• Mat Smith
  • , Aug 2020
  • - Phaidon

Bruce Mau Know How – How Getting Lost Can Help You Find Your Way

Mau’s childhood experiences of getting lost in the forest has helped him find new pathways for life

Bruce Mau is no stranger to the big cities of the world. He is chief design officer of Freeman, one of the world’s largest brand-experience companies, and co-founder/CEO of Massive Change Network (MCN), a Chicago-based global design consultancy. He has long applied the power of design to transforming the world. He’s been a visiting scholar at institutions globally, lectures widely, and has received honorary degrees from a huge array of institutions across the world. However, the circumstances of Mau’s early life contrasts starkly with his cosmopolitan career, and the wilderness of his childhood still informs the way he works today.

As the designer and educator explains in his new book Bruce Mau: MC24, – which contains his 24 principles for designing massive change in your life and work – the Mau family home was about as far off-grid as you can imagine.

“Where I grew up in the Canadian north, our home was the last farm on a road into the boreal wilderness,” he writes in a chapter headed Being Lost in the Forest Is a Feeling and a Mind-set. “Beyond, the forest stretched for hundreds of miles. If you lost your way out there, the chances of survival were minimal.”

Of course, Mau is alive and working today, and so of course he found methods to negotiate this environment. “I developed an intuitive way of reading the landscape that allowed me to hike for miles, and even days, and find my way home by tracking the sun and numbering geographical features as I went,” he explains.

Nevertheless, there were occasion on which the wilderness won. “Several times I experienced the gut-wrenching panic and confusion of losing my way,” he writes. “That feeling—the heart racing, the adrenaline rush, the sudden realization that if I couldn’t get oriented I would be in big trouble—is unforgettable.

“The environment I was perfectly in tune with until just a few moments ago had suddenly become a hostile actor, more than capable of taking my life. That overwhelming dread is something impossible to forget.

“Conversely, the experience of recovering, of regaining your orientation and finding your way back is profound,” he goes on to explain. “The hypervigilance I developed, doubling back and processing the environment to recover my certainty of direction and place, built up a confidence and skill set that allowed me to venture further and further.”

How can this backwoods knowledge help those of us working to solve highly complex problems, in today’s urban environment? Well, as Mau argues, getting lost helps you find a new, better path.

“The moment of facing and mastering an existential threat defines the mind-set of the entrepreneurial designer,” he writes. “As designers, we must go beyond the grid, we must venture beyond the mapmakers to where new possibilities are growing.

“The forest is wild with risks and rewards, opportunities and dangers, possibilities and pitfalls. There is a fundamental difference between following the path and cutting the path. If what you’re doing feels familiar, if there is already a path to walk, then someone else owns it. The entrepreneurial designer blazes a trail. Design is a method for dealing with the unknown. Design is a way to cut a trail through any forest… and find your way home.”

For more global, generous, and galvanizing principles to overhaul the way we think and to inspire massive change, whether we’re in splendid isolation or the concrete jungle, order a copy of Bruce Mau: MC24 here. Practical, playful, and critical, it equips readers with a tool kit and empowers them to make an impact and engender change on all scales.