More about how not to get lost

In my last post, I started talking about how not to get lost. I believe everyone can both know where they are, as well as figure out where they need to go. All it takes is a little focused energy, patience, and the desire to actually do it.

But perhaps I was a little hasty. I know this is a big problem for many of you, and I want to hold myself accountable to be compassionate. Getting lost sucks, I know.

So let’s keep going. Here are some more tips:


Before we continue, let’s recall the main takeaways from last time:

  1. Always know what direction you’re facing (North, South, East, or West)
  2. Remember the four cardinal directions and how they relate to each other

Your job is to keep these in mind at all times when out and about.

Rotate your perspective slightly

Remember how I said that you can discard all the other non-cardinal directions like Southwest and Northeast? I mean it.

But some sticklers might point to the image I used of Philadelphia (showing a well-ordered city grid) and see that nothing is actually true North. When reading a paper map, this could be distracting.

Not due North.

In case this is a challenge for you, I recommend tilting the map slightly to create a “fake north”:

Philadelphia, now with a true North.

You didn’t do much, but now North really looks like North. Remember:unless you’re trying to find your way out of the medina in Tangiers, thinking in a grid form is likely all you need.

Use the sun

The sun can actually help you figure out what direction you’re facing. This is because the sun is rather reliable in what it does in the sky. In the morning, the sun will be in the East, and in the evening, the sun will be in the West. And at all time, it will be tilted in the Southern part of the sky.

The specific angles aren’t important here, as they vary by where you are on Earth. But no matter. If you’re driving in the evening, and the sun is in your eyes, what direction are you facing? West. Sun in your eyes in the morning? You’re driving east. Sun is somewhere behind you? You’re probably facing North (since the Sun sits in the Southern sky).

Sun nowhere to be found? You’re probably in Portland.

Take it slow

Having watched and heard about people getting lost many a time, there is one facet of the situations that seems to be always the same: people rush. They don’t take the time to think about where they are and where they’re going, and so they lose focus and lose track.

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To be honest, I would too. When I move too fast, I forget everything.

So slow down. Remember, ask yourself: what direction are you facing? When you turn, what direction are you facing then? If you don’t know the answer, stop until you do.

Is this easy? No. Will it get easier? Yes.

Ask for help

With smartphones, people don’t ask each other for help on the street anymore. And that’s a shame.

While Yelp is amazing for restaurant recommendations, sometimes that best recommendations I get are from actual humans.

So too with directions. If you’re turned around and are trying to reorient yourself, you can always ask someone. Some example questions:

“Can you point out where I am on this map?”
“Can you tell me which direction I’m going?”
“Can you point me in the direction of [some landmark on the map]?”

If you know where you are, and you know the location of some other landmark, then you can deduce what direction it is in. Then you know what direction you’re facing. And then you’re back on track.

Do you want to know where you are?

Last time, I mentioned how in the book Maphead, the author took his wife through a brief directional “boot camp” of sorts. After making a fair amount of progress in a short period of time, she said:

“‘It makes me think my sense of direction isn’t actually all that bad. If I cared enough to actually work on it a little.'”

Ken treats this as a triumph, but I see something more in that phrase, in the part: “If I cared enough to actually work on it a little.

I think people don’t know where they are because they don’t take the time to learn. And now, with Google Maps being the “one reason people could never give up their smartphone“, people don’t need to know where they are, because the phone will tell them.

But being told how to get somewhere is disempowering. It keeps you blind to where you are.

When you’re doing turn-by-turn directions, as nearly everyone is there days, you lose any context as to where you are. You can’t take over. If there’s, say, an unplanned obstacle, an incorrect routing, or other unexpected event, you won’t be able to do anything if you don’t hold the map “in your head”. You are a slave to your directions.

I was recently in a car with someone using navigation and not their own common sense. And when the navigation failed spectacularly, the result was as infuriating as it was inevitable.

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If you want to get better at directions, turn the nav off. Will you get lost a few times at first? Yes. But you’ll be building neural pathways that will eventually make it easier for you to get around. I promise.

You don’t have to be “bad at directions“. You can figure out where you are. Hopefully these directions will help.

But enough about me. Do you believe you can learn how to become better at directions?


  1. Heidi Savell

    I’m still on the fence with this one. I am EPICALLY bad at directions. But I’m willing to give it a try…

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      I understand! You’re not alone. Very few people start out amazing at this sort of thing.

      I suggest trying to get around in a limited capacity, like in the center of a city, and not when you’re in some kind of time crunch. Start simple and go slow. You can do it! 🙂

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