Keep the Island in Mind

A lesson from master navigators of the open ocean may be the key to becoming the most authentic version of you.

The plan was simple enough: sail a native canoe using traditional Polynesian navigation methods from Hawai’i to Tahiti. A successful adventure would dispel the myth that the Polynesians settled the remote islands of Hawai’i by drifting in their canoes until they ran into land. At the same time, it would allow the Hawaiians to resurrect navigational knowledge and revive the Hawaiian culture that had been lost to colonization.

Thus was born the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Founded by artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kāne, expert waterman Tommy Holmes, and anthropologist Ben Finney, their purpose was to, “help Hawaiians rediscover their strength, wisdom, and spirit.”

But like most simple plans, there were layers of complexity.

For starters, Hawai’i is the most isolated archipelago on the planet, and there are 2,500 miles of open ocean between Hawai’i and Tahiti, two specks floating on the surface of un unfathomable blue sea. They needed a crew that understood the traditional wayfinding methods, which were obsolete in Hawai’i.

They needed a boat.

And, oh yeah, they didn’t have anybody qualified to lead the journey.

The boat was easy by comparison. There were plenty of oral, written, and drawn historical records in Hawai’i to use to draft the plans for the canoe. Using this information, they built Hōkūle’a (meaning “star of gladness”), a sixty-two foot long double-hulled voyaging canoe. It had claw sails, no motor, a sweep as a rudder, and a twenty foot broad deck. It was a near perfect re-creation of the ancient vessel using modern materials.

Hokulea

Courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Now they needed a captain.

On the atoll of Satawal in the Central Caroline Islands of Micronesia lived a man named Pius “Mau” Piailug. He was one of the few remaining Micronesian master navigators known as a Pwo. He could navigate thousands of miles of open ocean by reading sun, wind, waves, stars and birds, and the only one who was willing to share his knowledge outside of his community.

In May of 1976, using navigational techniques that hadn’t been seen by modern sailors, Mau safely guided Hōkūle’a to Tahiti in thirty-one days. In the harbor of Pape’ete, they were greeted by 17,000 Tahitians - nearly half the island population - who welcomed the canoe and its crew home.

Two years later, they tried it again, but without Mau.

Just hours after her launch, the boat capsized in thirty foot swells. The crew sat on upturned hulls lighting flares in hopes of getting the attention of a passing ship or airplane. They were eventually rescued, and their badly damaged canoe was returned to Hawai’i.

Charles Nainoa Thompson, who had been on both Hōkūle’a voyages knew that until a Hawaiian could sail Hōkūle’a, they would not reclaim their place as expert navigators. To ensure their success, he would learn the ancient navigational techniques and share them with Hawaiians.

The Education

Nainoa returned to Mau and requested that the master teach him the ancient ways of Oceania. Mau knew that a Pwo must pass their wisdom on and that wayfinding was on the verge of disappearing. With the permission of his teacher, his grandfather, Mau began to teach Nainoa everything he knew about the art of wayfinding.

star trails

Photo by Mohdammed Ali on Unsplash

Through the use of stones, shells, and palm fronds, Mau laid out a star compass. He taught the positions of the stars as they rise out of the ocean, arc across the sky, and descend back into the water. He taught Nainoa to read “the character” of the waves, how to interpret sea birds, the wind, and the varying widths and hues of the sun’s path along the waves. Mau taught him the “talk of the sea.”

After two years, Nainoa’s course of study was complete.

From the book Malama Honua.

“Can you point out the way to Tahiti?” Mau asked Nainoa during the last lesson of his two years of study.

The teacher and the student were observing the sky at Lana’i Lookout, a coastal perch on the southeastern shore of O’ahu. Nainoa pointed to the direction of Tahiti.

Then Mau asked another question, one that required a deeper knowing.

“Can you see the island?”

Nainoa could not literally see the island but he could, he told his teacher, see “an image of the island in my mind.”

“Good. Keep the island in your mind,” Mau told him, “Otherwise you will be lost.”

Nainoa was what the Hawaiians describe as maka’ala - vigilant, observant, awake.


When I was 18, I made a deliberate choice. I was afforded the opportunity to go to college and I had to select a course of study. At 18, I knew very little about myself and my directional ability was sketchy at best. Still, there was already a sense inside of me that was developing, a stirring of the soul.

Armed with at least that knowledge, I chose Creative Writing as a major, because writing was an activity I loved to do. I sensed some disappointment from my parents and suffered the scorn of polite society each time I would answer, “So what are you studying in college?”

But this just reinforced that I was on the right path.

What everybody wanted was a guarantee, a clearly defined path with an endpoint that they could see off in the distance. What I had was murky, obscured, possibly lying somewhere beyond the horizon. At best you could sniff out a general direction.

This didn’t jive well with the adult world that sought to eliminate unknowns. It’s funny, but as we grow up, we become less tolerant of the unknown and begin to crave stability, when it’s the instability that presents the best possible chance for learning.

