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Why you should walk away from your problems

Posted in the following categories: Problem Solving

Last week, we stayed in Eze, a small medieval village in the French Riviera. Eze is perched on a hillside, roughly 420 meters (1,400 feet) above sea level. Near the entrance to our hotel, I noticed a sign labeled the Friedrich Nietzsche Path.

The German philosopher apparently stayed in the area in the 1880s and would frequently hike up the steep path from the seaside to the village. His inspirations for the third part of his masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, supposedly came during these daily hikes.

I decided to follow in Nietzsche’s footsteps and took the walk myself. My first thought? Nietzsche must have been one fit dude. Even though I’m more physically fit now than I’ve ever been, I was drenched in sweat by the time I climbed up the spectacularly steep path back to the village.

Why did Nietzsche put himself through this intense climb every day? Setting aside the view (which is spectacular), Nietzsche knew a key to solving problems that most of us neglect.

When we’re trying to tackle a thorny problem, we have a tendency to stare at it—literally. I find myself doing this often. As I try to come up with a title for a blog post or struggle with the right structure for a chapter in my book, I’ll keep staring at my computer, and moving commas and sentences around as Sisyphus rolls his eyes at me.

But as Nietzsche writes, “In order to see much, one must learn to look away from oneself.” Put differently, a watched pot never boils. You often have to walk away from the problem—literally and metaphorically—for the answer to arrive.

Consider, for example, the mathematician Andrew Wiles. In 1995, Wiles became a celebrity after proving Fermat’s Last Theorem—which had remained unsolvable for more than three centuries. When he got stuck working on the proof—which was often—Wiles would stop, let his mind relax, and go for a walk by the lake. “Walking,” he explains, “has a very good effect in that you’re in this state of relaxation, but at the same time you’re allowing the sub-conscious to work on you.”

Research supports Wiles’s intuition. Incubation periods—spending time away from a problem after you get stuck—boosts your ability to solve the problem. When you walk away, your subconscious remains hard at work, consolidating memories and making associations.

This is why a good footslog is part of many renowned scientists’ toolkit. Nikola Tesla dreamed up the alternating-current motor during a stroll through the Varosliget park in Budapest. To ponder difficult problems, Charles Darwin walked down a gravel path called the Sandwalk near his home in Kent, kicking up stones along the way. The physicist Werner Heisenberg devised the uncertainty principle during a late-night walk through his neighborhood park in Copenhagen. For two years, he had been frustrated that his equations could predict the momentum of a quantum particle, but not its position. One night, he had an epiphany: What if there was no problem with the equations? What if the uncertainty was actually inherent in the nature of quantum particles?

In an age of high-tech instant gratification, walking can sound a bit underwhelming. But solutions to complex problems often come as a subtle whisper—not a big bang. To perceive the whisper, you must walk away from the problem and create space for interior silence to oppose contemporary chaos.

The next time you feel stuck, just walk away (and leave your phone behind).

If you keep walking with the question long enough, you will gradually walk into the answer.

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