Meander Your Way to Answers: What is Circumambulation in the Context of Complex Decision-Making?
Updated: Aug 29
Three takeaways from this post:
“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
What is circumambulation within complex decisions?
In my previous post on the topic of how we solve complex problems, I wrote about a concept called circumambulation. This is one of my (new) favorite words. A Jungian concept, it attempts to explain how we move through life noting that it is not a linear path but one instead that meanders, curves back on itself, and is constantly in evolution. What it means in the context of this investigation into complex decision-making is a period in which individuals seek out information in a process that is non-linear: a meander.
I recently described it to a friend, over coffees in New York City, as we were waiting for a waiter to deliver breakfast. The room was loud. We were hungry. She picked up her cup and said to me, “I don’t really understand what you mean when you say to meander.”
“Have you ever visited a new city” I asked. “And, just got lost for a while, intentionally?”
“Yes,” she said. “Recently in Paris.”
I smiled. I prefer to get lost in Paris; you always find the most interesting things.
“What are you doing when you are just meandering?”
She shrugged her shoulders at first, then said, “I guess I am trying to figure out how all these people live. What it means to be French?”
“And, are you ever wondering if you could live there? If you could be French?”
“That is a meander. We are going through a place or an experience with a question in the back of our mind and seeing what we can find that can help us answer that question.”
“But, what about the time I moved to Amsterdam and then was very wrong. I hated the weather. I moved home as fast as I could.”
“Had you ever lived anywhere else before?”
“Phoenix,” she said.
“So, you went straight from Phoenix to the Netherlands?”
“Had you done a lot of travel or looked into other places you wanted to live?”
“Not, really. I went to Amsterdam and London. London was too… British.”
“But, that’s the thing about circumambulating. You actually need to really focus on gathering data, a lot of it, through a lot of different mechanisms, until you really know something. You wouldn’t have had enough information to make that move and know it would work out. You just knew a few other cities. When you are young and figuring out where to live it’s a lot of grabbing onto things, but rarely do we give ourselves the time to truly evaluate.”
“Like dating if you do it well,” I say with a smile. Dating is the metaphor I often use to best describe circumambulation. “Did you ever find someplace you wanted to live?”
“Oh yes,” she said as she picked up cooling latte. “I love Manhattan. It has everything I would ever want and all the people I feel like I belong with. I was able to build a whole different vision of myself when I came here. I feel like me.”
This is exactly what the process of circumambulation should produce: if done well, you end up with enough data to feel comfortable in your decision and enough insight to be able to improve who you are, how you live, and how you see the world.
Why do sabbaticals help us to solve complex challenges?
Often, we can circumambulate within the normal experience of our everyday lives. We date and find future mates while generally working, and living our normal lives. We find new careers and new hobbies through a normalized process of living our lives too. For everyone of those questions, there is an app, a coach, a book.
But sometimes to circumambulate well, especially with a decision that is very complex, we must step out of our lives. These complex challenges are often more fundamental to the core of our personal narrative: who am I, how can I exist in this world, is this life right for me, what life do I want, what am I meant to give to the world? These questions can be too hard to solve from within the environment or experiences of our normal life. This can be due to a limitation on experiences, information, or time to process or because are lives are deep reminders that we are so far disconnected from the answers we seek. In those instances when the problems are especially hard and the answers seem far away sometimes the only way through is out. And, so we must take a sabbatical.
Understanding sabbaticals and how others have used sabbaticals to revolutionize their life can better help us understand complex decision-making processes and how to drive innovation.
Let’s start by defining a few concepts:
What does it mean to go on sabbatical?
Sabbaticals were historically a mechanism used by academia to give leading thinkers the opportunity to leave their teaching post and engage in, most often, a body of research that they were unable to pursue while teaching. It can also be used for a period of rest.
What is sabbatical leave?
Sabbatical leave is something being offered more and more often by companies, who are using it as a tactic to re-engage, re-charge and re-prioritize or re-consider what you are doing, for whom and how.
Some companies may offer to pay for the sabbatical, or to pay at a partial amount of your pay depending on how long you are employed and how long you plan to be gone.
Currently, according to the most recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 11% of employers offered an unpaid sabbatical program, and just 5% offered sabbaticals with pay.
What are the rules of a sabbatical?
There are none. But, there are many things I have gleaned from my own experience with a sabbatical and from the experiences of those around me— many of whom I interviewed for these posts.
Based on my investigation into the topic, a few top learnings emerged:
Take as long as you can. Six months spent on sabbatical is good, but a year would be even better. Those who took less than three months, often repeated another sabbatical within five years.
Spend time decompressing. It can be hard to transition from work to no work. In fact, that transition can be filled with a complex slush of emotions from feelings of “uselessness” to extreme joy to confusion. “It’s the same as a vacation,” shared Jonathan, an ad executive from Nashville. “The first few days of a vacation aren’t relaxing. We normally only get relaxed when it’s time to leave. Sabbaticals are no different but the stages take longer.”