I knew intuitively where I wanted to end up, but like Nainoa, I didn’t quite have all the skills I needed to navigate the course my life would steer. So I had to seek masters who could help me.

These masters took on many different forms. They were classical, like teachers, books, lectures, poets, plays, movies, friends, associates, coworkers. But they were and are to this day adversarial, like enemies and assholes.

Every person I’ve come across in life has left an indelible impression, as that of a leaf that falls to the earth imprinting its skin to be discovered centuries later. And each experience, each impression, properly reflected upon, made me a better navigator and delivered a whisper of wind impelling me in a new direction, the right direction.

This is the act commonly referred to as soul-searching. That is, trying to self-knowledge so that I could readily identify what stirs the soul and live a life such that my inner essence matches my outer actions. When we’re aligned with our souls, everything we do flows from a place of pure authenticity.

Soul-searching, as it turns out, requires a lifetime of travel and a deep commitment to personal growth. It is non-linear. In order to safely steer ourselves across the vast open ocean of time, we have to read the clues that provide us with directional information, starting with the simplest of questions: where do we want to go?

That’s a question that each of us has to answer. As Mau reinforced with Nainoa, we don’t need to literally see the destination, but we have to see it in our mind, otherwise we will be lost.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

If you start your journey with the end in mind and stay focused, then you will never be lost. Regardless of where you end up, you can be confident that this is the path that you have chosen, and while others may resent you for it, it is your path.

It takes resolve to stay the course when you’re uncertain about the outcome and when the world around you seeks to brand you a fool. The truth of the matter is that you often don’t know if it’s the right direction until you get there, wherever there is.

To paraphrase Bill Wattersson, the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, to continue at something like this for years “requires a faith in oneself bordering on delusion, or a love for the process.”

This love for the process of self-awareness is something I developed early. But it hasn’t made things any easier.

At 18 I knew what I was tracking for. I wanted to write and I wanted to fly airplanes, a journey that I’m still on (welcome, fellow traveler!). At the time, it didn’t make any sense. Enter the forces of the Resistance.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield labels any force that stands in our way and prevents us from pursuing our creative endeavors as Resistance.

Any journey, especially a long one with an unclear outcome, will be fraught with peril, and you’ll have to steer around obstacles, the weather, the occasional storm, sirens, and whatnot to get to your destination. These are all forms of Resistance.

In his now famous Last Lecture, Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch calls these brick walls, and these walls are there to show us how badly we want something. Our success is dependent upon our resolve to scale, smash, or circumnavigate these obstacles, this Resistance.

A vision can be easily obscured by Resistance because it’s not a concrete thing we can hold, but a conceptual place we want to be. It’s easy to be dissuaded by people who seem knowledgeable or more experienced who suggest that the best course of action is to turn back to the harbor now and give up the pursuit of your dreams for something practical.

But, dreams can only become concrete through persistence of action.

Persistence and action must be buoyed by the optimism that you’re doing the right thing because the journey will take time and will not unfold as we expect. It’s easy to give up on it when it can feel like we’re making little or no progress against it. Sometimes the gains we’re making are so small we can feel we’re trapped in Zeno’s Paradox.

I’ll let Aristotle explain it.

That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal. Aristotle, Physics

Zeno’s conclusion was that movement is an illusion. Because you have to reach the halfway point on any journey then go half the remaining distance, and so on and so forth, we can never reach our ultimate destination.

Aristotle refuted the argument by distinguishing between things that are “infinite with respect of divisibility” and things that are “infinite in extension.” Besides fancy philosopher’s language, I’m sure he just walked to the other side of the hall.

For Aristotle, space could be infinitely divided in the mind and contain the same characteristics in each parcel, but distance decreased over time and could be infinitely extended. Thus in Aristotle’s view, Zeno’s paradox was not a paradox at all.

In reality, we know that we can move from one side of a room to another. It’s much harder to see when we’re traveling an arc of the mind.

A good navigational practice is to build your chart as you go. It can be as simple as writing your island at the top of a page. Review it each day as part of a daily review process and ask yourself what actions you’ll take today to get you closer to that island. For maximum effectiveness, schedule those actions on your calendar.

In this simple way, you can keep your island in mind.

Stay the Course; Keep Learning

While it can seem we will never arrive at our destination, we nonetheless must continue to read the signs and track the course. Like the navigators before us, we are each of us on a great voyage.

To stay the course, we must be willing to learn from others who have the benefit of greater wisdom than us. This will allow us to adapt to the inevitable changes we’ll be traversing through.

Stay curious and develop a love of learning. These two traits will be the most effective at impelling you forward when it seems you will never arrive at your destination.

Like the crew of Hokulea, we are all faced with this type of personal journey in our lives. It’s our attempt to find what stirs our soul, then spending our lives navigating toward that destination. Like Nainoa and Mau, the answers to how you get there are all around us. We just need to listen and let the world talk to us.