Four Journeys

Each of us is on many journeys in the course of our lives. This note offers a way of reflecting on four of those journeys, on how they can slip apart, how they can be woven together, and how one might keep a journal to chronicle our experience in each of them.

The underlying journey is the journey of the self: what unfolds for us over the years. An important element of this journey is the growth of our capacity to make decisions, particularly decisions in circumstances where we do not – and cannot – know what to do.

The second journey is our public journey, where we apply our capacity to make decisions to the world of work.

The third is our private journey, based in our habitat – the place we leave and return to each day. We might share this journey with close friends, a partner, children, each of whom is on their own journeys.

The fourth is our personal journey, in which we look after ourselves and weave the four journeys together.

In the blessed moments when these four journeys share the same path, we are whole. In one person’s phrase, “I can take myself wherever I go.” For most of us these are rare moments. The journey of the self has a life of its own – it seems to go ahead of its own accord. We all have an intuitive sense that our capacity to make decisions just grows and “nags” at us when we cannot find in work the challenges it needs. The other three journeys are kept on or blown off course by so many influences. In times of constant change, the public work journey can become all-consuming. The private journey can make heavy demands when there are others to care for whose own journeys have taken an especially difficult turn. And the personal journey has its own vulnerability, in that it is all too easy to allow the demands of the public and private journeys to push it aside.

The Journey of the Self

The underlying journey, the journey of the self, is what happens as we insert ourselves into the world – where we are born, grow up, study, work, the people with whom we live in childhood and adulthood. Reflecting on the journey of the self helps each of us to hear our own story, to see the inner continuity of our lives, the thread of movement by which our lives unfold. By reflecting on this journey, we gradually discover threads of purpose of which we were not initially aware, we can see things differently from the way they seemed at the time, understand more of the experience and see what we have learned.

I have spent most of my working life listening to people across the world telling me the stories of their working lives. The core of what I have learned is the profound importance to people of being able to use their capability to exercise their own judgement in their working lives, their anxiety when they are overwhelmed by the challenges of their work, their frustration and alienation when the challenges are not there.

These people come from many cultures, many different kinds of organisation and from all levels of responsibility. Their common humanity lies in the exhilaration of being able to make a decision when they did not and could not know what to do; when the decision required a contribution only they personally could make.[1]

All my research suggests that this capacity grows over time, that it grows at different rates and that people seek to “go with the grain” of that growth, to find challenges that stretch but do not under or overwhelm them. When that happens we are “in flow” [2] – in a state of well-being where capabilities and challenges are aligned, energy is up, decisions come of their own accord, we feel enthusiastic about work each day. To be “out of flow” is to be deprived of that well-being, to be anxious, distanced from one’s work, clumsy both physically and mentally, out of tune with the organisation.

We all have a very finely-tuned sense of being in or out of flow. Circumstances may be such that we cannot do anything about it, and so we try to deny it to ourselves, rationalise it as a passing phase, attribute it to getting older or to being too young, plan to deal with it later. But capability will not be silenced – it may lie quiet for a while, but sooner or later it will raise its head again, whispering in our ear that we need more or less challenge, more or less complexity to restore a sense of flow in our lives. The growth of our capability to make decisions is an important element in the underlying journey of the self in that people may move from one job, one town, even from one country to another as part of their search for flow.

Reflecting on the journey of the self by means of a journal can help us to begin to see patterns of meaning in our lives. The ideas below are useful starting points for reflection:

  • roads not taken – the possibilities for the future contained in unlived aspects of our lives
  • stepping stones – the elusive lines of continuity between seemingly unrelated realms of activity
  • virtuous cycles – the times when a flow of energy between ourselves and our work gives both a charge.

The web of connection between the journey of the self and the public journey is the experience of being in or out of “flow”.

The Public Journey

The public journey is the journey at work (voluntary or paid, employed or self-employed), in which we put our capability into the public domain. The public journey often makes heavy demands and can overwhelm to the point where it seems as if it is the only journey we are on.

We live through times when both current and growing capability is understood so that we are “in flow”, as well as through times when we are either over- or underwhelmed by challenge, resulting in lowered confidence and well-being.

