Purposeful Mind Wandering
One of the very last dominions of creative solitude is the airplane. Ah, the airplane. Despite the turbulence and existential uncertainty, it remains one of the few places where you can mentally hide in plain sight.
For nearly 20 years, the airplane has been my “go to” venue to read, write and create without the distraction of the outside world. To be sure, I am not saying that I love the air travel experience with its ‘cattle car’ service model; rather, it’s the solitude of the travel experience that I crave. Air travel allows me to block out the daily intrusions of my connected life and permits my mind to wander and create curious connections.
Artists and inventors have long understood the importance of mental solitude to produce creative works. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “conversation enriches the understanding but solitude is the school of genius.” Steve Wozniak, “the pioneer of the personal computer,” retreated into the privacy of his home by himself in order to build the first prototype of the Apple computer. Contemporary creativity researchers often cite the benefit of solitude in aiding the process of incubation, in which our non-conscious mind works to solve problems that our conscious mind struggles to overcome. What Emerson, Wozniak and their legion thoroughly understood is that while collaboration plays an important role in shaping and maturing our ideas, solitude remains a key ingredient in catalyzing our creative insights and ideas.
So you could imagine my alarm when I recently boarded a flight and discovered WiFi and its siren call of connectivity. I was still recovering from the loss of my most coveted mental hideaways to the unrelenting overtures of technology. From my morning commute on the subway, which is now dedicated to email correspondence, to the 3 minute bathroom break (ok, 10 minutes) where I now review and confirm my calendar appointments. The wired world had stealthily snuck into nearly every facet of my life. I resolved right there and then that I would NOT give in and let this last bastion of creative solitude to disappear from my life. With the temptation mounting and seemingly everyone around me connecting their devices, I felt like a recovering addict being presented with an opportunity to relapse. I decided my only option was to go Cold Turkey. I removed the battery from my laptop, shoved it into my luggage in the overhead compartment and whipped out a pad and pencil. As the hours passed me by, my mind began to wander and the sparks of creativity once again began to fly.
The French philosopher, Pascal, perhaps put it best when he said, “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” So I can only speak for myself, but on my next flight, when the WIFI signal and its alluring array of green bars pops up, I am going to resist temptation. And instead, I’m going to sit back and let the sparks of creative connectivity fly. Wifi and modernity will just have to go on stand by while I enjoy my uninterrupted creative solitude.
Here's My Challenge For You:
The next flight, train or bus ride that you find yourself "trapped" in, take 30 minutes to completely "unplug" and allow your mind to wander with purpose. Wandering with purpose is an intentional creativity exercise in which you start with a problem / opportunity in mind and then LET IT GO. Allow your eyes and mind to wander without exhorting yourself to try to find a solution. Commit to spending 30 minutes at a minimum to allowing the various sensory stimuli to ping your brain and create rapid and random associations. Then record your meandering starter thoughts.
Please share your experiences and any BIG ideas or breakthroughs that occurred to you during your purposeful meandering.