Taking a Walk as a Revolutionary Act

Here’s a really fun article TK Coleman and I wrote for a new publication called Design 4 Emergence.  Check out the beautiful layout on the original!


Isaac’s Take: The Mind a Blender

It was cliché. I took a walk on the beach and my life changed forever.

I like to imagine ideas as tiny physical objects sloshing around in my skull. The heavier ones sink to the bottom and the rest separate based on weight and viscosity. They mostly find their resting place and stay put, or at least in the same stratum.

Yet in order to create, make personal progress, discover who we are, and do what makes us most alive we need ideas to bump into each other. We need more than prefabricated plans and processes. We need disparate concepts to pair in unlikely, unpredictable ways. We need ideas to not stay in their place.

The rhythmic jostling of a good walk is like a blender. All the layers of ideas begin to move and shake and mix and mash. Walking is like a stirring up of the brain and the soul. Just 20 minutes into a quiet walk and you’ll begin to notice weird things happening. Seemingly random thoughts and thoughts about thoughts will move up and down, side to side, from the back to the front of the mind.

Back to my story.

I was frustrated, restless, and in a rut. Even though it was inconvenient and disruptive to my busy day, I made myself drive 15 minutes to the beach and go for a walk. I needed that endless horizon. I had no specific goal for my walk, which is kind of the point.

Five minutes in and I looked up at the horizon and saw in my mind’s eye a word floating in all caps just above the water.


The bouncing of my steps had shaken this word loose and on its way to the front of my mind it had bumped into a bunch of other ideas long dormant. My decade-long dissatisfaction with the higher education system. My personal knowledge of dozens of entrepreneurs who were hungry for young talent. Recognition of my own skillset and network. It was too perfect. How could I have failed to see this for so long?

Within minutes an entire business model came into view, crisp and clear. I ran to my car, drove home, sat at my laptop and typed for a few hours straight. What is now my business and my passion was born.

Looking back, it all makes sense. I disliked my own college experience and envisioned a radical new model some 12 years earlier. I didn’t know where to go next with my idea so I put it on the shelf and pursued other things. In the dozen years that followed, I mostly pursued whatever was interesting to me personally and professionally with no long term plans. I managed to accidentally accumulate a near perfect mix of knowledge, skill, experience, outlook, and a network to launch what eventually became the higher ed. alternative I once dreamed about.

But I didn’t know any of this stuff was in there. It was all hiding in its own layer. Some nestled deep in the subconscious. Some associated with entirely different aspects of myself. I could never have purposefully made the connections necessary to see what I was capable of building. It had to emerge.

I took a walk. It’s the best way I know of to create the space for emergence in your own life.

You live much of life on a conveyor belt. It’s a structure created by others beginning with school and following you even onto the Internet as your newsfeed is curated based on assumptions about what’s important to you. But you’re hatching ideas and ideas about ideas all the time, whether you know it or not. The trick is accessing them and giving them space to mingle.

All the networks and technology at our fingertips is amazing. But it cannot on its own bring about the great epiphanies and acts of creation.

You can’t deliberately plan emergence. But you can remove obstacles. You can create conditions conducive to it. For me, that’s the simple act of walking. An act as old as our species.

Let your steps stir up your soul.

T.K.’s Take: The Mind an Ocean

One of the concepts that radically changed my life is an idea called “noble boredom.”

According to Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man noble boredom means, “No anticipation of action. It means having the ability to be present without needing something to happen.”

You don’t need to live very long to discover that busyness is the bearer of many luxuries. Being busy makes you look important. It gives you a good excuse for avoiding unwanted commitments and helps you deal with guilt, inadequacy, and the belief that you’re not working hard enough. Busyness protects from messy confrontations with the thing you fear the most: boredom.

When you consider the primary form of expressing boredom (“I don’t have anything to do”), it’s no wonder that we seek salvation in the experience of perpetual preoccupation. We dread running up against the fact that we often have no idea where we’re going and why we’re traveling in relation to all the stuff we do. If we stop being busy we’ll be bored. And if we become bored, we’ll see how uninteresting and uncreative our lives really are.

