|“It may be that when we no longer know what to do|
we have come to our real work,and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
— Wendell Berry
Recently, I learned a phrase that software developers use to describe the time before planning. They call it the “discovery phase” in which they are listening, asking questions, learning, mucking around with ideas, experimenting, and getting clear about what users want.
I’m borrowing the phrase and giving it to anyone approaching a transition or going through a period of uncertainty (in other words, all of us). Use it as permission to spend the time you need to explore without having to know a direction or have a plan.
In approaching a change, we may try to answer meaningful questions like: “What do I want?” “Where do I want to be two years from now?” or even, “How would I describe my purpose?” But what if meaningful questions like those make you want to scream and run for cover?
It may be that you haven’t taken enough time to explore.
Claim your right to not know.
Not knowing where we’re going can be stressful. One of my business school friends got tired of explaining to friends how she didn’t yet have a job or direction. She invented a vocation and had business cards printed that read, “Professional Vagrant.” She refused to be shamed into a false knowing.
Planning, goals, strategies, and action steps are useful in managing a project. Yet, applied too soon to a life transition, these rational, measurable tools can lead to stress, self-doubt, or the risk of defaulting to a predictable path before exploring what might be possible.
They may circumvent the magic that lives in the undefined and unexplored parts of our lives, the shadows.
If you have lived your life or managed your career in a steady and consistent way, don’t you deserve some time off-leash to explore what makes you thrive?
Once upon a time
In my mid-late fifties, I knew I needed to change. I craved a more creative and artful life. I hadn’t a clue what that meant.
I didn’t quit my work or leave my husband (thank God). Instead, I started playing, following my nose, tracking on scents that led me in interesting directions.
I jumped into improv theatre. I made a fool of myself clowning. I read The Artist’s Way and anything else that spoke to living a creative life. I was like a kid playing that game, “hot, hot, cold.” Sometimes I felt closer to where I was going; other times I knew I was off course.
And then, over time a pattern began to emerge.
I could have saved considerable time and expense if I had taken more time to explore before building my first website. I overdid it, tried to say too much, and lost track of the me that was emerging rather than the me that had been.
Yet even though the process of reinventing my consulting practice and creating a website turned out to be expensive, making mistakes was part of my exploration. I needed to jump in, explore the shiny objects that captured my attention, try some work gigs that turned into dead ends, and spend too much time on social media.
I needed to learn.
If you find yourself saying “I don’t know,” when asked what you want to do next (or who you want to be), I invite you to give yourself time in discovery. Hold back on the planning, at least for now.
My discovery phase was about exploring creativity, art, and reinventing my business. For you, it might be about exploring where you want to live next, volunteering and community service, joining a study program, a new job, activity or practice, or starting a business.
“Non-rules” for a discovery phase.
The discovery process has no rules, but here are some ideas.
- Give yourself a decision-free period of time to not know. Make it longer than what you think you will need. You’ll end up taking the time anyway and this will make it less stressful. You deserve time to wander.
- Make learning your goal. As long as you’re learning and exploring, you’re on track. Mistakes are part of the path.
- Follow your nose. Some days you may want to research specific ideas, test a concept, or learn about a topic or field that interests you. Other days, you may want to spend an afternoon (week or month) allowing yourself to surf online, jump from idea to idea, be random, and enjoy the romp. Or do nothing. (If you are unsure how to follow your nose, watch a dog.)
- Play. I know the concept is alien to many of us. (Memories of “playtime” and “the playground” make me cringe.) But play means freedom to make messes. Play is where you make up your own rules or decide there are no rules.
- Leave self-judgment behind. Tell the wardens of self-judgment walking up and down your inner corridors that you’ve been given a permanent hall pass.
- Reclaim your laughter.
- Reward yourself for not knowing, especially when people ask you, “What are you doing?” or you’re the one beginner in a class of people who seem to know what they’re doing. Bravo you.
- Track on delight and keep your wonder-ometer going,
- Expect magic–ideas and connections that might pop in, as if from the cosmos.
- Enjoy the beauty of it all
When I think about it, this sounds like a good way to live.
Adding in reflection
There may come a day when you need to make decisions. You’ll get there. Add some reflection, bit by bit, to your playful mix. Notice what you love and what seems right for you.
Your rational mind can be a partner in your explorations. Periodically ask. What worked? What brought you joy? What taught you what you don’t like? What are you done with? What more do you want to explore?
You are the user
In the world of software development, the focus is on understanding the “UX” or user experience. In life, the user is you. You’ll know when you’ve done enough discovery when decisions start to flow more naturally. But don’t short the process.
I once taught a course about “Storying Your Future” in which we looked at past scripts and considered the kind of stories we wanted to live going forward. One woman, a senior university administrator, refused to come up with a future story.“I’ve made a lot of transitions,” she said. “This time, I’m giving myself a year to not know.”
Brava, I thought.
Planning has its purposes–after play and discovery. Playpens and playgrounds were wasted on some of us when we were young. Isn’t it time now to hang upside down and swing?
You can come back to standing soon enough.