February 20, 2023
min read

Are You Going In Circles?

A study done back in 2009 tested participants in a forest and a desert to see if they could walk in a straight line without any guide. The result? People really do walk in circles when they’re lost.

Walking trajectories in Bienwald Forest (Germany) by Jan Souman, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics.

The image above shows one of those studies. In almost all of them, participants walked in circles at some point, crooked almost all the time, and definitely not straight. (Except for participant SM, we’ll get to that in a bit)

This study not only tells us a lot about human behavior when we’re physically lost… but also when we’re just lost in life.

What circles are you walking in right now?

After I’d decided actuarial science wasn’t the path for me, I was trying to “find my passion” (as every millennial self-help blog calls it). I jumped from project to project, idea to idea. One day I wanted to UI/UX, the next I thought about investing banking. With each new project and each new idea, I thought I was taking one step closer to ending up where I wanted to be. A few months later, I realized I was right back where I started — extremely lost and confused.

If life is a journey, we’re all stuck walking in circles at some point. Most of us are probably walking a path pretty similar to one of those blue ones in that picture — kind of going straight, but crookedly and going in circles every once in a while.

The question isn’t whether we walk in circles, but how to break out of it.

How can we stop looping around and around, and start walking straight — to where we want to go?

Well, the answer lies in that incredibly straight yellow line walked by participant SM. In this study, and in similar studies after, there was one major factor that determined how efficient participants were at walking straight (meaning making as few circles as possible).

Can you guess what it was?


Participant SM walked on a clear day when he could see the sun. All the others walked on cloudy days when their visibility was limited. This is probably why people walk in circles in dense forests — all the trees look the same and there’s no sun to guide them. Basically, when participants could see the skyline or the sun, or any defining feature really, their ability to walk in a straight line increase exponentially.

What does that tell us?

It means that for us to get to where we want to be in our lives, we need to have a clear defining feature that helps guide us. It could be the vision of where we want to be that we walk towards. Or it could be a vision of what we don’t want that we can walk away from. Either way, we need something more than “I want something different” or “I want something more”.

So wherever you’re trying to get to in life, whoever you’re trying to become — define it. Make it clear to you, even if it’s not clear to anyone else. Because once you have visibility of the horizon, of where you want to go, you’ll stop going in circles.


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