But inactivity need not be boring. The stillness and solitude that we look at as evidence of us not being creative enough is the very source of creativity.

Our subconscious mind is like the ocean. Our everyday waking-state consciousness is like the surface of that ocean. The activities of the mind and the external events that demand our attention are like the wind and the waves. Go to the shore of an ocean on a windy day and what do you see? You see the waves on the surface but what lies beneath is invisible.

The ocean is teeming with life, filled with all sorts of exotic and interesting forms waiting to be discovered. But as long as the wind is blowing and the waves are doing their dance such things remain hidden to the observer.

What if you return to the ocean on a quiet and calm day? The ocean doesn’t change but your experience of the ocean would be profoundly different. When the surface waters are still you see into the depths. You encounter astonishing things. You can reach for things that you previously didn’t know were there.

This is a metaphor for the relationship we have to our own  interior depths. As much as we hail the marvelous powers of imagination, that power is often drowned out by all the external noise and busyness of day-to-day life. Our souls are not empty. They only seem to be because we haven’t learned how to look beyond the surface.

The simple act of taking a walk creates a bridge from busyness to stillness that allows us to penetrate the depths of our mind without completely disregarding our strongly conditioned need to “do something.” Some teachers of meditation describe walking as a mantra for the body. The purpose of a mantra is to get our reactive thinking and the incessant activities of the reptilian brain out of the way. It’s like giving a dog a bone. The dog ceases to make noise and it has something to do. This allows you to get on with your work.

Walking allows you to get into a rhythm or a groove that makes it easier for your reactive mind to settle down and open itself up to deeper insights and creative ideas. Many people try various forms of meditation only to find themselves uncomfortable, bored out of their minds, or quickly falling asleep. This is often the case because we’ve come to associate meditation with making the body still. The essence of meditating isn’t, however, about being in the lotus position or bragging about your ability to close your eyes and sit still for an hour. The true purpose of meditation is interior stillness.

You could say that walking is nature’s meditation hack. By involving your body in the act of meditation through casual walking you create a gentle transition to inner stillness. This kind of walking is different from the kind of walking you do when you’re trying to get somewhere. This is the walk of noble boredom. It’s a form of boredom because you’re not doing anything in the typical sense, yet it’s noble because this simple act of non-doing holds the promise of offering greater meaning, creativity, efficiency, and substance to all you do.

I’ve spent many years studying and practicing various forms of meditation. From Osho’s First & Last Freedom to Jean Houston’s The Possible Human, I’ve experimented with many different ways of exploring my own consciousness. All of the methods I’ve tried have been useful to some degree. As a student of philosophy, I love approaches to contemplation that emphasize the importance of taking a break from the world and sitting in silence. As an entrepreneur who enjoys the pressures and challenges of creative life, however, nothing has provided a better balance of satisfying both my need to relax and my impulse to be on the move than the fine art of walking.

When I played basketball in grade school my coach would often say “walk it off” in response to one of the players catching a leg cramp. That advice stills rings true. When I have a problem or puzzle I need to resolve, I walk it off. When my thinking is cramped, I walk it off. It’s never failed me yet.

It’s Much Easier Than You Think to Live the Life You Want

Maybe not “easy”, but entirely possible.

I recently listened to an episode of The World Wanderers Podcast where the host discussed working at a Cafe in a great city that a lot of people would love to live in.  She mentioned how, had she not moved to this cool, exciting city, the job she had would have made her feel like a loser.  In your hometown working retail after getting an expensive degree seems pretty lame.  Up and moving to a destination city and working retail to support the lifestyle seems kind of adventurous.

Back home, she would have dreaded seeing an old friend come in.  “Oh, so you’re working here?”  In the new city when someone she knew came in the question was more like, “Wow, so you’re living here?”

Just a few days ago I talked to a guy who’s biking across the country and loving it.  He spent several months in beautiful Missoula, Montana waiting for the weather to improve so he could continue his journey.  He worked at a grocery store while there and it provided everything he needed to live the lifestyle he wanted and get back on the road in time.  What would his resume look like when, several years out of college, he had “Grocery bagger” listed?  Not great, except when put in the context of, “Spent two years biking across the U.S., paying my way through with odd jobs and blogging about the adventure.”

