Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost
(With acknowledgments to J.R.R. Tolkien and Alistair Cockburn)
This is not an original idea with me. It was inspired by Alistair Cockburn’s “Three Levels of Listening” (Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game), which introduced the idea in the context of software development. But it applies to any field of endeavor, and I think it’s useful in the field of writing. I’ve shared it before (always adding a level 0 that I think Cockburn assumed), and now I’m going to share it again.
And because it makes it easier for me to remember, I’m going to apply a travel metaphor, borrowed from Tolkien: You and your troop of dwarves are in the woods, and your story lies on the other side.
There are four levels of skill for getting through the woods.
Level 0: Wandering. You’re lost in the woods. You have no idea how to get out. If you see a stream, you drink because you’re thirsty, and you hope it’s clean. If you see a mushroom, you eat it because you’re hungry, and you hope it’s not poison. You’re desperate, so you’ll follow any light you see. You just want a path to get you through, because you’re never getting out of these woods. And there are spiders in these woods…
Level 1: Following. A trustworthy wizard puts you on a path. He tells you which streams you can drink from and which mushrooms you can eat. He tells you that no matter what, you must not stray from the path.
But he can’t tell you how long the path will take. He can’t even tell you where it takes you! Maybe it doesn’t lead to your story, but to somebody else’s. The going will be long and slow. You’ll be tempted to veer from it when you see a light; but that way leads back to Wandering. Or you’ll be tempted to cling to the path even when it’s leading nowhere.
Level 2: Navigating. A more trustworthy wizard gives you a map and teaches you how to read it. There are many paths through these woods. Dozens! Nine and Sixty! More! They lead to many different stories. With the map, you can choose the right paths and turns to avoid the hazards and find the way to your story.
Level 3: Trailblazing. You make maps. You’ve been through these woods so many times, you don’t need a path. You just need to know where you’re going and how to handle challenges along the way.
But the problem that Cockburn pointed out in his “Three Levels of Listening” is that conversations and advice that cross these levels can mislead or confuse.
- To someone who’s Wandering, Following a path feels like a rescue. Followers who have found a path will cling to it as the One True Path, and will attack anyone who suggests otherwise. Questioning the One True Path is questioning their safety, their identity. If someone suggests there’s another path, they may doubt. They may mock. They may reassure everyone that that other path can’t work, even despite evidence that it has.
- Navigators will shake their heads and try to explain the many paths; but Followers may not be ready. Wanderers may only be confused. A Wanderer needs a path before they’re ready to choose between paths.
- To someone who’s Trailblazing, all problems come down to the same fundamental process:
- Know where you are.
- Know where you want to go.
- Identify challenges along the way.
- Decide how to handle the next challenge.
- Plan for future challenges.
- Be flexible. Things change.
But to a Wanderer or a Follower, that looks a lot like Wandering… because it is! Trailblazing is Wandering with years or decades of experience behind it. So if a Wanderer listens to a conversation between two Trailblazers, it sounds like permission to wander! Anything goes!
The most frustrating conversations in the writing world are between people talking at different levels. We should all be open to the idea that there’s no One True Path, and we can learn from any path, from anyone. We just have to be willing to listen.