We were in the wood-paneled station wagon. I want to call it the old family station wagon but, back then, it was new. It would be fifteen more years before I used it to learn how to drive (my older brother either dismissively reading the newspaper while I navigated our neighborhood streets or reacting in horror and panic at every decision I made at five miles per hour). It was still a while before it would become the old family station wagon with the three yellow duck stickers on the back window. So we were just in the wood-paneled station wagon.
“We’re lost,” my dad said, more to himself than to any of us. He pulled up to the next intersection, studied the options. And sat there, figuring out which way to turn, which way was right.
Fortunately (for my dad and everyone else in the car), I was too young then to quote poetry, or I would have offered “Two roads diverged in a narrow wood… And I, I took the one less traveled by.. And that has made all the difference,” from my perch in the back seat.
Instead, I solved the problem. The solution was so easy, I couldn’t believe my dad– my very smart dad- hadn’t thought of it himself.
“Daddy,” I shot up between the two headrests on the back of the front seat. “Daddy, I know! Just let the car tell you what to do.”
He and my mom looked at me blankly. Seriously, how could they not know this solution? They drove this car all the time.
“The car tells you which way to turn right before you need to make a turn,” my little three or four year old voice explained.
My parents, still confused, looked at each other for meaning. And then it dawned on one of them, although all these years later, I can’t remember which. And while they must have had a little moment of mourning that their little girl maybe wasn’t so bright, they didn’t let on to that fact.
“Grilla,” one of them said (which was my nickname as a kid, the Spanish-version of grasshopper), “the car doesn’t tell you which way to turn. We tell it which way we’re going to turn.” My dad demonstrated by clicking the blinker, bringing the light I thought I was once all knowing into focus on the dashboard.
My read on the technology of the car (from the back seat) had been this: you started off in the car and you told it your intention (I need to go to the grocery store or church or school or work or whatever). And then the car computed what that meant and got you there. Each time you’d approach an intersection, it would turn on a little light on your dashboard that would tell you whether you needed to turn right or left. No light meant you needed to stay the course.
Look at that. At four years old, in 1978, I invented GPS.
I hadn’t thought of this story in years, but was just recently reminded of it. I’m at a time, professionally, where it is time to refine my effort, and I had been wondering which way to go. I could do the hard work of listening to myself, of researching, of organizing and critiquing, of asking my friends for their thoughts, of putting stuff out there and seeing what happens. Or I could just ask the car for directions.
Though I invented GPS in 1978, I don’t have it. When I need directions, I go online to a directions site, and I punch in my starting address and ending address, print out the instructions and try to follow them once I hop in my car. Nine out of ten times, those directions- for me- are wrong. I have a couple friends who know that if they see my name pop up in the middle of the work day on their cell phones, they need to answer. It means I am lost in Charlotte (I feel the need, here, to explain that I am not directionally challenged. If I’ve gone somewhere once, I can recreate it the next time. What gets me is when I go somewhere new in a city and have to rely on directions that just aren’t right. I promise.), and I’m calling in hopes that they can help a sister out. In fact, my Lost in Charlotte call list is divided up by regions of the city that my friends happen to know best.
And that brings me to my point. Though I long ago thought the problems of the world could be solved by a machine, they really can’t be. There is no electronic crucible that’s going to hand me the answer in my refining. There’s just me, setting out to ask the right questions- of myself, of my friends and colleagues, of the universe, even– and then doing the expansive work of reveling in ideas, dreaming, considering, and then, not stopping there, but putting the pieces into motion.
So I’ve spent the last few weeks sketching out what refinement looks like. Asking the questions and waiting- even if it takes weeks- for the answers to fall into place. And the answers come at the most divine times– the times where I am occupied just enough not to censor them like in the outdoor shower last week at the beach, while wobbling to find my sweet spot as I was stand up paddling down a local river for the first time, while listening to an audiobook that had nothing to do with my ideas.
The trick was to start with the question, to ask it of myself and a couple friends who I trusted to hold me accountable to my thinking, who I knew would ask me even better questions than I was asking myself. And after I started with the question, I needed to be ready for the answer to look different than maybe how I first imagined it, to be ready for the answer to stretch me in a whole new way. More than a month ago, I asked myself a pretty daunting question. What should my professional life look like? How should it get polished? How do I refine and focus it? And four weeks later, I am loving what the answer is beginning to look like, what it symbolizes, what it seems I am meant to be doing. I’m about to hit the open-road with the only GPS in sight being that beacon in my core that tells me whether or not something feels right or wrong. It’s the best indicator I could ever hope for, even more bedazzling than the GPS I invented in 1978. The tank is full. The road is open. Let’s go.
What question do you need to pose for yourself or have you recently posed to yourself (and others)? What more do you need to know to find the answer? What direction are you going?