I thought about this phenomenon more in Mompiche, Ecuador a few weeks ago.  We found a little place with a sign for American-style pancakes.  A welcome breakfast after days of fruit and cereal.  The breakfast nook was run by a twentysomething woman from the Ukraine.  She fried up pancakes on a small griddle and served them with coffee for breakfast and lunch in the tiny Bohemian surfing village.  She lived in a neat little house right above the pancake joint and spent the rest of the day as she pleased.

Imagine this ambitious young woman back home responding to the common, “So, what do you do?” with, “I make pancakes for a living.”  Likely her friends and family would be a little worried and ashamed and think something wrong with her.

Contrast that with the same answer to the same question but with a change in geography.  “I moved across the world to a tropical surfing village in Ecuador where I opened my own business.”  Wow.  What an enviable life, right?

There’s something weird about staying in your hometown.  It severely limits the definitions you accept for what makes you successful.  Oddly, most of the hometown definitions of success have nothing to do with happiness.  They have to do with becoming what everyone in your past expects or desires given who you used to be.  It’s a sort of tether to a past self that no longer exists.

When the expectations of back home no longer apply you can ask better questions and make clearer connections.  What kind of person do you want to be (vs. what job title do you want)?  What kind of people and surroundings do you want to be immersed in (vs. where do you want to work or live)?

Many people would probably love to be the master of their own schedule, be in a beautiful outdoor setting with interesting people from around the world, seriously pursue a hobby with lots of their time, and be challenged in new ways daily.  Yet most of those same people would be horrified at the idea of playing guitar on the street for money, flipping pancakes, or doing freelance odd-jobs online, any of which might be the very means to achieve the life described.

Most people have this idea that you have to work a boring job in a boring house in a boring city for a few decades, and then if you play your cards right and all kinds of things totally out of your control (like the stock market or real estate prices) do the right thing, you can have some kind of two week vacation cruise or retire in a place where you enjoy good weather and leisure.  The weird thing is, all those “someday” goals are available right now with relatively little difficulty.  You can afford to live in a cool bamboo house in a beach town just by making pancakes for lunch and breakfast.  You can (as was one guy I met) travel the length of South America living entirely off the cash you make playing guitar outside of restaurants.

I’m not claiming this kind of life is for everyone.  Not at all.  There is nothing wrong with a 9-5 job and life in the suburbs if that’s what really resonates with you.  There’s nothing inherently noble about traveling or working some low wage odd job.  The point is that it’s too easy to choose things based on an artificially limited option set.  It’s too easy to define your life by stupid things like college majors or giant industry labels or titles that will make Aunt Bessie proud at the family reunion or salary levels.

The last one is especially dangerous.

It’s a weird habit to measure your success in life only by the revenue side of the equation.  Who cares if you bring in $100k a year if it only buys you a crappy apartment that you hate in a city that stresses you out with friends that don’t inspire you and a daily existence you mostly daydream about escaping from?  Your costs exceed your revenues and you’re actually going backward.  You very well could get twice the lifestyle you desire at half the annual income.  Like any business, the health of your personal life should be measured using both revenues and costs.  On the personal level, neither are not just monetary.

Only you can know what kind of life you want.  But getting off the conveyor belt of the education system, getting out of the home town expectations trap, and opening your mind to measures of progress beyond salary will give you a much better chance of crafting a life you love.

Here are a few articles to chew on:

Why You Should Move Away from Your Home Town

Why You Should Get Off the Conveyor Belt

Why “Escapism” Isn’t a Bad Thing

Why It’s So Hard to Exit a Bad Situation

Do You Need to Do Work You Love to Be Happy?

Stop Doing Stuff You Hate

Focus on What You Don’t Want

Do What You Love, or Have it Easy?


Let Your Kids Suffer

I’m convinced one of the best things a parent can do is let their kids suffer.  It’s also one of the hardest.

