Adopting an Explorer’s Mindset
© 2021 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, March/April issue, 2021
In the last scene of the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the farmhand Hunk (who also plays the Scarecrow) bluntly asks a newly awakened Dorothy what she learned from her time in Oz. It was one of Hollywood’s clunkier attempts to make sure the audience got the point of a movie. But “What am I learning from this?” also happens to be one of the most important questions we need to habitually ask ourselves if we want to develop inner strength and make smarter career and life choices.
Most of the time, we approach our lives as a command pilot: scanning through checklists and tasks, narrowing options down to the one we’re going to follow next. It’s a necessary mindset if we want to get things done in any kind of timely and organized manner. But if we want to learn about who we are, what matters most to us, and what choices will help us lead happier and more meaningful lives, we need a different approach. We need the mindset of an explorer.
Explorers and adventurers are sometimes lumped into the same basket. But there’s a crucial difference between the two. An adventurer takes on new challenges for the achievement and fun of the experience. An explorer may enjoy all those things as well, but for her, the point isn’t the experience itself. It’s what she can learn from it.
Imagine two women climbing the same mountain. The first is immersed in the adrenaline, energy, and challenge of the climb; focused on the achievement of summiting. The second woman follows the same route, and is also hoping to summit. But what she really wants is to learn from the experience. So as she climbs, she’s also consciously observing and taking note of her surroundings and her own experience and thinking about how that information might add to her understanding of herself and the world.
The first woman is an adventurer; the second, an explorer. And while we tend to think of exploration as a physical activity, it applies to any concerted effort we make to broaden our knowledge and understanding—about the world, or within our own hearts and minds. Whenever we take on a new challenge we don’t know if we’ll like or be good at, or try to figure out why we’re unhappy with our jobs or lives, or what happened in that disastrous meeting with a colleague or manager, we’re exploring. Or at least, we can be. And if we want the discomfort we’re feeling to count for something, we ought to be.
But if we want to become successful explorers; able to learn from our experiences, process events in a more productive way, and adjust our choices and actions to benefit from that wisdom, we have to start by adopting an explorer’s mindset. What does that mean? It means embracing an approach to life that’s focused on learning and growth. And while there’s a lot that goes into that, there are four main elements that, if we master them, will turn us into pretty good explorers.
The first, basic as it sounds, is being open to learning new things about ourselves and the world. Most young people embrace exploring. Once we develop an identity we feel comfortable with, however, it can feel scary to explore what else might be true—or what we might have been wrong about. As a result, we can end up rejecting anything that challenges what we already believe. So the first step is to resist that reflex, and work at embracing again the curiosity of a child. After all, one of the great things about being an explorer is it takes away the “right” and “wrong” of what we discover. Any discovery is valuable, if it broadens or clarifies our knowledge or understanding.
The second element is mastering the ability to be inside and outside the picture frame at the same time; immersing ourselves in experiences while keeping one piece of our minds firmly rooted in the role of a kindly observer. In a sense, it’s mindfulness taken to another level—not just observing thoughts and feelings, but also asking what those observations mean or can teach us. Getting in the habit of constantly asking ourselves, without judgment, “What am I learning here?”
The third essential piece is committing to an explorer’s integrity and open-mindedness in terms of how we process those observations. It is incumbent upon good explorers to be accountable and responsible not only for their own actions, and the impact of those actions on others, but also for not twisting data to fit a narrative they want to believe. A search for an authentic self is about trying to be not just ourselves, but the best version of ourselves. And that requires taking responsibility for our lives and owning our choices, actions, struggles, mistakes and where we choose to go from here.
So adopting the mindset of an explorer also means promising to do our best to observe without judgment or bias, question our assumptions, take responsibility for what we find, and avoid the traps of blame or victimhood. Which is far easier said than done. But that’s why it’s important we act as “kindly observers” of ourselves. Emphasis on “kind.” When it comes to human beings, imperfection isn’t a flaw. It’s a feature. Otherwise we’d be plastic Barbie dolls. It makes a huge difference in what we can bear to look at if we can approach ourselves with compassion for the imperfect but irreplaceable woman we are; forgiving ourselves for our imperfections even as we commit to becoming stronger and better.
The other important element in an explorer’s mindset is embracing the discomfort of stepping outside our comfort zones to explore new territory; learning to manage our fears (a subject I’ll address in a separate column), and actively seeking new experiences and insights about ourselves and the world. Trying new things or posing new questions, all while asking ourselves the essential question: “What am I learning here?”
Adopting an explorer’s mindset is a powerful tool in helping us build strength and resilience. Even when we’re struggling with unpleasant events or feelings, it transforms us from a victim to a protagonist. We’re not just taking hits; we’re accumulating valuable information to make different choices and improve our lives down the line. We’re learning. We’re getting smarter and stronger. And it allows us an invaluable shift in perspective. An explorer cannot fail, because her goal is greater knowledge and understanding, which she can then use to reach for even greater heights. So everything that happens to us gains value, even if it’s not always fun.
In the end, perhaps that’s the most important takeaway from The Wizard of Oz. Not the details of what Dorothy learned, but the idea that even being pursued by flying monkeys and imprisoned in a wicked witch’s castle can become valuable and educational experiences, if we take a step back and ask ourselves, “What can I learn from all that?”