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Shifting Sands: A Guidebook for Crossing the Deserts of Change
by Steve Donahue
ISBN: 1576752801
Berrett-Koehler Publishers; (April 2004)
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The Shifting Sands of Life and Work

While our culture thrives on mountain-climbing metaphors, it’s the desert that gets real about life and the workplace.

We live and work in a mountain-climbing culture.

We want to see the peak, map out a route, and follow it straight to the  top—our metaphors for goal-setting and goal-getting our way through our lives and careers.

Real life, however, often defies this climb-and-conquer approach. That’s because most of our experiences actually resemble a desert. We get lost or stuck, and even chase the occasional mirage. From raising kids to plotting our careers, we find few clear routes or identifiable peaks. The journey, it seems, is endless.

A Saharan adventure

I learned plenty about the desert as a kid fresh out of high school in Toledo, Ohio. With the starry-eyed notion of backpacking through Europe, I sailed for France. A chance encounter in Paris changed my travel plans—and, ultimately, my life. With two Frenchmen and my buddy Tallis, I embarked on an overland odyssey across the Sahara—the world’s largest desert—that, over the course of 49 days and some 4,500 miles, would become the adventure of a lifetime.

In the Sahara, I learned it’s impossible to know exactly where you’re going or how you’ll get there, much less when you’ve arrived. While the summit of Mt. Everest is unmistakable, the Sahara offers no sure-fire sign of arrival—no peak, no sign, no border. In fact, experts can’t even agree where the desert ends.

And so it is with the deserts of life and work. Unlike our mountains, we can’t conquer them. With no precise paths or peaks, our deserts resist planning, preparation, and even past experience.

Think of it this way: Planning a wedding is a mountain, but being married is a desert. Having a baby is a mountain, but raising a child is a desert. Changing jobs is a mountain, but changing careers is a desert. Getting the promotion is a mountain, but being a leader is a desert. Acquiring a competitor is mountain, but merging two cultures is a desert.

Got the picture? I’m sure you do.

A matter of terrain

Why is it important to distinguish between mountains and deserts? The rules of travel vary greatly depending on the terrain.

You see, what works on Mt. Everest is useless in the Sahara. On the desert’s scorching and shifting sands, wearing stiff alpine boots or plotting a start-to- finish route spells trouble.

The same goes for our personal deserts. When we’re lost or stuck, our mountain-climbing methods simply don’t work. There’s no map or route—no planning or preparation—for a desert such as marriage, divorce, parenting, job loss, or chronic illness. To travel wisely, we must follow a different set of rules—a guiding force that asks us to be more patient, more spontaneous, and more intuitive.

The rules of desert travel

In the Sahara, the best way to cool a car’s overheating engine is to turn the heater on full-blast and keep driving.

Indeed, the rules of desert travel are surprisingly counterintuitive. They’re also chock-full of life lessons for a mountain-climbing culture with “summit fever”—a do-or-die fixation on ascent and arrival.

Let 10 such rules be a guide for crossing your own deserts in life and at work. They’ll help you find meaning and direction in the uncertain, unpredictable terrain.

Follow a compass, not a map.
In the Sahara, a map is worthless. A compass, however, is essential. Across the shifting and featureless terrain, it functions without fail—even amidst pitch darkness and relentless sandstorms. In the deserts of life, you must learn to follow your own compass—an innermost sense of purpose and direction. Start with a personal mission statement—something that really matters to you, such as a value or a relationship—then allow it to guide you.

Lower your gaze.
In the Sahara, looking ahead to the horizon is defeating. It never gets any closer—no matter what the mirage. In the deserts of life, focusing on your endless plans and to-do lists is just as defeating. Instead, pay attention to the sand beneath your feet. Try to live in the fullness of the moment rather than the potential of the future. Make a “to-be” list of small, satisfying things that aren’t about achievement or arrival.

Stop pushing.
In the Sahara, it’s pointless to push a car that’s stuck in the sand. Instead, you deflate the tires, which actually lifts the vehicle up and out of the sand. In the deserts of life, it’s pointless to keep pushing when your tried-and-true success strategies no longer work. Instead, lift yourself out of a rut or a stalemate by letting the air out of your ego. If your legendary charm no longer wins over friends or colleagues, try something new—like apologizing or admitting you’re wrong.

Water what’s dry.
In the Sahara, a camel can guzzle twenty-five gallons of water in an instant if he’s gone without a drink for a couple of weeks. In the deserts of life, you can go without the essentials for a while, but sooner than later you must water what’s dry. What part of your life is parched? Need more sleep? Rather than tackle one more to-do, take a nap. Need more solitude? Book a weekend retreat.

Know when to duck.
In the Sahara, it’s okay to duck. If your camel walks under a low-hanging branch, why not dodge the blow? In the deserts of life, it’s okay to avoid a hit you’re not ready for. It’s not denial or cowardice—it’s common sense. Is the new boss a perfectionist? Let go of his feedback if you don’t measure up at first. Afraid of commitment after a bad break-up? Play the field until you’re good and ready to face your fears.

Build a wall around your oasis.
In the Sahara, the wall around an oasis keeps out the sandstorms and the barbarians. In the deserts of life, firm boundaries protect your personal time for rest and reflection. Unplug the phone. Leave the laptop behind. Say “no.”

Look for unmarked oases.
In the Sahara, there are secret wells that produce cold, carbonated water. In the deserts of life, some of the sweetest oases are unmarked. While it’s good to plan your downtime, don’t overlook the serendipitous opportunities to rest and rejuvenate. When your plane is delayed, head to a massage kiosk for a neck rub. When your teenager suddenly wants to talk, push what’s in front of you aside and listen.

Travel alone together.
In the Sahara, a convoy travels faster when each vehicle takes care of its own repairs. When one vehicle breaks down, the others keep moving. If it doesn’t make it to camp by nightfall, a search begins in the morning. In the deserts of life, you must seek a fine balance of solitude and support. Some of the journey must be made alone. Yet other times, when you’re stuck or defeated, you must ask for help. Discernment— knowing what you need, when you need it—is key.

Seek support sooner—or risk rescue later.
In the Sahara, you can die of thirst in as little as twelve hours. No one waits to run out of water before they ask for help. In the deserts of life, asking for support isn’t always easy, yet putting it off can make matters worse. Need time with your spouse? Ask a friend to watch the kids. Feel lost in your new job? Find a guide or mentor.

Get lost.
In the Sahara, some tribes take their young men deep into the desert, only to leave them to find their own way home. In the deserts of life, getting lost can actually help you find your way. Put yourself in a situation in which your known skills will be of little use. You’ll boost your tolerance for uncertainty and tap some new skills and strengths.

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Steve Donahue is a professional speaker who specializes in individual and organizational change, purposeful living, and life balance. He is author of Shifting Sands: A Guidebook for Crossing the Deserts of Change (Berrett-Koehler, $16.95). Contact him at

Copyright 2004 Steve Donahue. All rights reserved.

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