I‘m actually writing this on an airplane, en route to New Zealand. So I hope I’m not tempting the gods by writing about how valuable diversions can be. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking a lot about the costs and benefits of being thrown off course, recently.

I’ve written before about the benefits of traveling unmarked or unexpected terrain, regardless of whether or not it’s your choice to make the side trip. But there are diversions, and then there are diversions.

Right now, for example, I’m choosing to divert myself away from my normal life for a couple of weeks to go back and visit the people I lived with in New Zealand when I was 20 … and finally, three decades later, actually visit the 90-mile beach that inspired me to run away to New Zealand in the first place.

While all that sounds wonderful, I sometimes find it very difficult, in the midst of a busy life, to tear myself away from all that “needs” to be done and pursue a diversion of “unproductive” travel or downtime. But I also know that it’s often when I just walk away, and do something completely unrelated to the work projects piled up on my desk, or even do nothing at all for a significant stretch of time, that my mind clears enough to see creative solutions that can elude me for days, weeks, or months, sitting at my desk. Especially if I remove myself long enough, and far enough, that I have to let go of all the household items and family responsibilities that normally scream for my attention. There is a reason Anne Morrow Lindbergh used to retreat to a cottage on a beach for 5 weeks by herself,  every year, just to think and write. She simply couldn’t get the mind space for creative insight in the midst of raising five children.

If that’s true, it’s because creativity is a non-linear and often unpredictable process that requires space and time to ripen. As Timothy Egan wrote in a recent New York Times column called “Creativity vs. Quants“ creativity requires “messiness, magic serendipity and insanity,” as well as a mind that has been “taught…to misbehave.” All that requires a bit of space and time–not just because it’s a crazy, messy kind of process, but also because having more room makes your mind more receptive to hearing, seeing, and recognizing creative ideas, answers, or ways of looking at things when those notions cross your path. What’s more, consciously diverting out of your normal routine increases the possibility that you will encounter new inputs, some of which may inspire the “aha!” answer you’d been looking for. [click to continue…]

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It’s All About Trade-Offs

by Lane Wallace on February 5, 2014

I have a friend who is constantly saying that life is about compromise. I’ve never felt that “compromise” was the right term, because it implies that we all end up somewhere in the middle. Which, of course, we don’t. There would be no gold medal Olympic athletes (I use this particular example because the winter games start in just a couple of days) if we all ended up in just some okay “middle” ground.

On the other hand, I believe very strongly that life is very much about trade-offs. Assuming that you have enough natural talent in a sport, there’s no reason you can’t pursue Olympic greatness. There will, however, be trade-offs and costs involved in that decision. What you can’t be is a gold medal Olympic athlete and–simultaneouslyan ideally well-rounded Renaissance person, fluent in several languages, art, philosophy, and science, with a 4.0 grade point average and a diverse and vibrant social life. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so much energy and “will” (as an Army officer friend of mine says) in the human body, and if you’re going to devote the time and energy required to be the best in the world at any particular sport, that means less of those things are left for anything else.

Yes, you can get better, at least to some degree, at your time management skills. But that’s nudging the needle, not changing the equation. And all the self-help books that tell you different are selling something. Because the law of trade-offs permeates not only issues of time and energy management, but all kinds of goals, choices, or approaches to life.

Take, for example, two recent articles I came across. One, in the January 19th issue of the New York Times Magazine, was called “Breathing in vs. Spacing Out.”

The article began by listing the benefits of “mindfulness” training and practice; how researchers have found that even 12 minutes of meditation, or “mindful” focusing practice, a day helped Marine soldiers keep their attention and working memory stable, even under stress. It did the same for undergraduate students, improving their performance on graduate school entrance exams. Indeed, another research team did MRI scans on subjects who practiced meditative mindfulness on a regular basis and found that it enhanced the efficiency and integrity of a region of the brain that plays a significant role in rational decision-making and effortful problem-solving. The practice worked, the article’s author concluded, because by emphasizing a focus on the here and now, it trained the mind to stay on task and avoid distraction.

All good, right? We all should sign up!

Well … if what we want is to stay on task and avoid distraction, then yes. But a couple of paragraphs later, the author notes that this mindfulness can also have “unwanted side effects.” It turns out that “raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations [e.g. wandering] could, after all, prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies.” [click to continue…]

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Of Thanks and Boredom

by Lane Wallace

Thanksgiving! One of the few times a year societal pressure actually encourages us to slow down and be in the moment–if only for a moment–and consider all we have to be thankful for. The two go hand in hand, of course–the slowing down/being in the moment, and having thoughts of what you’re thankful for–because it’s [...]

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A Manifesto for Better Journalism

by Lane Wallace

Last weekend, on the way home from giving a presentation/workshop to a hospital foundation in California, I found myself in LAX with a little time to kill and nothing to read on the six hour flight home. I wandered into a newsstand and looked at the magazines on the shelf (it was a Sunday, meaning [...]

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Adventure, Travel, and Vacation

by Lane Wallace

As the travel and vacation season kicks off, a thought or two on the types of travel and its rewards seemed appropriate. So … here goes.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, the New York Times ran a piece about the evolution of luxury vacation travel–and how much those privileged travelers are missing out on, by being shielded [...]

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Are Dreams and Passion Bad for Family Life?

by Lane Wallace

My mom (who is living with us at the moment) has been a Rotary Club member since 1987. So we now get “Rotarian” magazine delivered to the house on a regular basis. Normally, I don’t pay much attention. But the cover story of the January issue was titled “Wake Up and Live Your Dreams!” Seemed [...]

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A New Year

by Lane Wallace

Well, this post was supposed to come out in early January, when the title might have been more appropriate. But six weeks later, I am only now beginning to pull my head above water every now and then to notice what year it is.
For those who read my last couple of posts–a quick update: my [...]

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True North

by Lane Wallace

I have a stack of articles and subjects sitting in a folder waiting for me to write something about them on this site, but one in particular seemed most appropriate today, seeing as we are now officially in the Holiday Season, when thoughts turn to the North Pole more often than at other times of [...]

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Can Passion Come After the Fact?

by Lane Wallace

In the midst of the continuing medical crises that have inundated my family this fall (see my last post for the first; this past month it’s been an emergency hospitalization of my mother that’s had me in NY for all but one week–I think a post on “emergency adventure” might be in the offing …), [...]

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Unplanned Adventure

by Lane Wallace

I‘ve been a bit lax in posting to the site, the past month or so. So apologies for that. But it’s because I’ve been busy getting a serious, multi-level, first-hand refresher course in the gifts and challenges of what I call  “unplanned adventure.”
As anyone who’s read anything on this blog knows by now, I’m a [...]

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