Open Thinkering


Do big ideas need big spaces?

It’s taken me over a decade, but I finally got round to reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. It’s a wonderful book, seamlessly combining the author’s own experiences with those of philosophers through the ages. I was genuinely delighted to learn, for example, that Baudelaire suffered perpetual ‘itchy feet’ but never felt at home anywhere. Likewise, de Botton notes that, as he has to bring himself along on every journey, the perfection promised by photographs and descriptions are never matched by the traveller’s own reality.

All of this reminds me of the opening verse to a song by one of my favourite bands, Kings of Convience entitled Singing Softly To Me:

Things seem so much better when
They’re not part of your close surroundings
Like words in a letter sent
Amplified by the distance
Possibilities and sweeter dreams
Sights and sounds
Calling from far away
Calling from far away

The above is merely away to introduce a quotation that keeps popping into my head from de Botton’s book. The passage we’re interested here can be found on page 57:

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape… [T]he view distracts for a time that nervous, censorious, practical part of the mind which is inclined to shut down when it notices something difficult emerging in consciousness and which runs scared of memories, longings, introspective or original ideas and prefers instead the administrative and the impersonal.

It’s no wonder people enjoy living at the tops of hills, looking down out of an aeroplane, or gazing out to sea. There’s something about a immense vista that inspires big ideas. This is the the ‘quaint correlation’ that de Botton identifies.

I’ve felt this often while travelling. It’s not so much new experiences that provoke thought (although they helps, too), but rather liminal spaces coupled with expansive views. Just as we literally zoom out of our everyday life while travelling, so we can conceptually remove ourselves from everyday worries and concerns, and focus on the bigger picture.

We should do this for ourselves, but we should also seek to do it for others. Perhaps we need to physically remove that recalcitrant child and put them somewhere with an inspiring view. Or maybe we should encourage our significant others to fly with us on an next business trip. Even changing your desktop background to one showing the magnificence and power of nature may help. Who knows?

Image CC BY-NC Aftab Uzzaman

PS If you do decide to purchase de Botton’s book, I highly recommend the original black-covered hardback. It feels ever-so-slightly luxurious.

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