I don’t mean suffer from imposed deprivations, scolding, withholding of affection, or physical illness.  I mean suffering from the things that are inevitable parts of life and without which no happiness can come.

Mastering a skill.  Learning social dynamics.  Resolving conflict.  Choosing between two good (or two bad) options.  Discovering who you really are and how you fit in with the world around you.  These all involve some level of suffering, sometimes a great deal.  Yet none of them can successfully happen if a parent swoops in to circumvent the hardship inherent in the process.

When your kids are fighting with other kids, or getting hurt feelings over misunderstandings, or in agony over inability to achieve a digital or physical feat it can be brutal to observe.  Every fiber of your parental being wants to intervene and stop the struggle.  Maybe at least offer to buy them a food they really like to ease the pain a bit.  But such interventions rob kids of the growth that comes from learning to adapt and discover their own unique method of achieving their goals and finding happiness.

Even boredom can be hard to watch a child suffer through.  But if we rush in to entertain them and ease their boredom with reams of suggestions and exhortations we short-circuit their process of learning to be interested and interesting.

One of the best parenting tips I have stumbled on, and one I remind myself daily, is simply to do less parenting and let my kids do more living.  Even when it’s not all rainbows for them.

Against Life Plans

Life plans seem pretty daunting to me.  I know people who feel stressed and depressed because they don’t have a clear one.  There are incredibly rare people who know beyond the shadow of a doubt what they want to do in great detail.  If you are one of them, don’t let anything stop you.  For the rest of us, I suggest we drop the notion of a life plan altogether.

I often talk about why trying to find what you love is not the best idea.  How can you know with so many options?  It might not even exist yet.  Instead, I recommend making a list of what you know you don’t like.  Don’t do those things, and everything else is fair game and moving you closer to the things you love.

But it’s not just about narrowing down and finding the things you most enjoy.  It’s about enjoying the process.  Try a bunch of stuff.  But don’t waste time once you know for sure something makes you unhappy.  Not only do you want to drop it because it’s not likely to be your long term sweet spot, but also because it’s not fulfilling right now.

Every day do your best to avoid things that truly make you unhappy and crush your spirit.  Every day show up, create, work and do things that are fulfilling, even if (especially if) they are really hard work.  You don’t have to plan your life, but you should live it.  Fully alive.  Fully awake.

If you’re not in a spot where you’re enjoying life right now, why not?  Can you change it?  Not two or ten year from now, but today.  Every day get a little bit closer to only doing things you really enjoy.  You’ll end up with a life better than what you would plan if you could.

Hedonism as Life Purpose

“Christian Hedonism”.  I encountered this phrase when I was about 16 and studying theology.  The concept had a big impact and stuck with me.  Whether or not you are religious there’s something powerful in it.

I believe it was a theologian named John Piper who coined the phrase, which made it especially intriguing because Piper was on the opposite side in many debates over free-will and other theological matters I was interested in when I first read it.  I won’t pretend to recall all the details but what I took away from the idea was that, in Piper’s mind, the Christian’s purpose in life is to take delight in existence, and take delight in God delighting in them for being delighted.  God created humans so that he could take pleasure in them, and seeing man take pleasure in life is what most pleased God.

I always associated the idea with a line from the movie Chariots of Fire, where the deeply religious Eric Liddell is chastised by his sister for missing church because he was running.  He said, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”  Not merely that Liddell was having a pleasurable experience himself, but that he felt the pleasure of God as he ran.

C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves describes the deep love that occurs when people are not only delighting in each other, but delighting that the other is delighting in them.

The word hedonism evokes excess, even destructive excess.  That’s a very shallow understanding of the idea.  It is true, if one merely indulges in short-run highs they may be called (and even call themselves) a hedonist.  But I think genuine hedonism, as the satisfaction of desires, is in fact life’s purpose.  The trick is discovering what those desires are and what it takes to satisfy them.  Running is not easy the way drinking a beer is easy.  Running is hard and at least a bit painful.  Yet Liddell (and he is not alone) described a kind of pleasure that far exceeds a mere exciting of the taste buds.

