rhino in nature at golden hour

Why should you care about rhinoceros tracking?

I thought you’d never ask.

At the moment I’m at a South African game park called Londolozi, running a change-your-life retreat for a few hardy souls who’ve joined me from all over the world. They’re here to find or clarify their sense of purpose, so that they can follow it with more energy and less effort. The quickest way I know of doing this is to make them track a rhinoceros.

Like finding your life’s purpose, tracking a rhino can be baffling, discouraging, frustrating, and even frightening. But precisely because it’s so difficult, it can also be the most fun you’ve had since you learned to wear clothes. There’s something in our DNA that loves to solve puzzles and read clues, and that’s exactly what animal tracking requires. As our brains wake up to this kind of problem-solving, our ability to track anything, including our own destiny, improves exponentially.

There are just a few basic skills we need to track anything, including our right lives. These skills are innate; evolution has incorporated them into the hardwiring in our brains—though in most of us, these days, they lie dormant. First we must learn to recognize the tracks left by the thing we’re seeking (a rhinoceros, our life’s purpose). Then we must be willing to follow the tracks no matter where they lead; to stop and reconsider when we inevitably lose the track, and take the time to reestablish our connection with the right path.

Recognizing the track of your life’s purpose

For tens of thousands of years, human children learned to follow tracks and other natural signs almost from birth. Most of us have learned to do exactly the opposite. Before we can see straight, we’re taught to behave according to the opinions of the adults around us, from our parents to society at large.

This means that when we ask ourselves “Am I on track?” we’re usually measuring how closely we’ve been able to follow cultural ideals: making lots of money, wearing the right clothes, matching whatever model of beauty happens to be our culture’s standard. Social standards are like well-marked, hard-paved roads.

By contrast, each of our personal missions is unique. No two of us are meant to follow exactly the same path. When we do, we begin to lose our particular essence; by fitting in and going along, we sacrifice our individuality and the sense of harmony that comes with it.

Recognizing the track of your life’s purpose is like learning to pick out the footprint of a rhino from a jumble of other tracks. It’s quite distinctive: a big, hooflike print in the center, tucked between two smaller toes. Since rhinos are big and heavy, you might think these tracks would be easy to follow. Not so much. The print may be clear in fine sand, but as the beast wanders into the grass, through rivers, and over hard rock, the tracks become subtle, often almost invisible.

The “track” of your life’s purpose also has a unique character. It often shows up as a sense of joy and lightness in the body (our minds are trained by culture to look for things like status and wealth, but our bodies aren’t so easily fooled). It may also appear as fascination, a strong desire to pay attention to certain topics or phenomena. More than anything, it’s a sense that what we’re doing is meaningful. Changing a diaper or pulling an all-nighter may not be fun, but when such things lie along the path of our life’s purpose, they always feel valuable.

If you look back on your own personal history, you can remember moments when you found your own track. In these moments you felt energized, deeply interested. Time disappeared. Attention became effortless. Maybe you’ll remember feeling this in the company of certain people, or wandering in specific places, or learning about your favorite subjects. Looking back, notice as many moments of joy and meaning as you can. Jot them down. Study them. See what they have in common. Memorize your own clear tracks as they appeared in the past, so that you can follow them into the future.

Daring to follow

As you examine the tracks of purpose in your history, you may notice patterns and themes. Maybe you’ll notice that you always felt “on purpose” when you were designing something, or working with teams, or pushing your body, or drinking up fantasy worlds through books and movies. These patterns can show you what sort of life situation best serves your particular purpose. Conversely, the stretches of your life that felt joyless and meaningless are showing you what to avoid from here on out.

During my first few decades on earth, my strongest “purpose tracks” include being outside, interacting with animals, and studying psychology. In view of all that, it’s obvious that I would end up working to change people’s lives on African safaris. But my present life would have looked insane to me when I was a young assistant professor bucking for a job in academia. I was on a clear, broad road that led to a lifetime of attending faculty meetings, which I detested. To follow my life’s purpose, I had to leave that road and follow a career path unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Once you recognize the track of your own purpose, you’re faced with same sort of choice. Do you follow your joy and fascination wherever they lead, or do you mimic what your parents, mentors, and social circle have always done? Sometimes there’s no conflict: you want to marry someone your family loves, or take a job that impresses everyone. But what if your beloved is the “wrong” kind of person for your relatives, or you want a weird job, or you’re drawn to an entirely different kind of culture?

