The wonder that is wandering
While wandering too much is suboptimal, doing too little of it can also backfire.
Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.” I stumbled upon this quote online and it left an indelible mark on me. Productivity gurus, entrepreneurs, investors and generally ambitious people all around parrot the virtues of specific goals, specific dreams, specific strategies, and specific routines. I am one of them.
Specificity helps with focus. It trains our minds to dive deep into our curiosities and translates them into outcomes that we can be proud of. Being specific is also the hallmark of maturity. People who pursue all sorts of things are often called flaky. They tend to wander too much and not pursue goals with seriousness.
While wandering too much is suboptimal, doing too little of it can also backfire. Say you decide to build a career in something you don’t care much about, being focused and not wandering enough is sure to leave you with regrets. In India, a large number of students end up in careers they aren’t interested in. As the popular joke goes, “First study engineering, then figure out what you want to do with your life.”
I am here to make a case for wandering enough and regularly throughout your life. Instead of thinking about wandering as a distraction, think of it as a personal laboratory where you explore your interests, develop them, and analyse the aspects of your present self that are not working out.
Work doesn’t just happen when you are sitting in front of your screen. Wandering in the right amount unleashes lateral thinking and helps you solve problems for your present and future self. In fact, wandering to explore has been monumentally helpful to companies as well. Instagram started out as a whisky app, YouTube as a dating site, Netflix as a DVD rental site, and Mattel (the company that created Barbie) selling picture frames. If these companies simply kept focus on their initial goals and worked hard, they might not have survived. The business term for what these companies did is pivoting, but it basically comes down to purposeful wandering and experimentation.
That brings me to the larger point: In today’s fast-changing world, wandering is a survival strategy. It provides much-needed breathing room to recalibrate your approach towards work and life. But you can’t wander aimlessly. There needs to be some method to this unscripted exploration.Gustave Flaubert once wrote, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
In order to wander purposefully, discipline is a prerequisite. Aimless wandering for a long time might lead to wishful thinking and unfulfilled dreams. Through my work, mentoring thousands of young professionals and students, I have come across some people who kept wandering without committing to any project. They imagined it as an exit strategy to find something better without having an honest discussion with themselves about what they really wanted. Wandering is beautiful, but it often needs guardrails.
I suggest blocking an hour every day on your calendar to let go and do whatever captures your fancy. Putting wandering time on the calendar gives it the seriousness it deserves. Further, it removes any guilt you may feel from pursuing something outside the remit of your immediate goals.
In my daily wandering time block, I try and come up with new ideas, imagine what life would be like had I chosen a different path, tinker with passion projects, and explore interests outside work. It has made my life richer and enabled me to have experiences I could not have imagined if I had stuck to a goal or a path society had in mind. It led me to Oxford to study philosophy, propelled me to build a career out of my hobby, and carved out a serendipity that changed my life forever on a wanton afternoon at the Great Wall of China.
I am not against goals. I have been able to build a reasonably interesting life and career because I know what it takes to stick with difficult problems for long enough. I abandoned vague wishes and asked life for specific outcomes. So far, I have been rewarded appropriately and a steadfast focus has been an enabler. That said, my life without wandering would have been a fraction of what it is, not only in terms of the story my resume tells, but also for the sheer sense of adventure and possibility it carved out. I conclude my case for wandering with JRR Tolkien’s memorable lines from The Lord of the Rings,
“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does
not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”