Why Taking A Walk Can Make You More Creative

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Why Taking A Walk Can Make You More Creative

Words by Mr Timothy Noakes

25 October 2016

To celebrate The Art Of The Everyday, our new capsule collection with COS, which launches this Thursday 27 October, we at MR PORTER decided to muse upon a few simple quotidian habits that can vastly improve the quality of a man’s life. Below, born-again walking enthusiast Mr Tim Noakes explains why taking a contemplative stroll is a balm for body, mind and soul.

It’s been said that walking is the Western form of meditation, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s certainly one of the best ways to dream up new ideas. Sure, you can get across town faster by Tube, taxi and bus – but the constant barging, squashing, sweating, delays and cost aren’t that conducive for creative thinkingCycling is better and healthier, but it’s unadvisable to fantasise while riding as there’s a certain degree of concentration needed to avoid a collision with other road users.

Of course, when people do actually walk, they often injure themselves, too. Not by tearing a muscle, but because they can’t tear themselves away from their smartphones. The Germans call this type of person a smombie (smartphone + zombie). You know the type. Infact, it’s probably you. In 2014, the smombie invasion got so bad in Chongqing that the Chinese government had to make a designated smombie walking lane for them. In the US, hospitals have reported a 124 per cent increase in tech-related walking accidents over the last four years. The race is on for developers to design an app that can save pedestrians from themselves. And with affordable autonomous cars predicted to be on every street in the next 20 years, the definition of a long walk could soon be pacing a few torturous feet from our front door to our “UberAI”.

So we should all switch off our phones, lock up our bikes, bin our Oyster cards, and let our feet spirit us away into reverie while we still can. Even if you only do this a couple of times a week, you’ll be amazed with what you can conjure up.

After all, some of history’s greatest novels are cleverly disguised walking journals. Mr JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, Mr Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The d’Urbervilles, Mr Mark Twain’s Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Ms Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and Mr James Joyce’s Ulysses are just a handful of the classics whose plots revolve around a good old ramble. Mr Charles Dickens even cured an acute bout of insomnia by touring London’s slums on foot after dark. His adventures are chronicled in the book, Night Walks, a collection of essays which recently influenced Mr Matthew Beaumont to write his own nocturnal history of the city, Night Walking.

Taking GPS cues from geniuses is a good way to kick-start your own creativity. Recently, after reading Mr Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Mr Owen Hopkins’ From The Shadows, I hiked between Mr Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London churches and discovered a side of the capital’s architecture and history that had always been a part of my commute, but I had been too busy checking Facebook to fully notice. By improvising my own journey between those seven imposing steeples and using the authors as my guides, I became connected in a deeper way to the fabric of the city. Crucially, my mind had time to think about things that would have otherwise been clogged up with digital noise.

Mr Hawksmoor also inspired Mr Iain Sinclair, arguably the world’s foremost psychogeographic poet. After writing 1975’s Lud Heat about the shadowy architect, Mr Sinclair took to penning poems about his own epic walks. From trampling around the M25 motorway on foot for London Orbital, to his loving depiction of his East London stomping ground, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Mr Sinclair’s books are a masterclass in the creative benefits of bipedalism. He’s not alone – other contemporary authors such as Messrs Will Self and Robert Macfarlane, and Mses Rebecca Solnit and Lauren Elkin, have all taken psychogeography and Mr Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur – a casual city observer – and written some of the most riveting books about our everyday environments.

More than a century before Messrs Self and Sinclair’s mega-wanderings, the philosopher Mr Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”, a sentiment that was recently proved by Ms Marily Oppezzo and Mr Daniel L Schwartz of Stanford University. Through a series of tests on 176 college students, they successfully demonstrated that getting up from your desk and walking around generates significantly more (and better) ideas. Go into any decent startup and the majority of employees will be working standing up rather than sitting down.

But walking for inspiration isn’t just for writers and philosophers – think about all the immortal art, photojournalism and street photography that exists because of accidental encounters on foot. From Messrs Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martin Parr and Elliott Erwitt, to Mr Robert Frank’s The Americans and Mr Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects – modern visual culture has evolved thanks in no small part to artists who have stumbled upon the extraordinary while taking a stroll. Mr Edvard Munch was inspired to paint “The Scream” while out walking with his friends in Oslo. In a letter to his brother Theo, Mr Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that's the real way to understand art better and better". And Bristol’s Banksy, of course, scouts out his concrete canvases while plodding anonymously around our inner cities.

For me, generating the best ideas often comes from de-screening and putting the brakes on the madness of modern life. In Mr Frédéric Gros’s 2014 book, A Philosophy Of Walking, he writes that walking, “is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found”. By switching off and shifting down a few gears, you see and learn in a different way, which in turn inspires a clearer train of thought. So get outside. Now. Crunch some leaves underfoot in the woods or throw a handful of pebbles into the sea from a windswept beach. Or just go once around the block. And when you get back home, write something, make anything – but please start creating.