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The Shifting Sands Of Life And Work

Life and career lessons learned in the desert

sands of timeWhile our culture thrives on mountain-climbing metaphors, it’s the desert that gets real about life and the workplace.

We live and work in a mountain-climbing culture.

We want to see the peak, map out a route, and follow it to the top-our metaphors for goal-setting and goal-getting our way through our lives and careers.

Real life, however, often defies this approach. That’s because most of our experiences actually resemble a desert. We get lost or stuck, and even chase the occasional mirage. From raising kids to plotting our careers, we find few clear routes or identifiable peaks.

A Saharan adventure

I learned plenty about the desert as a kid.

Fresh out of high school, I sailed for France with the notion of backpacking through Europe. A chance encounter in Paris changed my travel plans- and, ultimately, my life. I embarked on an overland odyssey across the Sahara-the world’s largest desert-that, over the course of 49 days and some 4,500 miles, became the adventure of a lifetime.

In the Sahara, I learned it’s impossible to know exactly where you’re going or how you’ll get there, much less when you’ve arrived. So it is with the deserts of life and work. Unlike our mountains, we can’t conquer them.

A matter of terrain

Why is it important to distinguish between mountains and deserts? The rules of travel vary greatly depending on the terrain.

What works on Mt. Everest is useless in the Sahara. On the desert’s scorching and shifting sands, wearing stiff alpine boots or plotting a start-to- finish route spells trouble.

The same goes for our personal deserts. When we’re lost or stuck, our mountain-climbing methods don’t work. There’s no map or route for a desert such as marriage, divorce, parenting, job loss, or chronic illness. To travel wisely, we must follow a different set of rules.

The rules of desert travel

In the Sahara, the best way to cool a car’s overheating engine is to turn the heater on full-blast and keep driving. Indeed, the rules of desert travel are surprisingly counterintuitive. They’re also chock-full of life lessons for a mountain-climbing culture.

Let seven such rules be a guide for crossing your own deserts in life and at work. They’ll help you find meaning and direction in the uncertain, unpredictable terrain.

  • Follow a compass, not a map.
    In the Sahara, a map is worthless. A compass, however, functions without fail. In the deserts of life, you must learn to follow your own compass-an innermost sense of purpose and direction.
  • Lower your gaze.
    In the Sahara, looking ahead to the horizon is defeating. It never gets any closer. In the deserts of life, focusing on your endless to-do lists is just as defeating. Instead, make a “to-be” list of small, satisfying things that aren’t about achievement or arrival.
  • Stop pushing.
    In the Sahara, it’s pointless to push a car that’s stuck in the sand. Instead, you deflate the tires, which lifts the vehicle up and out of the sand. In the deserts of life, it’s pointless to keep pushing when you’re in a rut or stalemate. Instead, deflate your own ego or stubbornness.
  • Water what’s dry.
    In the Sahara, even camels need to drink. In the deserts of life, you must water what’s dry, from catching up on sleep to carving out “me-time.”
  • Know when to duck.
    In the Sahara, it’s okay to duck. If your camel walks under a low-hanging branch, why not dodge the blow? In the deserts of life, it’s okay to avoid a hit you’re not ready for.
  • Build a wall around your oasis.
    In the Sahara, the wall around an oasis keeps out the sandstorms and the barbarians. In the deserts of life, firm boundaries protect your personal time for rest and reflection.
  • Get lost.
    In the Sahara, some tribes take their young men deep into the desert, then leave them to find their way home. In the deserts of life, getting lost can actually help you find your way. You’ll boost your tolerance for uncertainty and tap some new skills and strengths.

About Steve Donahue

Steve Donahue is a professional speaker who specializes in individual and organizational change, purposeful living, and life balance. He is author of Shifting Sands: A Guidebook for Crossing the Deserts of Change. Visit his site for more information.


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