When we are “in flow” we are in touch with our inner resources and able to be responsible stewards of the resources of the organisation where we are working. This is a very delicate balance in constant flux as our capabilities grow and our responsibilities at work change.

The implications of “flow” for our state of mind, our intuition and our decision-making are summarised in the diagrams below:

The Experience of Work

Effective Decision-Making

As we expand our journal to reflect on the public journey, we can ask:

  • Would I welcome more challenge than my job provides at present? If so, what can I do about it?
  • Are the complexities of my work beginning to overwhelm me? If so, how can I restore “flow”?
  • Am I “in flow”? If so, what effect is this having on my public journey, and is there even more I can contribute?

It can also be helpful to be clear about:

  • the responsibilities of your role as you see them
  • the expectations of the person you report to
  • the resources you are responsible for managing
  • the reviews you are responsible for
  • the vulnerabilities that are intrinsic to your role
  • the creativities that can emerge when things are going well.
  • Finally, in the public journey, it can be helpful to reflect on the responsibility each of us has for the light and the shadow we cast in our working relationships both inside and outside the organisation. Many people also have responsibility for leadership and thus for the conditions for others to be “in flow”. It can be helpful to spend time in the personal journey before turning to these aspects of the public journey.
  • A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his or her shadow, or his or her light…. A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what is going on inside him or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.[3]

The Private Journey

The private journey is our habitat – all that belongs to the place we leave and return to each day. In this journey we may live alone or with a partner, and share the journey with family and/or with close friends, all of whom look for time, energy and attention.

Pressure on this journey can come from a demanding public journey, from growth in capability not yet appreciated by those we work with, from knowing we are “out of our depth” but have not yet been able to acknowledge it.

A way of reflecting on the balance between the private and public journeys is to pause and learn from where one has chosen not to be.

In many marriages and partnerships, both have public journeys, with all that means for expressing and affirming capability, for pressure on time, for managing two careers – not to mention a household. And it seems often to happen that one partner may take on a more senior leadership role around the time when adolescent children need more time and understanding or when parents become frail and need more care.

In some private journeys it is accepted that one partner has a “more important” public journey – a leadership role, perhaps, or the main economic responsibility – and the other sees their role as in part providing support. So the first partner would not be expected to buy milk on the way home, make the supper or put the children to bed. But for many couples this is not a balance that feels right, and each may decide to take on substantial responsibilities in their public journeys that use a large proportion of their energies.

These points may help reflection on the private journey:

  • when this journey and the journey of the self are aligned, we feel both held and freed, and can hold and free those with whom we share the private journey.
  • pressure on the private journey often comes when the public journey is especially demanding, and/or when we are experiencing a transition from one way of making decisions to another.
  • it is easy to feel burdened by and/or a burden to those with whom we share this journey – it can seem as if there is no place in our life where nothing is expected of us.
  • when we feel guilty about neglecting the private journey, we often retreat from it rather than trying to weave it into the other journeys
  • each person with whom we share our private journey is on his or her own journey.

The Personal Journey

Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful; he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also… never cease chiselling your statue.[4]

The personal journey is the one through which we care for ourselves and weave together the other journeys. It is about discerning the “grain” of the self and learning how to go with it. This journey may be expressed in running, listening to or playing music, making models, meditating, cooking, orienteering, sailing. The essence is time and space for ourselves and for reflection – this may be momentary or more focused

Undertaking this journey will lead to a greater sense of well-being, to what Aristotle called “eudaimonia” – not happiness as a state of mind, but well-being as a state of activity.

This journey is a “duty of care” – for the light and shadows of the self and thus their impact on others, for the web of connections between journeys and for the capacity to weave together the journeys when pressures threaten to push them apart. Some people are not aware of and give very little time or attention to their personal journeys until they face a crisis. Another way of describing it is as the journey to ensure that our self does not disappear.

