For nearly five years I walked the same two blocks to my train stop twice a day–morning and evening, passing the same houses, the same piles of trash, the same parked cars. Those two blocks became so dull. Every day the same thing. Nothing new to see. Sometimes, whole days could go by like that–everything the same. Nothing new to see.
Of course this is not true, but it’s very easily the mindset we can slip into, eased into the routines of the day, all too familiar with our surroundings. It’s that mundaneness that can stifle creativity. After all, what is creative thinking but exploration?
On the good days walking those same two blocks, I would look up for a change and notice the vibrant new spring leaves or cross the street to see that same stretch from another vantage point or take a different, longer route altogether. Those tiny explorations could make an otherwise mundane walk exciting.
“Exploration happens best by accident, not by following a schedule,” says John Stilgoe, professor of the history of landscape at Harvard and author of the book, Outside Lies Magic.
And exploration is important because it goes hand in hand with creativity. “How does one learn to be creative?” Stilgoe asks in his book. “How does one develop the ability to produce lots of new ideas, to respond to problems easily and energetically?”
His answer: Go outside. Look around. Walk. Notice. “Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.” Here are five ways that taking time to wander and explore the landscape around you can spark your creative mind:
Noticing new details is a perpetuating cycle. The more we pay attention to details around us, the more we discover and want to pay attention. “After a weekend or so of exploring, after looking around three or four or 20 miles from home, the explorer grasps at the magic peculiar to riding with eyes and mind open,” writes Stilgoe.
Letting yourself step away from your work to take a walk shouldn’t be an activity reserved for only sunny beautiful afternoons. What if you went out in the rain, in the cold, in the snow? “Direct contact, face-to-face with warm breezes and freezing rain, sometimes vulnerable, the explorer learns to weigh risk, to balance exertion and danger and discovery and relaxation,” writes Stilgoe. Coming into contact with the most basic of resistance–a strong wind or a storm–boils what it means to face a challenge down to its most basic elements.
We tend to follow a regimented schedule, even when we are taking time away from work to exercise. Yoga at six. The treadmill for half-an-hour. Kickboxing every Tuesday night. What if, on occasion, you allowed that time of exercise to be unregimented? According to Stilgoe: “Unprogrammed exercise and a rediscovery of what schools and employers and television and computers suffocate blend into some larger whole that reorients the mind, that offers a reward greater than any posted by pure physical exercise.”
Make a habit of noticing the details around you, of going out of your way to make small new discoveries and you will notice that they begin to appear almost on their own. This doesn’t require changing the entire way you live your life. It’s a subtle shift. “Exploration is a second nature,” writes Stilgoe, “easy enough to recover any weekday evening, any Sunday morning, any hour snatched away from programmed learning, from the webs and nets that invisibly and insidiously snare.”
We tend to let our eyes graze over the things we don’t know answers to when we’re out and about. But you can walk down a path to find out where it leads or pick up a scrap of paper on the ground to discover what’s written on it.
Allowing yourself to get out into nature in particular can help reawaken your curiosity. “Outdoors, away from things experts have already explained, the slightly thoughtful person willing to look around carefully for a few minutes, to scrutinize things about which he or she knows nothing in particular, begins to be aware, to notice, to explore,” writes Stilgoe. “The explorer owns all the insights, all the magic that comes from looking.”