Are you heading True North?
Are you heading True North?

Like a lot of folks who majored in one of the Humanities, I bounced around between majors: Commercial Art, then Music and Vocal Performance, and then finally Visual Communications. Unlike a lot of folks who majored in one of the Humanities, however, I paid for my college education by spending six years in the military: two and a half years in the Active Duty Army, three and a half years in the Army Reserve, and a final two years on the Independent Ready Reserve waiting for a phone call that never came, thankfully. Earning my Sergeant stripes before receiving my Applied Arts and Sciences degree gives me a… unique… perspective on the worlds of Art, Advertising, and Marketing. It also means I have a lot of truly useless military trivia.

Did you know Building #1 on an Army base is the main flagpole? Did you know that the definition of Military Leadership is “the motivating of others to achieve an objective?” Did you know that the maximum effective range of an M16A1 rifle is 460 meters? I do. I had to know this stuff – it was mandatory. Before you could be promoted from enlisted grunt to Buck Sergeant, you had to appear before the Promotion Board wearing all your dress uniform finest, where a bunch of old-timers quizzed you on military knowledge. Everything from which Army regulations governs the proper wearing of the uniform (AR 670-1) to the number of General Orders there are concerning Guard Duty (three) is free game; and while you were sweating out the answers to all this trivia, the Old Guard was also silently judging you on your “Military Bearing” … mainly, were you answering confidently with crisp precision? Or were you stumbling over your tongue and sweating like you’re standing in a sauna wearing a wool suit? These old warriors graded you on whether you looked like Sergeant material.

(I performed musical theater in college, memorizing entire scripts and singing Stephen Schwartz songs while wearing a dancer’s belt, so impersonating Patton while reciting the Four Indicators of Unit Effectiveness – Morale, Discipline, Proficiency, and Esprit de Corps – was a breeze. Never let it be said those “soft skills” don’t come in handy – earned me my chevrons.)

So now I’m out in the Real World knowing that an Army Certificate of Release is a DD 214. Doesn’t do me a whole lot of good, but it is a go-to for small talk at parties.

One of my favorite bits of trivia is about Orienteering, or Map Reading. Did you know that North isn’t always North? On a map, there are three Norths: Grid North, Magnetic North, and True North. True North points to the North Pole, the furthest North you can travel on the planet. The Earth is round, while maps are flat – to best illustrate the terrain while compensating for the lack of curvature, maps will move North slightly away from True North, giving us Grid North. Magnetic North is the direction a compass indicates, which is not toward the North Pole, but a position that floats around a wee bit in far northern Canada. Depending on your map, these three Norths can be pointing in three very different directions.

Some very smart people have picked up on the fact that there is a difference between Grid North, Magnetic North, and True North, and have come up with some very handy life metaphors.

The most famous is probably Toyota Production System or The Toyota Way. “Aru beki sugata” roughly translates into “Ideally, the way things should be;” a concept that was presented in America as “What we should do, not what we can do,” or more simply, “True North.” If all the employees work daily to improve and advance towards the ideal company condition while maintaining customer satisfaction, then the organization is said to be heading their True North. This concept of True North is a founding tenet of the Lean Management System – before anything else, a company must know what its ideal condition should be, its True North; all decisions should move the company towards that True North.

Personally, I like True North as a metaphor for living life better.

A lot of people feel lost because… well… they are. They’ve got no rudder – if the wind blows West, they go West, just going along with the flow… until one day, they look around and realize not only do they not know where they are… but they don’t like where they are, either. And they have no idea how they got there. If you don’t want to end up somewhere you don’t want to be, then you first have to know your True North.

Finding your True North means knowing who you are: what you believe in, what your values are, what you consider important, and what you are and are not willing to compromise on. Contentment comes from staying on a path that leads towards your True North. Once you’re on the path, there’s no law that says you must go straight ahead with no cares about what’s in front of you. In the movie, “Lincoln,” the President explains:

“A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and dessert and chasm that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”

Dodge the pitfalls, avoid the snake pits, skirt around the undesirables… and once you’re free and clear of the obstacles, head back to the path that leads to your True North.

And understand sometimes what you think is your True North is Grid North, in reality. Something or someone has altered the facts to make a more attractive representation – so while it appears you’re moving in the right direction, in actuality, you’re slightly off course… maybe by only a little, but maybe by a lot. So… stop every so often. Look around. Realize where you are, get your bearings, make the necessary adjustments, and get back on the correct path.

There is no one steadfast True North – everybody’s journey is different, so everybody’s True North is different. It is very nice when someone else’s path seems to coincide with yours. It’s also a lot easier to tell if their path is coinciding with yours if you know which way you’re going.

Find your True North.

Keith Craker
Marketing Contractor