There are four important elements in our duty of care:

  • developing and deepening reflectiveness – pausing to consider the way we approach and read people and situations; thinking about the way we think, about the way we respond to change, about how we give meaning to things, decide what is a challenge, what an impossible demand, which game is “worth the candle”.
  • ensuring that understanding of the self is complemented by how we are seen by others; as the Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”
  • understanding that while seeing ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening, it is far more difficult to see ourselves amongst others, “as a local example of the forms human life has taken, a case among cases, a world among worlds.” [5]
  • making sure there is some one person or some people who will tell it to us like it is. All of us can become cut off from honest feedback, and this is a particular vulnerability for leaders. The greater the power and complexity, the more critical is this element of our duty of care.

Directing Attention

The common thread that runs through all traditions of reflection is the directing of attention.

In her work with her journal, psychoanalyst Marion Milner considered what was really under the control of her will, and came to the conclusion that it was her attention. She distinguished between the narrow attention we give to people and objects when we have a purpose to pursue, and the wide attention when we attend to a person or thing and want nothing.

Left to itself, the mind gives narrow attention to everyday affairs. We attend to what interests us, whatever seems likely to serve our personal desires. “The narrow focus selects what serves its immediate interest and ignores the rest…. it is a questing beast, keeping its nose close down to the trail, running this way and that upon the scent but blind to its surroundings.” [6]

Wide attention emerges when the questing purposes are held in check. “Since one wanted nothing there was no need to select one item to look at rather than another, so it becomes possible to look at the whole at once. To attend to something yet want nothing from it is the essence of wide attention. In the ordinary way when we want nothing we ignore it, or if forced to attend, look at details and become bored. If we discover the knack of holding wide our attention… the magic thing happens.”

Milner came to see that wide attention depended on stilling “the ceaseless chatter that comes between me and my surroundings, me and myself.” She could quieten the chatter by making an active gesture of separation and detachment from what was happening, by saying “I want nothing,” or by looking from behind her eyes instead of with them, or by putting into words what she was seeing.

Through her reflections she came to recognize an inner resource: “Just in so far as I held myself still and watched the flickering movements of the mind, trying to give them expression in words or drawings, just so far would I become aware of some answering activity, an activity that I can only describe as knowing, yet a knowing that was nothing to do with me; it was a knowing that could see forwards and backwards and in a flash give form to the confusions of everyday living and to the chaos of sensation.”

Weaving the Journeys Together

The personal journey supports the journey of the self by helping us to free ourselves from the idea that our conscious thoughts and endeavours are all there is. By helping us learn to trust and to hand over to our inner resources, it puts us in touch with an inward-turning quietness, like holding a quiet room inside.

The personal supports the public journey through reflection on being in or out of “flow”. When we are in flow our intuition leads us, we can look at situations with both narrow and wide attention. Out of flow, we become searchers, seeking everywhere yet not trusting what we find. The insights gained from the personal journey make it easier to hear the whisperings of under- or overwhelmed capability before anxiety has gone too far. They can help us to think calmly about how the other journeys can be reconciled with the growth of capability.

The personal supports the private journey by helping us to be more aware of the expectations we have of our habitat; of the journeys of those who share it; of the intricacies of their behaviour, and of their preference – like ours – to be judged by their intentions rather than their actions. This part of our journey teaches us to walk a mile in their moccasins. Our relationships with people are usually pervaded by purpose. To give attention and want nothing from them puts us in touch with their mystery, refreshing them and us.

The journey image owes much to the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who played on Homer’s Odyssey in his poem “Ithaka” [7]:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery….
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time…

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years
so you’re old by the time you reach the island
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

© Gillian Stamp


  1. E. Jaques, “Learning for Uncertainty”, in Work, Creativity and Social Justice. Heinemann. 1970.
  2. M. Csikszemtmihalyi, Optimal Experience. Cambridge University Press. 1988.
  3. Parker. J. Palmer, Leading from Within. Indiana Campus Ministry. 1990.
  4. Plotinus, The Enneads, translated by Stephen MacKenna and B. S. Page.
  5. C. Geertz, “Local Knowledge” quoted in K.J. Gergen. The Saturated Self. New York Basic Books. 1991.
  6. M. Milner, A Life of One’s Own. Virago. 1986.
  7. C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems; translated by E. Kelly and P. Sherrard, Chatto and Windus. 1990.