Well it's been a hot minute since I last wrote some words! I'll go into why in later Ko Labs but suffice to say there's been 'a lot' on my plate, which perhaps makes this deep dive quite relevant. This year, life has pulled me in many different directions, some of which have been incredibly challenging.
During these times, I found myself repeatedly coming back to the notion of my 'True North'. For those unfamiliar with the concept, coined by Harvard professor and author Bill George, the 'True North' refers to a person’s 'internal compass' that guides us towards our purpose and values in life, just as a compass points towards a magnetic field. Our internal compass could thus be said to represent who we are at our deepest level.
Much is written about the importance - especially for those in positions of leadership - of finding their True Norths, and it's undeniable that having a clear vision for who we are and what we do can really help us navigate the stormy seas of life. However, I've always struggled a bit with this notion, mostly because it feels a bit too simplistic. How certain am I that I've actually 'found' my True North? What I thought was my True North in my 30s is not the same as that of my 40s, so does it change over time? What if my True North is influenced by others, especially those stated loudly and proudly on social media?
Thus just as I posited in my 2020-21 Year-In-Review that 'finding purpose' was less about 'purpose' and more about the journey of 'finding'; so too do I wonder if True Norths can really be 'found' or whether they instead 'emerge'. In that article, I shared a preliminary diagram to capture this idea at the time. In this article, it's time to go deeper.
Given that the notion of True North takes its cue from magnetic fields, I thought it interesting to look at how magnets work (just go with me on this).
All objects are made up of magnetic domains, comprising a bunch of atoms grouped together. When all of the domains in an object are aligned and pointed in the same direction, that's what makes an object magnetic.
If all of the domains within an object remain permanently aligned, then this object is basically a magnet and it continuously exhibits the properties of magnetism. So why is a safety pin not magnetic? Well, its domains are normally misaligned. However, when brought under the influence of a magnetic field, its domains align themselves in the same direction, thus becoming magnetised.
I find the magnet analogy fascinating because of how many similarities I see in our lives, including our use of language:
So then, if our True North is meant to represent our internal compass, it follows that we are therefore comprised of a multitude of domains. You know when you have an 'a-ha' moment? A moment of profoundness where everything 'fits into place' and all feels right with the world? I posit that this is when all of our domains are in 'alignment'.
So then: What are our domains?
To continue the analogy of magnets, domains are further comprised of atoms, each like its own tiny magnet with its own tiny north and south pole (atomic dipoles for all you physics majors judging my use of this analogy). I think this is quite an apt description of our experiences in life. Each moment we experience, each emotion we express, each action we take - these are all atoms. Chain enough relevant atoms together and we have a personal domain.
As an example, take the personal domain of your first job. Everything associated with that job, from the work you do, your interactions with your colleagues, and your learning and development experiences, are the 'atoms' related to this particular domain.
Just as an object is made up of countless magnetic domains, so too are our lives made up of a series of personal domains that we accrue over time. Some domains can be highly formative or productive, such as an education, a relationship, or a career. Others feel like a complete waste of time and energy, such as a dead-end job or a project that didn't pan out. Some domains may seem highly aligned whilst others seem to be at odds. Yet all of these domains are contained within us.
What I again find interesting is how aptly this describes the different stages of our lives. There are times when we feel like everything is in sync and every action we take ripples to every other part of our lives. And then scarcely a few months later, we can feel out of sorts, like we're being pulled in a million different directions.
So how do domains become aligned? Can we 'control' our domains or are we influenced by greater magnetic forces?
In the world of magnets, there are a few ways that domains can become aligned.
1. Firstly, did you know that if you heat up a piece of iron until it becomes white hot, it stops being magnetic? This is because its domains have broken free from their alignment and become 'chaotic'. In our lives, there can sometimes be moments of 'high heat' or high pressure (a nudge and a wink to my friends in the Adaptive Leadership world), where all of our assumptions are challenged and upended. Perhaps this is why people who have near-death experiences or undergo significant trauma can sometimes drastically alter the trajectory of their lives.
However, that's not to say that everyone has to experience trauma in order to re-align their domains. I think activities such as meditation, journaling, counselling, and reflection also have a role to play, as these activities essentially encourage us to contemplate the alignment of our domains and atoms. Perhaps this is why people who meditate on a regular basis are able to let things go more readily.
2. Secondly, a new domain can be introduced that is powerful enough to influence the alignment of other domains. I like to think of these as moments where we've gained a crucial understanding of something that's shifted how we think or make sense of our lives. For me, the process of self-reflection I documented in my 2020-21 Year In Review helped me understand the linkages between many key phases in my life.
This is also the argument for why it's important to constantly be open to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences, as each new domain has the possibility to helping us align other parts of our lives.
3. And finally, our domains can become aligned in the presence of a stronger magnetic field, which is what happens when you hold a safety pin close to a magnet. Of all analogies, this is perhaps the one with the most intriguing sociological implication, because it essentially means the alignment of our domains can be directly influenced by other, more magnetic personalities.
