I’ve been walking to work ever since I started working at Playdom three years ago. In fact, that’s part of why I took that job: I saw Steve Meretsky on a panel at GDC 2009, looked up the web page for the company he was working at, and found that it was located a little more than a mile away from my house. I wasn’t looking for a job right then, but when a recruiter gave me a call a few months later and mentioned Playdom, I thought I should give them a try.
Walking was a change for me: though I’d walked a fair amount when living in Cambridge/Somerville, I took the bus to work when I first moved to the Bay Area. (Generally reading books in the process.) When I left Stanford, though, that wasn’t an option, so I had to drive to work at Kealia; I switched my commute entertainment over to going through my CD collection. Sun bought Kealia, and eventually my group had to move to Sun’s Dumbarton Bridge campus; that wasn’t any easier to get to through public transportation, so I kept on driving.
At some point during my Sun years, I started jogging a few evenings a week: my doctor suggested I should take care of myself better, and I had to admit that sitting in a chair all day probably wasn’t the best idea. Which gave me still more time to listen to music; at some point, though, I made it through my CD collection (which was large but finite), and switched over to podcasts. Music podcasts, programming podcasts, literary podcasts, video game podcasts; the most important, though, was JapanesePod101, whose back episodes I steadily worked my way through. I didn’t listen to that one so much when I was driving—I needed to be able to stop to pay attention to it and to read through the notes—but it was my favorite when I was jogging, or when I was grocery shopping. (When we first moved out here, Liesl and I always shopped together, and then Miranda joined us when she came on the scene; these days, though, I do that myself, though the staff at the Milk Pail still regularly asks about Miranda.)
When I started working at Playdom, I could have continued driving, turning my commute from a 20-minute commute into a 5-minute one. But that would have cut down on my podcast listening time; I didn’t want that, and driving such a short distance didn’t feel right to me. So I walked instead. Though not all of my podcast time was so sacrosanct: I decided that forty minutes of walking five days a week was a reasonable amonut of exercise, and I’d never really enjoyed jogging, so I gradually let that slide. (It helped that I’d caught up with my backlog of JapanesePod101 episodes by then.)
Disney bought Playdom, I started looking for other jobs. Generally jobs that didn’t require driving, though several would have required taking the train: in fact, I came very close to accepting a job located near the Caltrain terminus in San Francisco. But I was very happy to find a job I liked that kept me in downtown Mountain View; the company moved a few months later, but that just turned a 20-minute walk into a 25-minute walk, which was perfectly fine.
About a year ago, two years after I started walking to work, something changed. Circumstances occasionally require me to drive to work, and one week I did that twice. The first day was fine; the second morning, though, I was bouncing off the walls. I ended up going for a 45-minute walk, and I was fine after that: my body had been telling my brain that it was missing something. This wasn’t an isolated experience; these days, I even worry a bit when driving to work one day a week.
It’s not just my body’s attitude to these walks that has changed. A few years ago, I paid a lot of attention to the podcasts I was listening to, in particular making sure that I was focusing on whatever point of Japanese grammar was the focus of that episode. These days, though, my mind wanders a lot more as I walk—sometimes, something I’m listening to will catch my fancy, but if nothing does, that’s perfectly fine.
Though saying that my mind is wandering isn’t quite right, either. I got into a rhythm where my subconscious would be thinking about something, then it would bubble up into my conscious brain while I was walking to and from work and I’d refine what I thought on the matter, then I’d type out and copy edit the results on my blog over the evening, then my subconscious would be free to think about something else. My blog had become an important, external part of my brain; walking had turned into a key tool in unlocking that. Really, while I’m glad that y’all are reading this, and I hope that you derive some amount of pleasure from doing so, my blog’s main purpose is to keep my subconscious from getting stuck.
Which makes situations where that cycle doesn’t work all the more frustrating. I’m fairly open in what I talk about on this blog: these days, if there’s something I’m thinking about that only affects me, I’ll just talk about it here. Great for games; social situations, though, I’m not always so comfortable talking about in public. Which is a pity, because those are often the most interesting situations to think about! And the thorniest to grapple with; I could use help from my external brain to deal with them. Maybe I should keep a private diary for stuff like that; as is, I get stuck thinking about them going to and from work for a week or two, and eventually my brain spins off a few tangentially-related blog posts, gives up, and starts thinking about something else.
This problem seems like it’s been getting worse over the last year. I don’t think that’s true, though: I would imagine that situations that I don’t feel comfortable blogging about have appeared fairly regularly since this blog began. Maybe the difference is that walking helps getting that out of my subconscious and into my conscious mind: so I know I could blog about it, I’m just choosing not to.
Stepping back a bit: my learning is getting interrupted, but it’s getting interrupted at a late enough state that the possibility of learning is at the forefront of my mind. That’s been happening in other contexts, too: situations where the potential for learning is clear, but where my plan for that learning gets blocked.
There, perhaps, my wounds are self-inflicted, and the answer is to go meta. Yes, I have an experiment I’d like to run, I’m just not able to build the consensus that I need to run that experiment. That doesn’t mean that I can’t learn from the situation, however: it’s only a problem if I’m too rigid about the path through which I want the learning to occur. Instead, the fact that I can’t build consensus is itself a learning opportunity; if I can switch my brain over to uncovering what happened there, then that’s great.
Some articles I ran across while thinking about this:
- Your Desk Is Making You Stupid, by Jessica Stillman.
- The Virtues of Daydreaming, by Jonah Lehrer.
- Is Productivity Killing Your Creativity?, by Jay Fields.
- Keep the channel open, by Nicola Griffith.
This post has not been revised since publication.