Rob Knight

Magnetic North

February 22, 2011

There are two kinds of north: geographic north and magnetic north. If you head toward geographic north, eventually, you will reach the point at the top of the earth that is furthest from the equator. It never changes. Geographic north is always in the same place.

The other north is magnetic north. Magnetic north is where the north pole of the earth’s invisible magnetic field is strongest. Magnetic north is more fluid. It changes location. It ebbs and flows. At various points in history, it has flipped entirely, and north became south on a compass. The exact location of magnetic north is not fixed the way geographic north is. In fact, it is currently moving at a rate of 25 miles per year.

You can use a compass to find magnetic north, but heading toward north on a compass won’t get you to geographic north unless you do some math.

Most maps have a little tool printed on them called a magnetic declination number. That number tells you how many degrees to add or subtract from your compass reading in order to point to geographic north. In other words, if you look at your compass and head north, unless you add or subtract your declination number, you will not get to the same place that your map says is north.

Such is the same with life. There’s a practical, logical way to walk through life. It is the map we draw in our heads as children. The topography of that map is shaped by our culture, environment, and the expectations of our family and friends. By the time we reach our teenage years, geographic north is established on that map and we start moving in that general direction.

Then there is what you feel in your bones. What moves you to distraction. What the artist inside you whispers in your ears while you sleep. The direction you choose based on your own internal magnetic field and the way it interacts with your surroundings. Instincts, intuition, and “gut feelings” lead you toward your magnetic north. It’s not on the map. Only your internal compass can take you there.

Somewhere between the map we leave the house with and the invisible pull of magnetic north is our path in life. There is no prescription for how you align your path and toward which version of north you head. I think we all know when we’ve drifted too far off the path toward geographic north. Likewise, we know not to ignore the pull of magnetic north, where ever it may be at any given moment.

And I think that is the secret: accepting that you need a compass and a map on this journey. Sometimes, you follow the map and sometimes you put it away and let the compass tell you which direction to travel. You carefully protect both, but don’t ignore the importance of either the map or the compass.