I started writing these words on a Thursday morning while walking across London between Farringdon and King’s Cross. A tube ride between these two stops takes four minutes, but this morning time was on my side and I decided to meander down the side streets, taking a route that was new to me.
I made some discoveries along the way. On Eyre Street, I spotted a sign for Chiappa Organ Builders, an organ manufacturer that opened its doors in 1877. It’s still in business today, albeit in a different incarnation as a maker of mechanical music books. A few minutes later in Gough Street I stopped to look at the vast Mount Pleasant mail sorting office, a twelve acre site slated for redevelopment. Then I weaved back into Gray’s Inn Road and headed north towards King’s Cross.
It may sound like I was on a day off. In fact I was in-between meetings, using my time on the street to think things through.
Walks like this are an important part of my working life. For the past eighteen years I’ve eschewed being based in a proper office for a more nomadic working style. The streets fuel my work as a creative consultant, storyteller and coach.
My love of traversing London’s streets began at the start of my career in 1990 after I left university and became a runner at a TV production company. With my battered London A-Z under my arm, I ferried video tapes around Soho and Fitzrovia. I felt like a London cabbie learning The Knowledge and came to know the little side streets and alleys — Newman Passage, Colville Place, Charlotte Place — intimately. Twenty seven years later I use these same streets as the backdrop to my ‘Fuel Safaris’ where I take people on journeys to navigate their careers:
Most of us work in urban locations. These days it’s common to nip out of the office to get a change of scenery and work from a coffee shop. The streets serve a function, providing a route from A to B.
But what a missed opportunity: how about using the streets to unlock ideas, get unstuck or give us that blast of inspiration? For me, the streets are where I get my fuel, where I do my best thinking, wherever in the world I am.
So here are 5 Things I’ve learned about how to use the streets to get inspired:
1) Go to the place that fuels you.
I have a love affair with Amsterdam and live ten minutes from an airport where I can hop on a 35-minute easyJet flight to the city. I try and get there a couple of times a year. I always take a list of things to think about, and when in the city, I walk around and tick off the tasks I’ve completed.
I make my time sweat. Last September, I went to Amsterdam for three days. I racked up 47 kms on foot, filled a notebook with thoughts and came up with multiple ideas. I know that walking around the streets and canals in Amsterdam will help me achieve my goals: the city is an accelerator for getting things done.
2) Leave the map behind.
In December 2010 my friend David and I took the Eurostar to Paris in order to write a business book together. I’d booked us into a white-walled, white-floored apartment which I knew would be an ideal base for crafting our plans.
On our first morning, snow fell and we decided to walk out for a coffee. And out on the streets of Paris, we accidentally discovered the best process for extracting and shaping our ideas. We’d walk and talk until our minds were brimming with ideas, then we’d find a café to warm up and write notes. Once our ideas were down on paper we’d set off again, stopping for lunch or a carafe of wine to capture our next ideas.
During our time in Paris we decided to walk without a map which meant we could really focus on our conversation and shaping our ideas. We didn’t have to stop to look at our phones or street signs to see where we were. We were free… and so were our ideas.
3) Let the streets show you the way.
We can often find ourselves in the midst of a confusing array of paths to choose from, and be overwhelmed by which route is best. Being in the middle of things means it can be hard to know which way to go.
When I take people on a Fuel Safari, I usually start the walk at Seven Dials in London’s Covent Garden. Seven Dials — a junction where seven small streets converge — is a great metaphor for all the options we have open to us. After my client and I have selected a street to walk down, we take in the sights and sounds, allowing the mind to wander and then refocus.
Talking whilst walking helps them explore their ‘what next’, where they want to head in their work-life or career. It allows for frank and open discussions, and enables us to come up with the answers.
4) Avoid the obvious streets and places.
Busy urban environments can be inspiring, but it’s unlikely you’ll have your best ideas dodging pedestrians on Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue. I find it’s meandering through the quieter side streets where the interesting ideas happen. I love the random left turns that provide surprises, revealing bars and shops off the beaten track.
In New York last year I headed to the Lower East Side to visit Caroline Weaver’s pencil shop, CW Enterprises. I’d arrived before it was open so I went to find some coffee, and stumbled across Café Henrie on Forsyth Street. Indie coffee shops such as Café Henrie will always inspire me more than sitting in a Starbucks. And help me be more productive too.
Once in Berlin, I took a left turn down Sophienstraße and discovered Ben Rahim’s coffee shop. I chatted to Ben and found his story fascinating, hearing how he’d always dreamed of opening his own place.
What I’ve learned is that if I seek out things I am interested in, such as a cool pencil shop or good coffee, and along the way remain open and curious, I’ll be rewarded. My passion for unearthing the good stuff collides with my innate curiosity: combining these two things on the streets always helps me come up with ideas, gives me a burst of inspiration or at the most intrinsic level, it makes me feel good.
5) Seek the unfamiliar in the familiar.
One of my current projects is running a series of workshops around the UK for the BBC, working with teams who spend most of their day stuck in a newsroom. The reporters usually don’t get a chance to get out and walk around so I always include an exercise where I send them outside to wander and explore the streets.
Earlier this year in Glasgow a BBC producer told me she’d learned more about a neighbourhood in that 45 minute walk than she had in 20 years driving through it. Wandering around the streets is an eye opener — participants return to the training room reinvigorated, with a childlike sense of wonder about what lies on their doorstep: the canals, alleys and streets that they’d never previously explored. Familiar streets can deliver surprises, you just have to take the time to look around.
Perhaps you have a favourite spot in your office for getting work done? Or a preferred table at your neighbourhood coffee shop where you always get inspired? For a change, why not explore the streets around you instead, and see what happens?