The deepest, truest human desires are not satisfied with temporary titillation alone.  Those can be a delightful part of existence, but cannot satisfy the soul’s most powerful longings.  Being fully alive requires some degree of challenge.  It requires some degree of pushing oneself, if even only to fight distraction and carve out time to marvel or think.  That is not to say it is only found in quiet contemplation.  Many of life’s most fulfilling moments are busy, bustling, social affairs.  But it seems true delight is best derived when some effort is required to obtain it.  It requires both connection to self and connection to something outside of oneself.  Simply taking what the stream of life floats us can be a decent indulgence, but it slowly erodes or numbs a deeper sense of meaning.

Hedonism as a conscious pursuit isn’t easy.  The self-knowledge and self-honesty required to take genuine delight in existence, and feel a kind of reciprocal delight being taken in you (whether by another, or by God, or by the universe, or whatever you may call it) is hard won.  It’s easier to let life happen to you and play the critic or the martyr.

With or without a religious narrative, the notion of finding your highest pleasure and pursuing it is powerful.  That seemingly paradoxical combination of the words, “Christian”, and, “Hedonist” has wisdom in it.  The former carries connotations of discipline, devotion, and the eschewing of worldly distractions.  The latter connotes joy, pleasure, and seizing every moment for pure delight.  That combination seems to be where the best life is found.  Perhaps the pursuit of pleasure is in fact a serious affair; as serious as life itself.

Are People Who Don’t Smile Unhappy?

Kids are rarely more happy then when they get candy.  Second might be hanging out with friends.  Somewhere near the top would be dressing up.  This explains why Halloween is so fun for them.  They’ve got endless sugar, lots of activity, costumes, friends, and plenty of running and yelling.  All while parents seem uncharacteristically relaxed (at least if they’re smart and brought a flask).

My kids love it.  You can tell immediately by looking at my oldest and youngest.  But my middle daughter might stump you.  She does not smile on Halloween.  She doesn’t giggle or chat about the candy she got or the decorations she sees.  She stares cold-blooded and steel-hearted and proceeds to the next house with ruthless efficiency.  There are severed heads, knife-wielding creepies, witches, ghosts, and reapers galore on October 31, but perhaps nothing is more frightening than my daughter as she mechanistically says the magic words, “Trick or treat”, and, “Thank you”.  Watching her can be a deeply unsettling affair.  She is on a mission and will not be denied.  I fear for any who impede her progress.

I ask her if she’s having a good time and she immediately, stoically replies a single syllable.  “Yes.”  I believe her.  I’ve known her since day one and this type A girl is intense when she’s loving life.  She can be as goofy as the next kid, but her form of pure bliss is very different from visions of cherubic tots bouncing about with constant smiles.  She is solemn about fun.  She has goals.

It’s no surprise that by the end of the night her candy bucket is 2 or 3 time as full as the others – even though her older brother has five years on her and can run faster and farther ahead and hit more houses.  She doesn’t break the rules.  If she’s told one piece she takes one piece.  If nothing is stated she takes a handful.  If she’s told no walking on the grass she doesn’t.  If it’s unclear she takes the shortest distance between two candy sources.

It took me a while to appreciate this manifestation of joy.  She’s not happy in the simpler, cheaper, more common sense of the word, but she seems to be experiencing a deeper delight than the others.  She anticipates and mentally prepares for it in advance.  She pursues it with intention.  She revels in it longer (in no small part because her candy buckets lasts a lot longer afterwards).  She’s more deeply upset if she’s stymied.  It’s been good for me to learn that, though she’s not always smiling, it doesn’t mean she’s unhappy.

She’s now the stuff of legend in my mind.  My favorite part of events like Halloween has become watching her intensity and single-minded pursuit of the prize.  I love her matter-of-fact affirmative response when I ask if she’s having a good time.  It’s less immediately rewarding as a parent when your kids don’t wear their jollies on their sleeve, but it’s fulfilling in a different way to see them take pleasure seriously.

The big challenge, now that I know lack of a smile doesn’t mean anything’s wrong, is figuring out when something is wrong.  It’s easy with visibly happy people.  With the more stoic, focused types you can’t always tell.  I’m still learning.