The Importance of Going Nowhere

Musical accompaniment: Joni Mitchell’s “Refuge of the Roads.”

I was at a holiday event this past weekend, and chatted with someone I hadn’t seen since last year. “I heard you bought a sailboat,” she said. “Where do you go?”

“Wherever the wind takes me.” It has become a pretty reflexive answer. For all the hours I spent on the lake this year, there were only a few where I was seeking a specific destination: leaving from and returning to the boatyard for the change of season, and my trip to St. Joseph, Michigan. Otherwise, I planned my trip based on the wind and sometimes the waves.

For some, sailing with the wind represents a limitation, but for me it is freedom. So often the need to achieve a specific destination is stifling, a form of suppression that mutes our ability to reach beyond arbitrary limits placed on us for the sake of maintaining formation. Knowing where you will finish your journey before it begins provides a sense of comfort but very little opportunity for discovery. Not knowing ensures little beyond your freedom to wander according to your desires.

I would be lying if I told you that this attitude hasn’t guided much of my life. While I’m certainly not a wanderer or vagabond, I’ve never been one to plan much beyond the horizon. I prefer to respond to the world around me, and that has led me down many different paths, both good and not so good. It has kept me from becoming an expert in a narrow field or obtaining a powerful title at a corporation, but allowed me to enjoy many different projects and discover passions that I previously might have overlooked. Indeed, one such path led me to Chicago and introduced me to a love of sailing.

We have a strong tendency to view events on a linear, progressive curve. We look back at an arc of history and see a natural sequence of actions from point A to point X. Things makes sense; serendipity and discovery seem logically embedded in our past. Of course, it doesn’t really work that way, our memory is a marvelous filter that exists to create coherence. Our destinations are not defined by our starting points, they arise from the choices we make along the way. Looking forward, no trajectory exists. Looking backward, we see what we created.

Instead of asking the question 'where will I go?', I'm trying very hard to reframe it as 'how can I… Click To Tweet

Often we fix our goals early and judge success by their attainment. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. But, to return to sailing, sometimes the wind shifts and staying on the same course is the least desirable option. For those who are unfamiliar, you cannot sail directly into the wind, and beating upwind (sailing close to the wind’s direction) can be physically demanding and hard on the ship — the boat is hitting waves head-on and the skipper is struggling to resist weather helm. While it’s often an invigorating tack, beating upwind requires an added amount of diligence and effort. Turning to a broad reach not only keeps your cocktail in the glass it allows you to go below and pee.

Instead of asking the question, “where will I go?” I’m trying very hard to reframe it as “how can I go?” After all, it’s not the destination, but the journey, right? It makes little sense (to me, at least) to work towards a goal that I chose for myself decades ago when I possessed little wisdom and much less discipline. I’m trying to allow exploration and discovery to influence my direction and expose me to many pursuits that might otherwise pass by me. Sailing has not only become one of those passions but also a great analogy for the process itself. I’m excited to see where next season takes me.