How not to get lost

People say I have a very good sense of direction. I guess so. I prefer to say that most people have an undeveloped (or rather, untapped) sense of direction.

Just like I believe that anyone can become good with math over time, I believe that anyone can become better with directions over time.

In both cases, people just need to work on it.

In the excellent book Maphead by Jeopardy champion and wunderkind Ken Jennings, he talks about helping his directionally-challenged wife to navigate via the National Mall in DC:

“We drill relentlessly. ‘Mindy, you’re standing at the Air and Space Museum facing the National Gallery! Point to Capitol Hill! Correct. Which way is the Lincoln Memorial? Correct!'”

Apparently, all it took was about an hour of concerted effort to make a big difference.

This is a really good book.

Ready? Let’s get started.

Whoops, I didn’t tell you that we are doing the same thing? Sorry about that.

Learn the four cardinal directions

There are four cardinal directions: Going clockwise: North, East, South, and West. (Alas, the word “news” does not derive from these four directions.)

Cardinal points
The four cardinal points. Like I said, I spare no expense when it comes to design here.

You need to commit this to memory.

Next, we need to know where they are in relation to each other.

If you know where North is, face that way. West is to your left and East is to your right. South is behind you.

(If you’re a little rusty on your lefts and rights, the hand that makes the “L” between your thumb and index finger is your left.)

If you turn around, what direction will you be facing? South, good. In that case, East is to your left and West is to your right. Rotate the image if you need to.

You get the idea.

If you know what direction you’re facing to start, you can turn in any of those directions and you will know what direction you’re facing afterward.

Always know what direction you’re facing. Keep it in your mind. If you forget, stop until you figure it out again.


So if I tell you to walk two blocks North, then two blocks East, then two blocks North again, what would you do?

Here’s what I would suggest:

  1. Face North
  2. Walk two blocks
  3. Turn right (to face East)
  4. Walk two blocks
  5. Turn left (to face North again)
  6. Walk two blocks

So all you need to know is the direction you’re facing, and that compass graphic above. That’s all.

What about all those other directions? NE, NNE, SXSW, etc?

I wouldn’t worry about other directions at first. Unless you’re trying to navigate a medieval city in Europe, most places you’re likely to be walking will be in a grid pattern of just those four cardinal directions. We build things to be orderly, so when in doubt, assume an order.

Philadelphia. You’ll probably be okay here.
London. You’re probably out of luck here.

Practice (using a paper map)

There’s no substitute for actually practicing this. So get out there and walk. Go to a walkable area of a nearby city to start.

I’m a big fan of maps (Ken Jennings is my homeboy), and as much as I love Google Maps and the like, there is nothing better for real-time navigation than a real paper map. It doesn’t run out of battery, it doesn’t want to update iTunes, and you don’t have confusion over distance due to zooming in and out. Paper maps are simpler. And don’t you want to keep it simple?

So get one of the those free city maps that they have all over (usually under the guise of shopping or selling you something). Then use it. Find North (it’s usually labeled on the map) and face that way. Orient the map that way too. When you walk forward, you will be going “up” on the map.

Now turn to your right. (That’s East, remember.) But here’s a trick: keep the map oriented toward North. So as you twirl to the right, you’ll have to rotate the map back to the left. Now when you walk forward, you will be going to the “right” on the map.

Keep that map pointing North. And keep knowing what direction you’re facing.

If necessary, say it out loud. The mind more easily remembers things it hears. People might look at you funny if they walk past you while you’re muttering, “east…east…east…okay turning right now…south…south…south” but remember the goal here: knowing where you are.

Try it the next time you’re out and about. You really can do it.

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