Breathing in perspective

So being online on long haul flights presents me with an interesting dilemma. On the one hand it's just ridiculously cool to be in touch with home and keep the family updated on the flight status etc (not to mention catching up on emails and occasionally joining a meeting by Skype as I did on the previous flight... #awesomeness).

But then on the other hand, long haul flights were always a special time of quiet reflection for me. In a busy, busy world I would use these long flights to "get away" from the hustle and spend some quiet time within my own mind, reflecting on bigger picture stuff – I’ve never been bored on long flights. As I think about my life now I realise how critically important this "mental extraction" from the real world has been to deal with the insanity of the 24-hour demanding grind that so many of us find ourselves in. Taking a moment to rest - to calm your mind - and to reflect on the enormity of this entire life, all of which is contained in your head - is nothing short of essential. It is the required breath of perspective that maintains our humanity as we continually adopt the routine-filled behaviour of machines.

When I was in high school I got my drivers licence on my 18th birthday. I used to boast that not a day of adulthood was spent without the ability to drive (legally). That drivers licence was freedom in my pocket! Road tripping in South Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) gave me the much needed breath of perspective - from chasing rainbows and lightning in open landscapes, to creating moving shadow puppets on mountain passes - just savouring the freedom of the open road was enough to free my mind from the chains of daily detail. At university I would go searching for view spots (sunrises, sunsets, city skylines, etc) - a breath of perspective away from the formula laden books that contained all the details of the universe.

When I moved to the capital city to start work I chose my first tiny bachelor flat because of its view of the sunset over the city centre - a breath of perspective that triggered so much in me - that emboldened me to take the idea of "help make people's lives better" to a level I never imagined as a child. When I moved to Cape Town and gave myself completely to the Sutherland community, I always had the stars of the Nothern Cape to keep me sane. With minimal sleep for weeks at a time, I worked harder than I would ever advise anyone to work. I could do it back then because every time I was in Sutherland I could take a moment to lie on the ground at the observatory and take a deep breath of perspective from the universe. Once Carolina joined me in South Africa and we later invited Xavier and Cyprian into the world, my amazing family became the balance I needed - they became the breath of perspective that kept me from becoming a machine.

What a lucky and privileged life I have had to have been able to think and reflect without the burden of survival weighing down my mind!

So from this life experience of mine, where I've kept afloat with occasional moments of bouyant reflection, this is my humble advice to you:

Don't give up opportunities to slow down, to stop and to think! One should never underestimate the power of deep reflection and the importance of reminding oneself of the bigger picture. We will always have many more tasks than time, and the things we take on will always be able to absorb 150% of your mindspace. What I have learned, the hard way in many cases, is that it is indeed possible to increase one's output with balance - in fact, I have learned (finally, after many stubborn years of chasing self-imposed deadlines) that such balance is actually necessary if one hopes in any way to increase the scale of one's impact on the world.

It's not just our work though that requires these breaths of perspective.

As we continue to occupy our mindspace with the details of the daily grind, conversations with our partners grow fewer and less rich; our children grow older and more independent; our elders grow fewer; our friends grow scarcer. An occupied mind doesn't apply itself to new things we may wish teach or learn from our partners or our kids. The daily routine barely allows space for a religious "how was your day" conversation. There's no space in our day to call up our old friends and see how they are doing. There's no space to sit with an elder and hear the stories that made you who you are. There can quickly be no space in your mind to do the things that inspired you in the first place to do what you do. We must therefore grab every possible opportunity to ponder about the ones we care about, and about the things that make us do what we do. We must be able to extract ourselves from this planet and look upon life as a whole.

I'm writing this now from an Emirates airline flight, somewhere above Africa, on my way home. I was so excited about being online (Emirates has the most affordable in-flight wifi I have ever come across) that I almost set about clearing up the huge email backlog that inevitably builds up during such high intensity work trips. And then I realised what I was sacrificing. The time on a plane has always been important for me, cognitively speaking. Perhaps it's because in terms of the big picture, this is as high as I ever go to find that pensive view of a place - to see the world as a whole - without the biases that detail inevitably brings.

I was talking about this stuff with Ram on the outgoing flight and he told me about the "overview effect" which Wikipedia defines as "a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the earth from orbit or from the lunar surface". I think we all need some of that "overview effect" in order to be better at making the world better… (Maybe this is why he and I are currently working at the OAD!)

It seems ironic that in order to make the most powerful processer in the world (our brain) function better, for the sake of this planet, we actually need to slow them down. I wish for you many deep breaths of perspective, as I have been so fortunate to have in my own life, such that you may often zoom out of the pixelated image of life's details and see the beautiful life that is yours to embrace.

So instead of putting in what would have effectively been a full working day in the air, I choose to write this, post it in the hopes that it may help someone to learn from my own realisations, and then I'll put away my laptop...