Among the litany of addresses delivered by Steve Jobs, his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech is one of his most celebrated. As his biographer, Walter Isaacson, describes it, “the artful minimalism of the speech gave it simplicity, purity and charm. Search where you will . . . and you won’t find a better commencement address. Others may have been more important . . . but none has had more grace.” Buried in the talk, Jobs reveals a routine that helped him traverse the course of his journey, although he may not have fully appreciated its value at the time that he was doing it. Because the students were seeing a “successful” person at the podium who was closer to the end of his development than the beginning, he was careful to describe the realities of circumstances after he initially dropped out of college:
It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the five-cent deposits to buy food with, and I would walk [emphasis added] the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.
Jobs’s success was rooted in various sources, but a tactic (and conceivably a pivotal one) that allowed it to propagate were the walks he would take often on his own and occasionally with others. Robert Friedland, a close friend of his during college who had a significant influence on Jobs’s personality, remarked how “he was always walking around barefoot.” Isaacson realized the importance of these strolls when he asked Jobs to speak at the Aspen Institute. Though the Apple founder declined the invitation, he told Isaacson that he still wanted them to meet—so they could go on a walk together. Isaacson eventually realized this was Jobs’s preferred way to initiate a deep discussion. Those long walks persisted throughout his life, even while he was recuperating from cancer treatment when he would go off and roam as a form of therapy.
The relatively simple activity of wandering around without destination ostensibly aided Jobs in immeasurable ways. It was only retrospectively that he could “connect the dots” and share the impact that taking the time to wonder about the things that interested him had on his formula for success. Could a routine “mindwalk” provide similar benefit to court managers? There is certainly a creative component to the work of managing the people and processes of court organizations even if it is not necessarily at the level of competition in developing new Apple designs. To what extent (if at all) does taking a stroll by ourselves or with a colleague help in our craft of managing the courts? Can walking transport us to a higher plane of thinking—the same place at the intersection of the sciences and humanities where Jobs’s notable achievements were borne?
We agreed to meet at Valenti’s Gourmet Salumeria—a new deli that opened at the south end of the park. Toni had acquainted herself with the owner as the space was being refurbished, and after a long year of anticipation, this week marked its soft opening. When the owner saw Toni walk in, she immediately came around the counter to greet her. They shared a long embrace, the kind reserved for a childhood friend, despite not knowing each other before construction began. But to know Toni, however long, would always draw this kind of affection because of her sincerity and genuine interest in others.
We each ordered a menu item that was anything but gourmet—an Italian beef sandwich. We weren’t in Naples, where the sandwich originally hails, and this isn’t Chicago, the city that made the sandwich famous in America, but it reminded Toni of the many “peanut weddings” she’d attended when she was a relatively new immigrant and was instantly enticed to giving it a taste. Historically, the bottom-round meat was relatively inexpensive and prepared as the main course to feed scores of guests. It is generously seasoned with garlic, basil, and oregano and is sliced so thin that your tongue can poke through it.
The owner personally prepared the sandwiches—the meat shavings piled high and coming out of all ends of the roll. The order was accompanied by a side condiment of homemade hot giardiniera—a pickled relish of chopped carrots, celery, olives, cauliflower, and an assortment of peppers and seasoning that’s combined in olive oil and white wine vinegar. When Toni attempted to pay, the proprietor refused to take her money. Toni paid the kind gesture forward by placing the $20 in a tip jar.
“We’re going to come back for the sandwiches, but I’ll take our cups of tea now.”
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“It’s a beautiful day, so we’re going to go for a walk around the park. I also need to work up an appetite for that sandwich,” Toni joked.
“So, you’ll be back shortly?”
“Yes—and no need to wrap them. We’ll eat in your patio so that you can bring me up to date with the rest of the menu and grand opening.”
“Okay—perfect. Here’s your white tea,” she stated.
“Thank you,” Toni replied handing me one of the cups. “We’ll see you soon for a second cup to drink with our sandwich.” We walked out and began making our way on the well-worn path beneath the trees that lined the park.
“I know you said you wanted to burn some calories, but was there something on your mind you wanted to talk about?” I asked.
“Not at all. As you know, ordinarily I take my daily walk early in the a.m. but got diverted from doing it today. I was okay with skipping it because I knew we were meeting here for an early dinner and figured you’d join me for the stroll in the park.”
“It’s always been a priority for you—these daily walks?”
“I wouldn’t say always. But more so after I became aware of the all-around benefit it was having on my life.”
“Well, it’s a low-impact exercise that allows me to get my daily steps in to stay physically active. More importantly, the regimen allows my mind to lose itself in its own thoughts.”
“So, no music or podcasts then?” I ask.