Listen for and ask your question. It took Jenn, a PR executive in New York City, a few weeks of down time before she began to actively investigate what she was hoping to understand on her sabbatical. In fact, it wasn’t until she started picking up a morning journal, spending time totally alone, and engaging a therapist, that she began to realize she wasn’t just “taking a break” but she was instead trying to figure out if she was someone who could live a traditional life.
Chase your instincts. In conversation with Angela a fine artist, she offered a visual technique for investigating your interests in this time period. Her path is to take an image of anything that interests her and put it on a wall in front of her. She then adds images and explores any one of those interests until she gets a good understanding of what interests her about it, what she is learning and why. Think of it like a criminal investigation board for the self or whatever the question is at hand.
Investigate even the things that seem weird, out of scope or abnormal. Chalisa, a tech CEO, shared that her sabbatical led her to every type of strange and obscure medical wellness practice in an effort to diagnose a mystery illness that had been plaguing her. With each new doctor she encountered, she spent more time learning, experiencing and understanding the much broader question of how various cultures and people learn to take care of themselves.
Find new environments. For some people like Adrian, the pathway to a new sabbatical is to go to somewhere new. She was investigating who she was outside of work. And, to find that she needed to truly be herself in numerous and varied environments (including Antarctica!) around the world. However, for others like actress and educator Pam, finding a new environment meant taking an appointment as the lead in a one woman play. The value of a new environment, according to neuroscientists I interviewed, is that our memories are accessed differently based on where you are BUT where you are can be geographic, emotional or spiritual. It is when we access our view of ourselves from a new place that we can begin to re-narrate and innovate on who we are, or whatever question we are asking.
Spend time recompressing. Don’t expect to jump straight from sabbatical to work. In fact, Shannon an advertising executive I spoke with, had a great strategy for getting back to the office. She met with her two direct reports at a lunch a few weeks before coming back to the company she owned. Doing so gave her a chance to catch up, reflect and reframe before she truly stepped back in. But, for others, recompressing can be about analyzing or applying the lessons learned during your experience to more accurately begin a job search, start a company, or reconsider your next steps.
Interestingly, all of these steps are actively part of circumambulating. By decompressing, listening to and asking big questions, chasing what interests you, putting yourself in new environments and recompressing, you are going through a period of investigation.
This happened to me in the period of time following my brain injury, and again more recently in the process of writing this book.
Post brain-injury, I was desperately trying to cling onto reality, to access my old normal and to maintain my same life. It wasn’t until I let go of the old version of myself, committed to investigating who I was and what I wanted to be from the world, that I (like Jenn!) engaged a therapist, started journaling, undertook a spiritual investigation (like Catherine!), learned to make public art, and began leading a national COVID-19 arts movement.
But it wasn’t until I left my role as Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Science Officer of an AI company in February 2022 and took an actual sabbatical, that I really started to investigate my big questions in a new way. I went deeper into my learning and application phase. In that period, I use my hands to make new public art, giant paintings, and to do a lot of fiction and non-fiction writing. In time, I began to understand that a core part of my happiness was derived from solving complex problems with different forms of storytelling, which is what brought me to this research and this post today.
The process of investigation is a meander. It is about getting lost. It is about discovering novel and strange things that excite you (for me that’s public art) and then chasing that further until you know completely and without hesitation what your next steps are. While sabbaticals may be timeboxed, your discovery isn’t.
How do you circumambulate as a means of solving a complex challenge?
Circumambulation is a process of discovery and the means to do it are varied for everyone. But, there are numerous ways to start. The following is one method that has helped me in the past, and has been useful for those I have shared it with. This is best done AFTER you have done the work to listen and determine your next big question (more on that later).
Write down a list or make a visual board or even a mood board of everything that interests you at the moment. Include destinations you are interested in, foods you want to eat, people you want to talk to, subjects that get you excited, words that tickle your mind. Keep writing.
Next, rank those interests in order by which they feel the most or least important to you.
Now, rank them a second time by those that you are most actively involved in now.
Finally, rank them by those that you would like to be most actively involved with or investigation.
Wherever there is a crossover of interests at the top of two or more lists is something that is actively worth pursuing. However, remember too that all of these interests deserve pursuit, and you will find out relatively quickly what is worth more investigation. If it holds your attention, do more. If it doesn’t, feel free to scratch it off and/or change direction perhaps even adding something new.
Finally, don’t be afraid to keep adding new interest ideas that are spawned by other interest ideas. Or things that you may someday be interested in but aren’t interested in today.
This process will be a natural method for looking at and assessing how you want to spend your time. It can also be a good process for determining if you take a sabbatical, when and what you will do during your time on sabbatical.
But, I often find it is best to learn how to do this through the stories of others. More on that next.