I love being Executive Director of Lincoln Center Institute, but if I were to name my job’s myriad positive qualities, tranquility wouldn’t be one of them. Lincoln Center’s position as the world’s largest performing arts institution is something I never forget, especially when I have a significant decision to make. In these moments, a mob of diverse and worthy perspectives invariably crowds my mind: I hear the voices of Lincoln Center’s and LCI’s Boards of Directors; of Maxine Greene, our Philosopher-in-Residence; of my passionate senior staff; of the classroom educators with whom we work and the students whom we serve. Then I get nervous. How am I supposed to synthesize the wisdom and interests of so many parties? Can I do so and still actually get something done? I feel myself tensing up, and I know it’s time to wander.
I rise from my desk, step out of my office, and take to the floor—the seventh floor, that is (LCI is located on the seventh floor of 70 Lincoln Center Plaza). I make a point of not thinking about the problem at hand or the many opinions I must consider; I merely take in my surroundings as I walk. The art on the walls. The faces of my colleagues. Snatches of conversations. I ask questions, find out what people are doing. Ironically, I feel more still and more quiet when I’m moving through the halls than I did when I was sitting alone at my desk, obsessing about the problem—and it’s because I’ve stopped trying so hard. I am walking to loosen the knot.
By the time I return my to my desk, things seem simpler. My mind is clear, I have a renewed appreciation of the organization I lead, and often a solution to the problem has even filtered through to me. Even without any revelations, the stroll has been worthwhile in and of itself: to employ the philosophical language of LCI, I have spent time “noticing deeply,” “questioning,” “making connections,” and “reflecting,” and I am once again ready to take action.
These periodic wanderings of mine are an example of the practice that Eric Liu and I call “Make Mist” in our book, Imagination First. That it’s the first one we list is no accident. If you think of imagination as a kind of fertile mist, a haze that gives birth to strange and exciting new ideas, then you realize that it needs space in which to move around. I create that space simply by getting up and walking around the place where I work; some create it through meditation, others by losing themselves in nature. Find what works for you, and the next time you’re feeling stuck over an assignment or an issue that demands resolution, try it out. See what amazing things happen when it seems as if nothing is happening.
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