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Earlier this summer the Supreme Court ruled that the authorities must obtain a search warrant prior to tracking your cell phone’s physical location. Think about that for a minute. The very fact that someone can find your location with a few clicks is both amazing and a bit unnerving. It also means that, from a certain point of view, our biggest navigational challenge has shifted from no one knowing where you are, to potentially everyone knowing where you are.

Against this backdrop the word “lost” seems almost quaint, and the concept of “lost procedures” used in air, land and sea navigation, even more so. But keep in mind there are many ways to become lost: thirteen to be specific. Although GPS can’t help if your team or business looses their way, or if an important relationship wanders off course, believe it or not, the basic ‘lost procedures’ taught in flight school can help. That’s what we’re going to unpack in this article.


“Lost” is a remarkably complex, four-letter word. At first glance it’s a simple concept:

Lost (lôst) [adjective]: Unable to find one's way; not knowing one's whereabouts.

But "lost" has no fewer than 13 different uses and definitions.

  1. Not made use of: a lost opportunity

  2. No longer possessed: a lost reputation

  3. No longer known: a lost city

  4. Ruined or destroyed physically or morally (desperate): a lost soul

  5. Taken away or beyond reach or attainment (denied): regions lost to the faith

  6. Insensible or hardened: lost to shame

  7. Unable to find the way: lost

  8. No longer visible: lost in the crowd

  9. Lacking assurance or self-confidence (helpless): lost without his glasses

  10. Rapt or absorbed: lost in reverie

  11. Not appreciated or understood (wasted): their jokes were lost on me

  12. Obscured or overlooked during a process or activity: lost in translation

  13. Hopelessly unattainable (futile): a lost cause

Interestingly enough, the procedures navigators use to re-orient themselves can be applied to every one of these examples.

Getting Lost

We all look for waypoints to verify that we’re on course and on time. I know that it takes 20 minutes to get to the airport from my house on weekends and in the summer months because there's no school traffic. If there's road construction or an unseen event, I may need a detour. Given that we live in the mountains with only one direct road into town, chances are that a detour may result in my going in the totally wrong direction.

Something we rarely stop to consider is that getting lost takes time. Unless you simply wake up in a strange place, getting lost is not a singular act. Rather it’s a series of increasingly poor choices and a gradual loss of certainty. Granted, the moment you finally accept that you are lost may hit you like a thunderclap, but it takes time to get there. Even more important is accepting that it’s also going to take time to get un-lost. This is true in the mountains, and its true in the boardroom.

It would be easy to equate “lost” with simply “losing situational awareness”, but there are several key differences. Positional awareness only addresses location without considering context. For example, a crew may know their position and their altitude, but overlook a rapidly descending fuel gauge. In other words, it’s possible to know your location and still suffer degraded situational awareness.

Not lost, but not situationally aware.

“Becoming Un-lost”

Regardless of whether you’re lost in a relationship, lost in the marketplace or lost in the woods, there are five steps you can take to start the process of becoming “un-lost”. Let's take a lesson from flight training.

Every student pilot preparing for a solo cross-country flight has these five words drummed into them:

Climb, Clean, Cool, Communicate and Conserve.

These are commonly known as “The Five Cs” and they constitute a simple checklist with two important outcomes:

  1. Immediately staving off panic

  2. Gradually becoming un-lost


I bring up panic because people are prone to panic when they don’t know what to do or don’t know which way to turn. Search and rescue professionals (and statistics) will tell you that panic is the most dangerous aspect of getting lost.

The onset of panic causes a cascade of mental failures and serves as a sort of “mental accelerant” for disaster. In other words, the more trouble you get into, the more trouble you’re going to get into and the less capable you are of finding your way out. Having a checklist gives you something to do. And knowing what to do is the critical first step in blocking panic.


Let me throw in one editorial note regarding the term “un-lost”. When I first submitted this article, my editor wrinkled her nose at “un-lost” and suggested we simply say “found”. (I get the objection. Un-lost is a clumsy construction; we’re used to hearing “lost-and-found” and all that.) But here’s the thing, the word “found” suggests someone who “finds you” which is an entirely different conversation. The point of this article is getting yourself out of what you got yourself into; hence you’re stuck with my slightly awkward but entirely accurate term: “un-lost”.

