Getting Lost and the Benefits of Finding Yourself

Sometimes being lost can be good for you and for your brain.

Posted Jun 11, 2018

When was the last time you were lost, either physically (couldn’t find the restaurant you were looking for), or in a more psychological sense (didn’t feel you had direction in your job or social life)?  Being lost is part of a process for finding what is important to you. 

When you are lost and then find what you looking for (sometimes not even what you thought you were going to find), it can be the most rewarding form of deep discovery.  Here are 3 ways being lost can ultimately be helpful: in terms of learning, self-discovery, and gaining self-confidence when being creative.

1)    Being lost can lead to deeper learning about yourself, your goals and your interests.  You probably do not know what you want in life when you start college.  If you do think you know, you might then be presented with new options you didn’t even know about once you start college.  Early during our education, we might think we know what we want, only to realize it isn’t exactly mapped out in the ways we expected.  At some point, we feel lost, trying to figure what to pursue (both in terms of future job prospects and partners).  College may feel like a giant learning experience, and part of the process is being lost at some point.  About 35 percent of students enter college with an “undecided” major (it is in fact the most common major at UCLA) and about 75 percent of students change their major at least once before graduation (I did twice).  Having the confidence to change a major shows you can realize you were lost, or you found something new that is a better fit for who you are, and what you want to do. At other times of personal development, sometimes people may turn to religion or friends and family as a guide, especially when we encounter bigger challenges in life. 

You might feel lost when you start a new job, a new relationship, or when parenting, but all of these challenges can be rewarding if you take them on knowing there will be times you are meant to learn from feeling lost.

2)   Our brain is addicted to problem solving.  Wh_n you re_d th_s sent_nce, you f_ll in the g_ps.  When you are forced to fill in the gaps, and solve these simple word problems, you actually remember much better what you read when there are these missing letters/fill-in-the-blanks than when you simply read without the challenge of filling in the missing letters [2].  But it likely doesn’t feel as easy, and it can slow you down, making the learning process more challenging.  The same is true when you are learning something new, whether it is training for a new job or when trying to learn a new language. 

You might initially feel you don’t understand things, you are guessing at possible answers, but this state of being lost allows your brain to build important “scaffolds” that lead to deeper learning [3]—learning that is fostered by this initial state of being lost.  You will remember things for a longer time if you are first lost in the learning process, and then discover a deeper understanding of what you are learning.  The same is true for most life challenges – we often remember challenges and mistakes we made, and what was learned from these failures.   Sometimes a little failure early in the learning process can be a good thing.

3)  Today, we have GPS to guide us when driving, and Google Maps to tell us how to get somewhere when we are visiting a new city.  These tools keep us from getting lost.  But sometimes getting lost is a good thing, as it forces us to be more aware of our surroundings.  Hopefully Google won’t send you down a dark alley, a place where you don’t want to be lost, so it is important to pay attention to your surroundings and not just your phone.   People often report feeling lost when they don’t have their phone with them, and/or when their phone battery dies [4].  But after a few hours (or a few days, if you can handle it), it can be a retreat.  Also, your brain eventually enjoys the challenge of figuring ways to function when you are lost without a phone.  It can also be empowering and can boost self-confidence by being free from a technological vice. 

Figuring out a way to navigate without technology can be refreshing, as can finding new solutions, one reason escape rooms are now a popular form of both social interaction and creative recreation.  In fact, escape rooms and virtual escape games may even benefit both younger children and older adults by encouraging problems solving when feeling lost [5-6].  Thus, you can now feel lost without even leaving your living room with virtual games. 

There are many simple ways to get lost and challenge your mind—reading an engrossing book (perhaps especially a good mystery novel), engaging in some conversation about a topic you don’t know much about, or just trying something new that isn’t in your usual repertoire (lost in a menu at a new restaurant).  Getting lost makes you and your brain grow, and while scary at times, you can enjoy the benefits.  Get lost!


[1]. Gordon, V. N. (1995). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge (2nd. ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

[2]. Bertsch, S., Pesta, B. J., Wiscott, R., & McDaniel, M. A. (2007). The generation effect: A meta-analytic review. Memory & Cognition, 35, 201-210.

[3]. Park, D. C., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The adaptive brain: aging and neurocognitive scaffolding. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 173-196.

[4]. Hoffner, C. A., Lee, S., & Park, S. J. (2016). “I miss my mobile phone!”: Self-expansion via mobile phone and responses to phone loss. New Media & Society, 18, 2452-2468.

[5]. Coffman-Wolph, S., Gray, K. M., & Pool, M. A. (2017). Design of a Virtual Escape Room for K-12 Supplemental Coursework and Problem Solving Skill Development.

[6].  Zhang, F., Doroudian, A., Kaufman, D., Hausknecht, S., Jeremic, J., & Owens, H. (2017, July). Employing a User-Centered Design Process to Create a Multiplayer Online Escape Game for Older Adults. In International Conference on Human Aspects of IT for the Aged Population (pp. 296-307).