When the well-paved road of social expectation and the track of purpose part ways, most people abandon themselves. They follow the well-paved road to a life of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation. The alternative is striking on an unknown path to an unknowable future. On that path you’ll encounter agony and ecstasy, thrills and chills, daunting effort and—ultimately, under and in and through it all—abiding inner peace.

Every day, there are thousands of moments when we make this choice between our conditioning and our purpose. If you haven’t noticed one lately, pay attention. In a spare moment, do you read a book that really interests you, or scroll through endless social media posts that make you feel both overstimulated and blank? Do you talk about things that genuinely interest you, or make small talk so dull it makes you want to stab yourself? Do you truly, mindfully enjoy delicious food, or stuff yourself with substances you barely notice while doing something else?

The track of your life’s purpose isn’t “out there,” in some special, demarcated zone. It’s in front of you right here, right now. Making small choices toward your own joy, now, keeps you on track for the most fulfilling life you can live. You can begin in this very moment. What in these instructions lifts your heart, and what doesn’t? Which ideas feel true, and which don’t? Choosing to accept and absorb the former while rejecting the latter is the way you can start tracking your purpose in this very moment.

Losing the track

If you make even one choice today that takes you towards your heart’s delight, bravo. You’re tracking your purpose. But no matter how strongly you intend to stay on track, the day will come—in fact, many days will come—when you lose it.

Over and over, first-time rhino trackers get hopelessly confused. The track turns abruptly when they expect it to go straight. Footprints double back on themselves, or become obscured by other tracks—or simply disappear. My perfectionistic clients are often embarrassed when this happens. They’ve learned from culture that bafflement and loss are shameful. But there is no shame in nature, only repeated, peaceful opportunities to learn.

Becoming a master tracker doesn’t mean never losing a track. It means finding it, then losing it, then finding it again, so many times that getting lost no longer triggers anxiety or self-blame.

My friend Boyd Varty, who grew up tracking here at Londolozi, has a name for the experience of getting lost: “The path of ‘not here.’”When joy, lightness, and meaning vanish from our lives, when nothing feels right or makes sense anymore, it isn’t a problem. It’s information. We’ve lost the track of our purpose. It’s time to find it again. Period.

Rediscovering the track

When we feel lost, adrift in the chaos of life, most of us want to want to have our whole purpose spelled out for us immediately. We want certainty, and we want it now. Nature doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t deliver up a crystal-clear track, much less a rhinoceros, just because we really really really wish it would.

The same thing happens in rhino tracking. When the track goes cold, we can’t expect to rediscover it in the spot where we’re standing. We have to go back to the last “hot track”: a clear footprint in fine dust, a scrape of wet mud on a branch, some unmistakable evidence that the creature we’re seeking went this way. Then we can move forward again in a different direction and with even closer attention, until the next hot track appears.

When you know you’ve lost your way in life, relax. Go easy on yourself. Know that this, as much as the moments of discovery, is part of tracking your purpose. Then remember the last thing that brought you joy. It could be as simple as taking a nap or petting your dog. No matter how small it may seem, go back to it. Pay attention. Then move forward in a way that honors your inner sense of meaning more than ever.

And repeat 

If you can do this over and overseeing the track of your life’s purpose, daring to follow it away from convention, relaxing when you lose it, and going back to the last hot track with renewed determination—you will encounter adventures that feel simultaneously unimaginable and exactly right. You’ll move continuously into the unknown, but always know how to find your way through it. You’ll drop whatever you no longer need, and find things you’ve never imagined. You’ll be so filled up by the journey you’ll stop thinking about destinations.

This morning, our seminar group took turns following one meandering path until, not far ahead, they spotted a great gray beast munching its primordial-looking way through a field of grass. It was a thrilling moment. Seeing our purpose laid out in front of us can be like that. There are moments where everything becomes completely clear and self-evident. But later, when the new-fledged trackers looked back, they realized that seeing the rhinoceros was actually less engaging, less flat-out fun, than the tracking itself.

This, too, is how we’re wired. We don’t want our puzzles fully assembled, our crime novels solved on page one. We love the wondering, the wandering, the finding and losing and finding again. And this can be the way we live our lives. Today, Tomorrow. The next day, Every day.

I don’t do this perfectly, by a long shot. But I do it as often as I can, as well as I can. It has brought me here, to this odd, fascinating, wildly fulfilling job. Where will it take you? I can’t tell you that. No one can. Only your own heart, soul, and mission—your very own rhinoceros—knows for sure.

Want to learn to track your life? Consider Martha’s Wayfinder Life Coach Training. Applications now open: marthabeck.com/life-coach-training/

This article was first published in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper.