The skills of exploration

Bicycling and walking offer unique entry into exploration itself. Landscape, the built environment, ordinary space that surrounds the adult explorer, is something not meant to be interpreted, to be read, to be understood. Unlike almost everything else to which adults turn there attention, the concatenation of natural and built form surrounding the explorer is fundamentally mysterious and often maddeningly complex. Exploring it first awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations take more than an afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense. But exploring not only awakens attitudes and skills made dormant by programmed education, jobs and the hectic daily dash from dry cleaner to grocery store to dentist. It sharpens the skills and makes explorers realize that all the skills acquired in the probing and poking at ordinary space, everything from noticing nuances in house paint to seeing. Great geographical patterns from a hilltop almost no one bothers to climb, are cross training for dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Exploring ordinary landscape sharpens all the skills of exploration.

Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe (pp. 10-11)

I read Outside Lies Magic a few months ago, but my mind kept returning to this quote. Stigloe nicely captures what I enjoy about cycling or walking. Spending time to take the what I’m passing, stopping occasionally to get a better look.

I used to spend weekends walking with some friends. I was always the laggard: looking at the way sewage pipes were integrated into a bridge, identifying a new plant of fungus I’d never seen. I must have driven them crazy.

This is what walking was about for me: not the rush to the end (though the inevitable beer at the pub was nice), but the discovery along the way. It was about learning something new, finding something I’d never seen before, solving a mystery.

I recently went on a hike with my young son. We were with a large group, and he was lagging behind. He’d learned to take time looking at what he was walking past. And yet on this hike I became frustrated with him, tried to rush him, tried to get him to keep up. This was a mistake. It’s one of those regrettable mistakes that you almost know you’re making as you’re in the act of doing it. Fortunately, my wife has more sense than I have. After a while, we simply stopped and had lunch on our own. We then resumed our usual pace of wandering and wondering, rather than pushing mindlessly and blindly on to the next point on the map.

I feel the same about cycling. I cycle home from the train station in the evenings. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. The thirty minutes or so that I cycle home are the only point in most of my days when I can take note of the changing position of the stars, the progression of plants that a growing in the verge or the birdsong that accompanies me on these ride. I’ve occasionally stopped (though not often enough) to examine a flower that I noticed as I passed or to get a better look at hard-to-see constellations on a moonless night.

I don’t think I’d make a very good road cyclist. The point seems to be to go as fast as possible. While I can understand the thrill of speed and the wind rushing past, I’m more drawn to exploring roadside mysteries than rushing past them.

I like to think that in doing this I’m honing what Stigloe calls the skills of exploration. I need more practice. I don’t stop often enough. I don’t take enough opportunities to explore. Having a six-year-old son helps, though I have to remember to follow his lead rather than expecting him to follow mine.

A step in the right direction

And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction. ― Kurt Vonnegut

From Player Piano, this is quite possibly my favorite quotes of all time. It’s a reminder that progress is rarely relentlessly forward. There are missteps and backtracking. There are promising leads that turn into dead ends. All of this is progress, though, if you have the courage turn back rather than continuing on a route that isn’t going to get you where you want to be.

(Image courtesy of Will Thomas)

Discontinuous improvement

Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it. It’s not continuous. One cannot become a leader by continuously improving. That’s imitation of the leader. You never overcome a leader by imitating them and improving slightly. You only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you. And that comes about through creativity.

If Russ Ackoff had given a TED Talk…