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15 Jan 2021

Recalculating...

by Val Kelly

I used to participate in Adventure Races. The races varied, but included activities such as kayaking, repelling, cycling and orienteering. I participated in these with good friends and now when we have too much wine, we enjoy retelling stories of these races as if we had been serious athletes pushing the boundaries of physical prowess. I’ll just assume you understand how far this is from the truth.

Sans wine, I’m going to recount a story that I think fits this blog’s mission of providing insights into adjusting to a new learning landscape.

As we arrived a little late on a cool, fall morning, we hurried over to the check-in station to pick up our map, checkpoint list, and a list of clues to where the checkpoints might be. One of my friends is an economist and the other an engineer. As soon as they had the topographical map, they put their heads down and poured over it, doing intricate calculations and measurements to determine how to best proceed to all our checkpoints. I was handed the map of silly clues primarily in the hope that I wouldn’t interrupt their serious planning. This was our very intense endeavor for a few minutes until I performed the useful role of looking around and realized that everyone was gathering at the starting line. We quickly hopped on our bikes and were off.

I won’t explain everything that went wrong on this trek, but sometime after emerging from a sandbar on the lake (how does a sandbar appear in the middle of a lake!) and carrying our bikes up and down hills (yes, people generally ride their bikes) we began our orienteering stage. For this, we were prepared! My friends were blessed with terrific mathematical and geographical insights and had quickly calculated where the checkpoints would be. We hurried to our first checkpoint and counted off the steps…no checkpoint…heads down over the map…recalculating… yes, this is the place…recounting steps… meanwhile, still not allowed near the map, I looked around at the beautiful golden grass unspoiled by human foot. I voiced my concern, “OK – so no one but us has been to this checkpoint before?” I tried unsuccessfully to get my friends' attention. “So, none of those buff twenty something’s have made it here before us?” My observations fell on deaf ears and my friends returned to their calculations. So, I asked for the checkpoint card, and feeling tired, hungry, and thirsty, I did what any sensible person would do. I ran to a good vantage point, looked, and listened – “Yes!” I exclaimed as I heard voices from the other side of the hill. My friends were slightly confused when I returned with the card stamped, but we were finally off to the next checkpoint.

It turns out that my friends’ calculations were completely correct. They simply had misunderstood the starting point. There was a mistake in our initial assumptions, but we never thought to question it. It took us a couple of hours into the ride home to have us identify the problem. We literally had put our heads down to examine and reexamine the map. We focused on the information in front of us and tuned out everything else. Again, literally, all we had to do was scan the horizon and look around us to reorient ourselves. Maybe, it was cheating, or maybe it was common sense- the voices of our competitors were elsewhere. It only makes sense to be aware of those.

This seems like a metaphor for how we sometimes navigate through life. We are living in a world where information is ubiquitous but overwhelming. In the place we are right now with so many unknowns, we don’t feel as if we have much control. In our desire to have some control, we often put our heads down and focus on the few things within our grasp. It’s not a bad strategy, but sometimes we have to pick our heads up and look around. Are we willing to acknowledge and incorporate the things that have been figured out by others? Have we considered other starting points or other perspectives?

The point of this certainly isn’t that we should follow the crowd and ignore our own insights, but in an era of perpetual change, being aware of where we are standing, and of what is going on around us is essential. Most importantly, we should be aware that only a sliver of view is available from our vantage point. Exploration of other views is necessary in our quest for knowledge. Sometimes we need to challenge our fundamental assumptions. And, when we do, sometimes, just sometimes, there is a vanilla ice cream shake waiting for us when we finally cross the finish line.