There’s an analogy that’s talked about in the coaching world and, I’m sure, elsewhere, that a plane is off-course 99% of the time (or maybe it’s 99.9% of the time?) and it only arrives where it wants to be because the pilot (or auto-pilot) is constantly course-correcting.
It’s used as an analogy for goals in that we should be constantly course correcting. Life never goes in a straight line, people say, and course correction is normal.
This sounds very reassuring, but is it actually true?
I was asked this exact question on a video call this week. The interviewer, Brooke, was asking me about how we can make more impact with what we do, and, towards the end of the call, she asked me what I’d do or what I’d advise when someone to do when they found themselves off track from where they thought they wanted to be.
How do we get back on track?
In that moment she asked me, I found myself puzzled; the question didn’t make sense to me.
Asking how to get back to something implies that there’s a ‘track’ and there’s a ‘destination’ and therefore we’re somehow off-course. Here’s what I said to her,
The question implies that there’s a ‘place’ to get back to. That ‘back’ is a real thing, like the cup that’s holding my tea (the visual works better on a video call!). And that being off-course is a bad thing — or that getting back on track is the right thing.
That isn’t how I see the world,
and figuring out what the track is and how to get back to it isn’t how we create the most impact.
What looks true to me is that we make up that there’s a destination, and we aim for it, thinking that, when we get there, we’re going to feel like we’ve ‘arrived’. And somehow being in the place of arrival is better than being where we are now.
But how can we be other than where we are? Making up that we’ve somehow gone wrong or become lost is likely to lead us to judge the place we are now. And to feel that we have to be somewhere else in order to be OK. And that looks like a dead-end to me.
That doesn’t mean that we stand still, or we wander aimlessly. (Or, to continue the plane analogy, that we fall out of the sky!)
We’re driven to move — it’s as natural for us to take action as it is for my dog to run around as soon as we reach the park. We’ll always be going somewhere, but the destination emerges as a result of the steps we take, not as a result of us ‘deciding’ ahead of time.
In the video call we were recording, I talked about one of the projects I’ve working on this year, supporting leaders in international development non-profits.
At the beginning of the year I had an idea, I made some calls, reached out to some people, and the next steps emerged. The project took shape through conversations and through the interests of those people who put their hand up to participate. All I had to do was notice the pattern and continue to excavate until we had some cool outcomes.
I now find myself at a place where I want to take stock and put more structure and colour around what we’re doing — add more flavour, more form, more density to the project. I don’t know exactly what that will end up being, but I know that it isn’t my job to figure it all out and decide. It’s my job to listen to my inspiration, make a few suggestions, listen to what’s coming back and pull together the strands that seem to make the most sense to me.
I don’t see the fact of being at a reflection point as being ‘off-track’ in any way, because my destination was pretty vague. My intention was to have an impact on leaders in international development. I didn’t know exactly what that would look like but it’s enough of a touchstone to have guided me so far, and to guide me towards whatever’s next.
Even if I felt the project wasn’t achieving the impact I’d hoped for, I still couldn’t be ‘off-track, I’d simply be at the end of an experiment which hadn’t worked. #next!
The way I see the world (and the way I believe the world to be!) is less like I’m in charge of ‘figuring it all out’, choosing a destination and setting the course. It looks much more like I’m a co-pilot responding to instructions, flying the plane, but not really flying the plane.
I can trick myself that I’m in charge and that can be a lot of fun, like taking the rudder in a flying lesson, but there’s a sense of relief and reassurance to know that someone always has my back, telling me what lever to pull, what GPS coordinates to enter. Then I can really enjoy the ride, knowing that we’re perfectly OK wherever we end up.
About the author
Cathy Presland is an expert in human-centred leadership and transformative change. She has more than two decades of experience in government and international organisations and her focus as a coach is to support impact-driven individuals and organisations to improve their performance, leadership and peace of mind to enable them to make more of a difference with the work they do.