“That would defeat the second purpose. But if you listen,” she stated and stopped to place her hand behind her ear, “you’ll hear the music of the natural world.” I stood there to take in the moment with her, and true to what she observed, I could hear the quiet psithurism and chirping of American robins that were known to inhabit the park.
“I see—so a part of the running theme of your process is to be alone with your thoughts?”
“Either my own or to exchange thoughts with someone like you who’s willing to indulge me.”
“From what I know, you’re doing a lot more of the indulging than being indulged.”
“I’d say that, in most instances, it makes no difference if whatever is being discussed makes for good conversation. It’s productive either way.”
We continued our stride, discussing a range of topics—films, books, work in general, and vacation spots we anticipated visiting one day. Each of the points she raised or references she made painted an image in my mind’s eye that segued from one brief discussion to another. “How are you enjoying this tea?” she asked.
“It’s good—this might be the best tea I’ve had in a while. The flavor is very unique. What do you think?”
“I agree,” she replied. “The tea leaves come from the camellia sinensis plant, and the fact that you find it distinctive is not entirely surprising. White tea is considered the least processed, so it retains a larger quantity of its properties that are good for you. This particular variety is called Silver Needle. Can you guess why they call it that?”
“Because the plant looks like an aluminum crochet needle,” I surmised.
“Not a bad guess. It’s because of the silver-colored fibers that cover the buds—almost like a light-gray cashmere loose knit. That’s what’s coming to mind since you made me think of crocheting,” she teased.
Before I knew it, we traipsed around the park and were steps away from the salumeria. “I can’t quite explain it Toni, but I think this walk boosted our regular discussions to another level. Inexplicably I feel reinvigorated—energized if you will. If nothing else, my mind and body are ready to tackle that sandwich,” I said laughing.
“Ha—I believe you. And now you know firsthand why it’s an important part of my morning routine even if it delays my start.”
“One step back to go two steps forward,” I said.
“You got it! You can’t stop the day from coming, but taking some time to roam in nature a bit can slow you down just enough to improve your physical stamina and bolster your imagination. And with that, you’ll be better prepared for whatever the day delivers.”
Research findings on the health benefits of walking abound. The consensus among physicians and other professionals is that walking improves an individual’s overall fitness and mental state. Some of the advantages it offers include improvements in cardiovascular health and lowered risk of contracting a range of chronic illnesses and diseases. It also helps to prevent and reduce weight gain, relieves symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, alleviates stress and pain on joints, aids in endurance, and speeds recovery from many injuries.
These physical benefits are well documented and widely accepted, but Steve Jobs’s penchant for walking was also no secret to some of the great thinkers in philosophy, literature, and music, who incorporated the activity as an aid to their creative process. In fact, it was a central part of their method. The Danish philosopher and poet Soren Kierkegaard observed its overriding importance: “I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, documented in his book On the Origin of Species, dawned on him, and was later refined, during daily walks on his “thinking path.” In fact, it is said that he seldom deviated from taking his three daily walks (one before each meal) despite the weather or how he felt physically. Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a profound influence on contemporary philosophy that includes morality, nihilism, and consciousness, found that walking was a requisite part of his approach to generating ideas. In his book, Twilight of the Idols, he noted, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” One of the most prolific authors of the Victorian Era, the English novelist Charles Dickens, walked 15 miles a day. While some considered it a pathological obsession, it was likely used as a needed diversion from writing, which, ironically, he found incredibly laborious and joyless. Finally, the famous composer Ludwig Van Beethoven took solitary strolls for hours on end in the Viennese woods, where he would draw inspiration from the sights and sounds. Parts of his sixth masterpiece, Pastoral Symphony, were reportedly imitations of the singing he heard from the variety of birds in the forest.
The evidence suggests that we can all draw extraordinary value from what is an otherwise ordinary activity. The fact that some of the greatest figures in so many fields routinely walked to vacate their minds so that they could more fully appreciate, experience, and contribute to their world demonstrates that it could also work for others. The court manager can use the same approach to gain a different perspective as it relates to the contribution she is making while linking it to her personal and professional development. It appears that walking harmonizes the mind and body in a way that cannot be experienced by running, cycling, driving, flying, or taking an Uber. I venture to say that the next best thing might be napping. W. H. Davies, a Welsh poet, famously stated: “Now shall I walk or shall I ride? ‘Ride,’ Pleasure said; ‘Walk,’ Joy replied.” He understood that walking connected the individual to their environment, allowing them to experience the journey in a more meaningful, intimate way. The illusion of the time saved for not pausing to take it in is just that—a false impression. Time is better spent (at least for a little while) allowing our minds to transport us to a place where we could never otherwise imagine. Insight, or maybe even creative genius, can be acquired down by the crossroads, but you will need to walk to get there.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.