Roz, I'm just trying to find my true north

3 Answers 3


True north differs from magnetic north, which varies from place to place and over time due to local magnetic anomalies. A magnetic compass almost never shows true north. In fact over millions of years, magnetic north wanders considerable and occasionally reverses so that the magnetic north pole has been near the geographic south pole at some periods in the earth's history. In the arctic region, a magnetic compass is not very useful.

To find true north from a magnetic compass you have to know the local magnetic variation and how it is varying over time. For ordinary folk this is difficult (although good maps will have magnetic deviation marked on them).

Magnetic Deviation Scary variation

From Websters Online

Finding true north is essential for accurate navigation.

Hence the metaphor. In life's journey we are often uncertain where we stand, where we are going and what is the right path for us personally. Knowing our true north would enable us to follow the right path.

  • It's actually even messier than that. On shipboard, because of magnetic materials on board (the engine, etc. of a small sailing vessel) the direction the ship is pointing must also be taken into account - the compass 'Deviation' varies with the direction the vessel is headed. Apr 7, 2011 at 0:12
  • "A ship's magnetic compass is adjusted through the process known as "swinging the ship" or "swinging the compass." During this process, the magnetic compass is compared to a gyrocompass or GPS receiver, [...] adjustments to the compass are made by adding, removing or sliding using the various magnets, bars and iron spheres that surround the compass. After adjustments are made, any remaining compass deviation is recorded on a reference card called the compass deviation card, to be posted near the compass." eHow Apr 7, 2011 at 7:42

I'd read it as finding my true goal, trying to figure out where I really want to go with my life. "True North" is non-negotiable, since the compass will show where it is, relative from your current position, and it will never change.

  • 1
    Technically, true north is not what appears on a compass. Magnetic north is what appears on a compass. See RedGrittyBrick's answer.
    – MrHen
    Apr 6, 2011 at 21:09
  • 2
    While I love RedGrittyBrick's answer, I believe teylyn has identified the meaning in the OP's quotation.
    – msanford
    Apr 7, 2011 at 0:36

I personally feel your "true north" is based on your bottom line, personal ethics — the line you are unwilling to cross based on those ethics. Therefore when you are faced, as we often are in this difficult life, with the question of what direction to take, you need to refer to your true north for direction. Metaphorically: do I "cross" my personal line? (Lie, cheat, steal, be disloyal to a loved one, hit or be abusive physically or verbally, etc.). Never lose sight of your true north. My son is in the military, facing ethically challenging questions daily. I have shared this personal philosophy with him.

  • 2
    – tchrist
    Jul 14, 2012 at 19:03
  • As good a personal ethic it is to use the metaphors of 'bottom line' (adding up good and bad values to make sure at the end you have a positive balance despite some minor negatives) or 'crossing a line' (a threshold or limit that you will not cross or compromise), those two are not at all like the metaphor of 'true north'. 'True north' is a 'good' direction; 'bottom line' is the final good result; 'a line not to cross' is the extreme limit beyond which you will not go. True north is the direction away from the threshold and the bottom line is how close you are to true north at the end.
    – Mitch
    Jul 14, 2012 at 21:45

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