The Five Cs

Once you begin to suspect you’re lost a lot of stuff starts going on inside your head simultaneously. The first is a powerful tendency to deny that you’re actually lost. But the longer you debate the subject with yourself the worse the situation becomes. Don’t hesitate to take prompt corrective action.

  1. Climb...........................Gain altitude, get the big picture and improve your communications

  2. Clean...........................Lose any excess drag and make it easier to move forward

  3. Cool............................ Reduce engine strain, take care of your powerplant

  4. Communicate..............Let someone know that you’re in trouble (or at the very least off course)

  5. Conserve....................Take stock of your resources, settle in for the long haul. This takes time.

Now that you have the basic idea, lets unpack each “C” a bit more.


Ever forget where you parked? You can always spot someone who has because they’re up and down on their tip toes looking around. Unless you have exceptionally long toes, it’s unlikely a few inches of altitude gain will improve the view. But it speaks to the instinctive urge for a higher elevation when we’re trying to find something.

There are numerous ways to apply the concept of “climb”. This is where core values come into play. You have to mentally and emotionally try to gain as much altitude as you can, to get the proverbial “30,000-foot view”.

A famous story from the D-Day invasion is of Captain Dick Winters stumbling across disoriented and shaken paratrooper in the darkness. When the Corporal asked if they were lost, Winters famously replied: “We’re not lost Corporal. We’re in Normandy.” Panic averted, mental altitude increased.


In aircraft this is a very simple task; anything sticking out into the airflow (not absolutely necessary) must be retracted. If the landing gear or flaps are extended, retract them. In other words, cut ties with any non-essential “stuff”, at least until you get the situation under control. When you’re in trouble (lost) you need to make hard decisions swiftly. Anything that is weighing you down, holding you back or otherwise causing you to burn fuel unnecessarily needs to be set aside. And the quicker the better.


The literal application of this step pertains to engine cooling during climb so it doesn’t overheat and quit working. This is probably the easiest of the “Cs” to extrapolate to business or personal life.

Even in desperate situations you need to take care of your engine (yourself) to successfully navigate the situation. Don’t allow yourself to get over heated, keep a cool head, make sure you keep up a healthy flow of high quality fuel and never loose sight of the fact that in a “lost” situation, success is all about endurance, perspective and efficiency.


If you made me choose only two “Cs” I’d have to pick: CLIMB and COMMUNICATE. Numerous case studies in the world of search-and-rescue recount that when a lost individual finally makes contact two important things happen.

First is the immediate relief that comes from no longer being alone in the situation.

Second is that saying the words “I’m lost” (or more broadly “I need help”) is a critical step in accepting the situation and taking positive action to fix it. But as critical as this step is, its also the most difficult. It doesn’t matter if you’re in charge of a plane, a team, a company or a county, it’s damn hard to broadcast that you’re lost. The fear of embarrassment, judgement or reprisal can keep people quiet until its too late. Its important to keep in mind its highly unlikely that anyone will judge you for avoiding a disaster. Conversely, they’re certain to judge if you allow the controllable situation to deteriorate into a disaster.

Also keep in mind that we are all only one or two missed-landmarks away from humility on any given day.


Beyond the obvious need to conserve as much fuel as possible, this step also has a deeper application. In his masterwork on staying alive "Deep Survival, Who Lives, Who Dies and Why", author Laurence Gonzalez explores the similarities among survivors. One of these is a calm and realistic mindset and the ability to conserve emotional energy. In chronicling Senator John McCain’s time as a POW, Gonzalez points out that neither highly optimistic (nor highly pessimistic) prisoners fared well. The survivor’s mindset occupies a strange middle-ground of grim determination. A combination of unshakable faith that we will see the situation through, but not imperiled by unrealistic expectations. In other words, don’t say: “we will get home by Christmas”; simply say “we will get home”.

Don’t Start with the Map

I want to leave you with one last but critical aspect of getting un-lost: don’t start with the map.

This sounds counter-intuitive because our habit is to start planning every trip with the map. We find our current location, we find our destination and then we “map out” how best to connect those dots.

However, when you’re trying to become “un-lost” you must reverse the process. You can’t start with the map because you don’t know where you are.

Look up. Look around. Take time to understand what you’re actually seeing in the world around you. Only then can you hope to find yourself on the map in front of you. To do otherwise invites the fatal error of “Bending the map” and convincing yourself of a false situation because you desperately wish it to be so.

And that’s a topic we’ll explore next month.

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