Weak Signals

In the discipline of “futures thinking” and planning, a weak signal is the first indicator of a change or an emerging issue that may become significant in the future. With the distractions of every day life and a lack of quiet attention, it’s easy to miss these signals in our own lives. More often, and for a variety of reasons, we simply ignore them.

“When people stumble onto the truth they usually pick themselves up and hurry about their business.”

Winston Churchill

Transitions, or transformations, are said to have three major phases.

  • Ending, separation, or departure
  • The middle ground, liminality, “crossing the desert” or threshold
  • New beginning, or returning as a changed person

Before the first step, however, are the weak signals that indicate what may be ahead.

Joseph Campbell‘s Hero’s Journey starts with ‘the call to adventure.’ This call is not always a bolt of lightning, a tornado that carries us away, or a heavenly apparition. It can be a soft rumble, a stirring, a ripple in our mind or soul, or a vague disturbance. Keith Yamashita, co-founder of SY Partners, calls them the early warning signs that whisper to you.

Cones and Rods

If you have ever tried to focus your sight on a faint star in the sky, you may have noticed that you can see it if you shift your gaze slightly to the side. That’s because of receptors in the eyes, called rods and cones. There are more rods, which are more sensitive to light, at the periphery of your retina.

When we are trying to see something or solve a problem, we sometimes get a better view by tuning to the periphery. The mythologist and writer Martin Shaw tells us that, in stories and myths, solutions to a problem “come from the edge.”

“A mythological move is to be aware of all the hundred trembling secrets at the edge of your vision. Because they are the things that want to secrete their intelligence into you about the problem that’s right in front of you.”

Martin Shaw

How do we tune in to the weak signal? First, we must create a quiet, sacred (physical and emotional) space for it. The usual go-to activities include meditation or yoga. But it can be a walk alone, or creating art. I like to walk through the city or (even better) natural environments, noticing small details that I can photograph. This helps me to practice paying attention. Even a few minutes of staring out a window can open space for ourselves.

Any activity that helps us get beyond “the reach of the censor’s babble” where “we find our own quiet center, the place where we hear the still, small voice that is at once our creator’s and our own,” according to Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Here is what you don’t need to do. You don’t need to read another self-help book, or attend a class, workshop, retreat, or seminar. Yes, there are many wise resources out there, from the ancient wisdom of the mystics to the latest cognitive science research. These can help us navigate toward our inner lives. They can inspire us. They can remind us. But they don’t hold the magical key to your intuitive self.

Only you can discern your weak signals, if you remain curious and generous. Certainly, a guide or a coach can bear witness to the weak signals and reflect them back to you. A friend once said that she continued to see her therapist because “she keeps me honest.” An impartial third party, with no agenda or investment in the outcome, can act as a mirror. In the end, though, only you can hear or sense the weak signals.

The challenge is discerning the signal from the noise.

Neuroscientists tell us that our intuition will fool us, every time. Physicist Richard Feynman admonished us, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” I think that we mistake our ‘hunches’ for intuition. We are deeply motivated by past traumas and hurts, society’s programming, fear, or our attachments to certain ideas or identities. Discerning between our true self’s wisdom and the chatter of outside influences is tricky business.

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”


“The strange pull” may feel exactly like that: a physical gnawing or hunger. We can simply sit with these somatic, or internal, perceptions without trying to decipher or interpret them. Acknowledging them, without encouraging or dismissing, is the act of being “silently drawn” to where they may lead.

Weak signals are exactly that — whispers, slight nudges. They are, by definition, subtle. In the case of personal transformation or transition, they can give us an inkling of what lies ahead. That is, if we are willing to notice.

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