Walking to innovation
I have a friend who leads a law practice. When he planned new offices, he eliminated conference rooms. Instead he has a broad path around the perimeter of his offices. He has walking meetings.
The concept is an unusual one, but perhaps an enlightened one. In a review of Matthew Algeo’s Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport, Adam Gopnick says, "For several decades in the later nineteenth century, the favorite spectator sport in America was watching people walk in circles inside big buildings."
Over the past two weeks there have been two interesting articles presenting research that affirms that walking is the path to creative thought.
Ferris Jabr, writing in the New Yorker on "Why Walking Helps Us Think," says –
Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.
I like the observation that Gopnick makes, and then quotes, in his review –
It is the Western equivalent of what Asians accomplish by sitting. Walking is the Western form of meditation: “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.”
I am envious of the urban dweller who seems to have much more to observe and inspire. Gopnick make observations that are unique to New York City –
You could walk anywhere. Saturday all day, Sunday all day, I’d tramp through the lower-Manhattan neighborhoods. The differences, architectural and social, among Tribeca and SoHo and the East Village, to name only contiguous areas, were distinct and vivid and nameable then: cast-iron buildings shading off into old egg- and paper-carton factories sweetly interrupted by small triangular parks, and edging over, as you walked east, into poor-law tenements that were just being reclaimed by painters. I would set off on a Saturday morning and walk all day, and achieve Kazin’s feeling of vague excitement, of unearned release, in a way that I have never felt before or since. SoHo in the eighties was the finest place for walking, not only architecturally beautiful but, by accident, still beautifully composed: illuminated sidewalks, glass orbs studding the iron paving to bring light to the basements below, still actually functioned, while the pioneering businesses were as chic and widely spaced as rocks in a Japanese garden—a single one-room restaurant with a cursive menu outside, a block of old businesses, a single charcuterie, a single deli for the whole neighborhood. At twilight, you walked, so to speak, from campfire to campfire, with inviting darkness in between.
The impact, ultimately...
Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts. Ultimately, maps like the one that Nabokov drew are recursive: they are maps of maps.