Dead reckoning and getting unstuck – a repost

Sometimes to go forward we need to go back.

It’s a cliché, but to know where we’re headed we need to know where we are.

To know where we are we need to know where we’ve been.

In The Friday Book by John Barth I came upon something I had forgotten but strikes me as probably a great approach to take when at a creative impasse: dead reckoning.

My dictionary defines dead reckoning as, “… the process of calculating one’s position, esp. at sea, by estimating the direction and distance traveled rather than by using landmarks, astronomical observations, or electronic navigation methods.”

In an essay titled “Getting Oriented: the Stories Thus Far,” Barth says that for him it is like, “… the skipper of a grounded ship, one must sometimes go forward by going back. As an amateur sailor and navigator myself, I like the metaphor of dead reckoning: deciding where to go by determining where you are by reviewing where you’ve been. ”

The emphasis is mine. It seems an apt metaphor. (I’m re-reading The Friday Book — I read it years ago — and I’m discovering all kinds of ideas I had forgotten.)

I wrote recently about simplifying and goals and reminding ourselves of the primary goal. However, it is also a good idea to look backward in order to look forward.

Barth speaks of just that. He likes it because by looking back to where you started and retracing your steps to see where you now are, you get a clearer sense for where you are going. I believe he puts it in terms of time: looking at the past to see where you are in the present in order to see where you wish to be in the future. Or, more simply:

  • Past reveals
  • Present, which in turn reveals
  • Future

It makes sense to me. I have to admit, however, I have never thought of it this way though I may have done something like this in trying to solve a problem.

(Originally posted May 4, 2010 — roughly three years ago. Reposted because I kinda like it an in the hope that I follow the suggestion.)