A Field Guide to Getting Lost

What if to find a path to clarity we must learn to get lost in it in the first place?

Photo by Steven Kamenar on Unsplash
Creative Fodder
No items found.
Purpose for Students
Make it Personal
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost weaves in autobiographical stories with observations about transformations that occur in the natural world, and accounts from the work of search-and-rescue teams, and the history of conquerors and discoverers of new lands. As she takes you on this journey, surprising connections emerge between those seemingly disparate stories, and between them and your own.




I have not used this book in a learning context yet, but as a spark for personal reflection about navigating ambiguity.

It could be assigned to students (the whole book or a single chapter), but beware! The book does not contain a set of recipes and how-tos. It requires the reader be willing to get lost in the author’s stories, connect them with their personal experiences, and find their way to their own unique answers (or questions.) It could be a great way to start a course that requires that students use reflection as part of their learning, as is the case for Design Thinking Studio (Fall).




With a bit of remorse lest I spoil the journey for you, I have plucked or paraphrased a few passages from the book that resonated with me as I thought about ambiguity and how I relate to it.

“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” This question posed by the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno is share with Ms. Solnit by one of her students, and it strikes her as “the basic tactical question in life.” For we yearn to have transformative experiences, yet we don’t know (or only think we know) what’s on the other side of that transformation. (page 4)

“That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army… I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” (page 6)

“The mind too can be imagined as a landscape, but only the minds of sages might resemble the short-grass prairie in which I played with getting lost and vanishing. The rest of us have caverns, glaciers, torrential rivers, heavy fogs, chasms that open up underfoot, even marauding wildlife bearing family names. It’s a landscape in which getting lost is easy and some regions are terrifying to visit.” (page 53)

“He was among the first, and the first to come back and tell the tale, of Europeans lost in the Americas, and like many of them he ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.” (page 71)

“But the changes in a butterfly’s life are not always so dramatic. The strange resonant word 'instar' describes a stage between two successive molts, for as it grows, a caterpillar, like a snake, like Cabeza de Vaca walking across the Southwest, splits its skin again and again, each stage an instar. It remains a caterpillar as it goes through these molts, but no longer one in the same skin. There are rituals marking such splits, graduations, indoctrinations, ceremonies of change, though most changes proceed without such clear and encouraging recognition. Instar implies something both celestial and ingrown, something heavenly and disastrous, and perhaps change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far.” (page 83)

“Adulthood is made up off a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that make you navigate more slowly and steadily. But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is already loss.” (page 108)

Design Abilities Used

Turning to the experiences of others as a way to cast a mirror on your own experiences becomes a powerful way to make sense of moments of uncertainty and ambiguity.


Submitted by:

Leticia Britos Cavagnaro
Leticia Britos Cavagnaro
Co-director, University Innovation Fellows program and Adjunct Professor, Stanford d.school

Design Abilities Used

Learn from Others (People and Contexts)
Synthesize Information
Learn More about Design Abilities 


This resource is not owned by the Submitter(s). Please consult the original creator/publisher for any questions regarding licenses or usage.

Submit a Resource

Know a resource that can help others navigate ambiguity? Submit for review and we’ll add it to our collection.

Submit a Resource