Brain Pickings

7 Lessons on the Creative Life from the U.S. Forest Service


Simple rules to follow when you’re lost in the woods, literally and creatively.

“A clear head will find itself,” begins the 1946 U.S. Forest Service safety flyer “What To Do When Lost In The Woods,” a manual made for hikers and campers whose suggestions might also be heeded by creative types who have lost their way.

The practical advice in this pamphlet was found in a Colorado cabin by Jen Christiansen, art director of information graphics at Scientific American, who tweeted about it. Soon, artist Austin Kleon ( ) noticed that many of the suggestions of the Forest Service might also serve as good lessons for creators, so he tracked down the full PDF of the pamphlet at the Oregon State Library.

A 1946 flyer from U.S. Forest Service, 'What To Do When Lost In The Woods.'

After previously pondered wisdom on originality, the role of intuition, the science of creativity, the origin of good ideas, and the power of purpose, the U.S. Forest Service shows us that the art of saving your life — much like the art of being lost and found — can begin in the woods or in the heart, wherever you are.

Its lessons, distilled:

  1. Finding oneself is the test of man.
  2. Merely being out of sight of others in a strange forest gives a man the creeps — a natural feeling but a dangerous one. Never yield to it.
  3. Stop, sit down, and try to figure out where you are. Use your head, not your legs.
  4. Build a fire in a safe place.
  5. Don’t wander about.
  6. Don’t yell, don’t run, don’t worry, and above all, don’t quit.
  7. A thinking man is never lost for long. He knows that…he must remain where he is or push on to some definite objective, but not to the point of exhaustion…that someone will be looking for him, and strength in that knowledge makes hardships easier.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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