Embracing ‘room travel’ can build our capacity for insight

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not knowhow to stay quietly in his room.” – Blaise Pascale, 18th-century French writer and mathematician.

In his final chapter of The Art of Travel published in 2002 British philosopher Alain de Botton introduces his readers to one Xavier de Maistre. de Maistre was born in France in 1762. An adventurer, civil servant and soldier he spent most of his life living in Russia after he left revolutionary France. Living a colourful and sometimes dangerous life he became famous in his native country for publishing an unusual travel memoir.

Journey around my bedroom or Voyage autour de ma chambre published in 1794iss an autobiographical account of how the author, confined to his room for six weeks explores his room and its furniture, fittings and engravings as if they were scenes from a voyage in a strange land. He praises this style of ‘room travel’ because it costs nothing, and for this reason it is strongly recommended to the poor, the sick, and the lazy.

As our challenge of living in The Lockdown grows by the day and the week, de Maistre’s ‘room travel’ invites us to put this period of enforced confinement to good use.

Yes, most of us have lost the physical freedom we took for granted. Yet in its place we have arguably gained two benefits: more time and more mental space. As deadlines and project demands reduce, so our potential for personal growth actually increases.

But what to do with these newfound benefits?

From my experience as a strategist over the years, lack of time and mental space is the enemy of insightful thinking. Insight comes in large part from examining the everyday and the familiar to find new opportunity from what’s often hiding in plain sight or just below the surface.

Taking inspiration from de Maistre’s perspectives on his own bedroom, we might regularly do a few simple things that can help us cultivate that capacity:

1: Think small. Really small.

The grand planning and the big picture ambitions have all given way to more essential things. I’ve always noticed that as we get grander with our ambition, we usually express this in more clichéd and unhelpful ways. A generic brand vision – ‘to become New Zealand’s most loved brand in our category’ might now be replaced with a specific mission – ‘to earn the pride of our own teams by using our expertise to help customers cope in these challenging times’.

Get deliberately more specific and focused. Quash the temptation to think in ‘fat terms’ and abstractions.

2. Observe and note the details.

Notice the detail of the everyday that you usually ignore in your hurry to jump in the car to get to work. I’ve found myself noticing the bird calls of the Tui, Kākāriki and Ruru on my section, the quality of the morning and evening light on the treetops of Maungawhau, and the architecture of Mount Eden village as I now stroll down the middle of the road. Observe other people’s behavior in supermarkets, over the fence or as they pass you by on a walk.  Journal your feelings, thoughts and experiences in detail as a way to train your mind to focus harder.

3. Practice active listening

We spend most of our time in business waiting to speak. Teams, House Party and Zoom aren’t exactly helping this. But with less work pressure comes the capacity to focus on others. To be genuinely more attentive than we’ve typically been in the distraction economy. Everyone is more anxious and concerned. Listening to others and noting how they feel tunes you in to the human experience of The Lockdown. As psychologist Harriet Lerner says: listen with the same passion that you have for being heard.

Let’s be direct, in the weeks that come there will always be a time for binge-watching Ozark series three with a fine bottle of pinot noir. But there’s also more space and time opening up to work on our own insight skills.

So, drop out of the Whatsapp group, shut the laptop cover and instead channel de Maistre by setting out on a voyage around your room, your home or your street.

I’ll wager it will pay dividends when we all find our new normal, whatever that ends up being.

Murray Streets is the managing director of BC&F Dentsu.

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