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How will you know the nature of that which is totally unknown to you?

–Plato, from Meno

We’ve seemingly mastered the art of avoiding uncertainty. Not that we can escape its grasp-but we do our best to mediate its effect on our lives.

From technology that can tell us where we are in the world (even in the “middle of nowhere”) and plans that map out our individual or organizational trajectories, to algorithms that help us game the stock market or offer how we might adapt to climate change, we long for predictability.

And yet, we can’t fully manage to elude the feeling of being fundamentally lost.

Particularly over the last few years, we’ve been buffeted by challenges of an ongoing financial crisis, a nuclear catastrophe triggered by the tsunami in Japan, spreading protests across the Arab world and now more broadly as dissatisfaction with the global economic system grows. Beyond her profound reflections in the book  A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the author and activist Rebecca Solnit has recently offered a beautifully written, dizzying, and hopeful paean about the forces and events now shaping our world.

These and other manifestations of having lost our way raise deep questions about how we might navigate this collective wilderness of our own making. However painful crisis and catastrophe may be, individually or culturally, they present real opportunity, and compel us to examine (and in many cases abandon) the directions we’ve been moving which no longer work.

A recent Times/CBS poll revealed that only 9% of US citizens feel that Congress is capable of moving the country in the right direction. Statistics portray increasing inequality, where the top one percent earn a significantly greater proportion of our national income than the bottom 50%. But it’s not percentages and polls that illustrate how lost we are-it’s the frustration exemplified by the Occupy protests and the Tea Party; it’s the feeling we might have moving through our days and questioning the impact we create through our work, or what might come about to spark real change.

Every moment of feeling lost and adrift opens a window to creativity, a chance to reshape our approach to good governance, economic opportunity, and building healthier communities.

Achieving these things-building more sustainability into economic, social, political and environmental systems under stress-will require that we both become more comfortable with being lost AND choose responsible and wildly inventive ways of reacting to this feeling that create, rather than forestall, opportunities to find our way forward.

The years ahead may indeed be a confusing, turbulent and mountainous time. But as we explore this new and challenging territory, the most powerful tools we can use are already emerging-systems approaches to rethinking problems, building shared leadership, supporting collaboration, promoting equitable policies, increasing connectivity and communication, and promoting innovation that helps re-imagine and re-design our communities and our country.

October 2011