Naturally, as social beings, we will always be influenced by those around us, but what I'm most curious about is the degree to which we're influenced. If our internal domains are misaligned (like the safety pin), does that make us more susceptible to people with strong personalities? And could this potentially explain the phenomena of social polarisation? And conversely, if our internal aligns are more aligned, does that mean we're less likely to be influenced by others?
4. Bonus: Actually there is another method of aligning domains, which is that if you hold a steel bar vertically and hit one end with a hammer several times, you can forcibly align the domains and turn it into a magnet, but I didn't want to beat you over the head with these analogies... (ba-dum-tss)
Whatever the methods of alignment, I believe there is one inescapable fact that separates us from inert objects: We will constantly add and incorporate new domains into our lives.
It's because of this fact that I've struggled with the notion of 'finding' a True North. Firstly, this notion assumes a True North can be 'found', and secondly, it assumes that once found (and stated loudly and proudly on social media), it is somehow unwavering in determining who we are.
Instead, what I posit is that our True North is something that 'emerges' on reflection of our personal domains and that it will continue to change as a result of the new domains that we invariably accumulate throughout our lives. And the simplest way I can demonstrate this is to go back to the model I shared earlier, and demonstrate its evolution.
Let's say each of these dots represent a different domain in my life. When I was 20, I've really only had the opportunity to accumulate a handful of domains. I had no idea what I was doing, let alone what my True North was.
As I hit my 30s, I was able to accrue quite a few more domains, from relationships to travel to jobs. I was starting to get glimpses into who I was, but equally I was also easily influenced by other magnets in vicinity, some of which I can now see in hindsight as being 'distractions'.
Now, as I enter into my 40s, having experienced various moments of 'heat' and deep reflection, I've found a greater sense of alignment between my domains. It's become easier to understand how different parts of my life are connected, and I even have a greater intuition for whether new opportunities are aligned or misaligned. And as a net result of my domains being aligned, so too am I starting to have greater influence on others.
And thus my True North is something that has 'emerged' over time. I understand the trajectory that I'm going in, but I also remain open to the fact that there might be the appearance of new domains in the future that may change my compass direction, and that's ok.
The one last physics analogy I want to leave you with is this little provocation: True North is the direction along Earth's surface towards the imaginary but fixed rotational axis of the Earth. Whereas Magnetic North is where a compass needle points to in response to the Earth's magnetic fields, which shifts over time. Shots fired.
This is an addendum to the original article above, published on 11 September 2023. I'm generally very mindful not to offer solutions or 'top 3 takeaways' in my articles as I prefer readers draw your own conclusions, but it's been suggested that a few prompts for consideration wouldn't go awry. So here are a couple of practices I adopted that helped me reflect on my 'domains' when things felt out of whack.
Here, I want to give credit to my coach Margot Thomas. A couple of years ago, she posed to me: "If you reflect back on all the major decisions you've made in your life, what connects them?" To this, I would also venn diagram it with: "What brings you joy?" as the key prompt for you to consider if you're thinking about your True North.
For me, the 'a-ha' moment was finding that the connective tissue was not linked in any way to work; it was actually the sheer joy I experience when I get to play with ideas (usually philosophical) with my closest friends. I realised that the way I 'play with ideas' (more on this in future Ko Labs) manifested in pretty much everything I do, from my creative process, to the way I diagnose problems, to the way I look at systems, and even why I write the Ko Lab.
This explains why the times I felt most out of alignment in recent years was when my 'play' was actively discouraged or outright rejected. Which brings me to...
I've experienced some pretty heated personal confrontations over the past couple of years. It wasn't pleasant and – at the time – it made me question who I was.
However, the thing about True Norths and personal domains is that everyone has them, and it's more likely than not that at any given moment, most people's domains are misaligned. Thus is it any wonder that we experience moments of friction when dealing with others?
Thus when dealing with conflict that 'pulled' at my alignments, the practice I adopted was one of curiosity:
Working through these prompts helped on a few fronts:
This allowed me to still be 'aligned' to my True North of curiosity and 'playing' with ideas.
In my deep dive on True Norths, one of the comments I made was that unlike inert objects, we human beings accrue new domains constantly, and not every new domain is going to be aligned.
It can be easy (and natural) to shy away from obstacles, challenges, and conflict, however much like the analogy whereby applying heat to a piece of iron weakens its magnetic domains, so too does 'heat' in our lives create an opportunity for us to 'realign' our domains.
As my good friend Ian Haycroft and I frequently discuss: "The obstacle is the way." (from the book by the same name). I think emerging your True North is not just about finding the things that bring joy, as my first prompt suggests, but also how you show up when presented with obstacles.
Thus the prompt here is: How do you tackle your challenges and obstacles? And is there any connection with how you approach something that you enjoy?
To quickly summarise the prompts that I hope might help anyone who is in a contemplative mood:
For those of you who went deep on the previous article, I'm curious: What did you take away? What other prompts would you consider?
Now that you know way more about magnets than you really want to, I'm curious: What reflections does this bring up for you? Does this influence how you think about your domains? How would you plot your domains over time? And what would you like me to go unnecessarily deep on next?