December 16, 2021

Change Agents as Wayfinders

By Laura Beck, The Eden Alternative

Life coach Martha Beck’s book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, captures the key qualities of what she calls a “Wayfinder.”  (No, Martha is not my kin, by the way.)

Wayfinders, by her definition, look a lot like changemakers to me.  Beck describes Wayfinders as individuals driven by an authentic instinct to follow a specific path, with the goal of healing their world by discovering and embracing their own true nature.  Change agents across the care continuum often share stories of having experienced a deep, inner calling to “do what’s right” and begin seeing and addressing care through new eyes, in spite of the odds or barriers they face.

The term, Wayfinder was originally applied by anthropologist Wade Davis to describe “ancient navigators who first discovered the Pacific Islands, guiding small boats across vast stretches of open water… all without modern navigation equipment.”  As change agents seeking the ultimate experience of "home" for those we serve, we can often relate to this image. So, let's get in touch with our inner Wayfinder by exploring four key skills detailed in Beck's book.  These four techniques are identified as wordlessness, oneness, imagination, and forming.

Wordlessness describes a state of being that is grounded in the non-verbal, intuitive, and sensory portions of the brain.  Beck shares that for Wayfinders, “skillful BEING, must precede all DOING.”  The author also blows our mind a bit, noting that the verbal region of the brain processes roughly 40 bits of information per second, while the non-verbal portion processes a whopping 11 million bits per second!  Thus, tapping into wordlessness, and the part of the brain that it engages, has the potential to take our creativity and our sense of what’s possible to new heights.

If we apply this to our role as care partners committed to person-directed practices, we know that genuine care requires us to be exceptional observers who are tuned in to the moment.  Wordlessness helps us deepen our level of awareness, and we begin to really see our Elder care partners as the unique, exquisite whole human beings that they are.  Being present helps each of us be more flexible and highly responsive to changing needs and preferences.

Oneness refers to the notion that as living beings, we are all interconnected.  The institutional model of care has discouraged us, as care partners, from recognizing our oneness with those we care for, by imposing rigid professional boundaries.  As culture change advocates, we learn that building close and continuing relationships, where we are each deeply known, is the key to our success.  And tapping into our shared sense of humanity reminds us that genuine care means seeing a reflection of ourselves in the eyes of those we care for.

Imagination engages our DOING nature more, but only successfully, by “dropping into” wordlessness and oneness first.  Using our imagination to create a powerful vision of what it is we feel called to do really requires those 11 million bits of information that our nonverbal mind has to offer!  Beck says that when we go deeply into wordlessness, we can “find what wants to be real, and then work like a detective” to figure out how to make it so. Creating empowered cultures calls on us to take risks, try new things, and be boldly creative.

Forming is where we combine physical action with what we’ve learned through the first 3 skills to realize our dreams and goals.  From a culture change perspective, all of our actions need to spring from a rich understanding of who people are and our close connections with them.  We need to be able to link our course of action back to questions like, “What does this Elder truly want?” and “If this were happening to me, what would help me feel nurtured?”   Doing so, affirms that we’ve taken the time to create a solution based on our careful observations and awareness, while acknowledging that each and every one of us is part of the human family.

While Imagination and Forming may fit more within most people’s comfort zone, Beck says that without the state of mind created by Wordlessness and Oneness first, they have “little power” on their own.  Consider using a Learning Circle format in your teams to discuss each of these four skills and how different people on the care partner team relate to them.  Questions you may use include:

  • What does (insert one of the four skills) mean to me as a care partner?
  • Which of these four skills do I feel challenged by the most and why?
  • What are some creative ways that we can explore (insert one of the four skills) in our team


Keep in mind that the journey is to be enjoyed as much as the destination.

Photo credit: Ben Collins on Unsplash