ourselves (and others) to be lost offers many gifts, for example:

  • Reconnecting with vulnerability.
  • Serendipitous encounters.
  • Deeper self-awareness. As one person said: sometimes we need to lose ourselves to find ourselves.
  • Better noticing skills.
  • Trust in our intuition and innate wayfinding ability.
  • Sometimes, it re-established faith in humanity.
  • Becoming comfortable with the discomfort of ambiguity or uncertainty.

Why is this relevant? Why is it important to allow ourselves to (safely) be lost?

Being knee-deep in the complexity and uncertainty of life can trigger the same stress responses as being physically lost. So surrendering to the unknown by intentionally practising “getting lost”, we can train ourselves to remain present and calm when we feel overwhelmed or lost at work or in life. These practices don’t only include allowing ourselves to get lost in unfamiliar streets or landscapes; we can also lose ourselves in music, art, a book or meditation.

“…to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender…”

— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

I’ve realised that my need for certainty, security and control costs me something. I am losing out on the gifts of getting lost. I realised that my life has contracted and become smaller, so I intend to live into this invitation to “disband my armies” more often and fire my certainty merchants.

*if you’d like to join our global Complexity Fit community, you can sign up here.

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Sonja Blignaut

Exploring our relationship with uncertainty. Enabling future fitness. Complexity nerd, Waysfinder, Artist, Scientist. https://complexityfit.com