Not long ago I was cruising Interstate 70 west through amber waves of grain — the magnificent Great Plains of Kansas. There was little to see and everything to see as my mind idled over the miles between me and the flat-line horizon. A heavy-duty pickup loomed in my rearview mirror, then eased past doing about 85, hauling horses. The inscription on the back of the trailer startled me enough to remain with me today:
Not all those who wander are lost.1
As the miles unspooled on my drive that day, I wondered how busy people in demanding professions remain full of life, passion, and creative energy. How do my friends and colleagues tend to the needs of mind, body, and spirit? How do they restore and rejuvenate themselves — personally and professionally — when they feel depleted?
The more I asked around, the more I became convinced that everyone needs a space or a place, virtual or physical, to relax and re-center. You don't have to be the CEO of a multinational corporation to need occasional restoration and replenishment. Management guru Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, delivered a powerful keynote address to a packed convention hall at EDUCAUSE 2011, then fielded questions from the floor. One person asked, "What can you do when your own passion is the pursuit of excellence, but others in your organization are content to mail it in, to do the prescribed minimum and nothing more?" Collins answered that all of us have the opportunity and responsibility to lead from where we are. To that I would add "and all of us need replenishment."
So you, I, leaders at all levels need to recharge. I like the metaphor of wandering. My wife sees "wandering" as a close cousin to "re-centering." How do people find mental, physical, or spiritual space that allows wandering and re-centering?
I asked the president of the University of South Carolina, Harris Pastides, how he wanders. He addressed my question with a two-part answer. He has a reliable prescription when he has the luxury of several days for wandering. But sometimes he has an immediate need for a quick fix, a shot of creative energy in the middle of a busy day.
During spring commencement week, Pastides presides over some 13 graduation ceremonies across the University of South Carolina system. Despite awarding some 8,400 degrees last spring, UofSC continues to beckon every graduate to the stage by name to shake hands with the president and other university officials. Over a period of eight days, Pastides greets countless thousands of proud graduates, parents, friends, and relatives and poses for hundreds of smiling selfies (knowing that each is a keepsake of a special day), all the while continuing to deal with the daily demands of leading a complex, multi-campus R-1 institution with a regional, national, and global presence on the public stage. Despite his constant presence in the spotlight, he is noted for his quick intellect, good humor, warmth, and grace under fire. So how does he do it?
It turns out, a little heavy metal helps! When Pastides completes a commencement ceremony with some 15,000 in attendance late on a Friday afternoon, he has 60 minutes to swap his graduation regalia for his tuxedo. That evening, he will be the gracious host for a dazzling array of distinguished guests at a black-tie dinner to recognize and toast honorary degree recipients and commencement speakers. In the precious hour he has to wander — to re-center himself and restore his energy — Pastides cranks up the volume and loses himself in the driving beat and soaring solos of vintage Led Zeppelin. At the end of an hour, the transformation is complete. Pastides straightens his bowtie with a final look in the mirror as the last chords of "Stairway to Heaven" fade to an echo, then silence. He is ready to embrace the evening ahead.
John O'Brien, president and CEO of EDUCAUSE, has seen his wandering morph over time. As a younger man coming of age, nearly all his wonderings and wanderings were poetic, perhaps entirely fitting for a scholar of Anglo-Irish literature. Today, "…my wanderings are nearly all musical, finding strange angles into the human condition by reveling in marvelous things like the Arabic Hijaz scale."2
Immersion in music, it seems, is a common destination for those who wander. Catherine Yang, senior director of Content with EDUCAUSE, has a decades-long passion for all things Grateful Dead. If surviving members of this legendary band are playing a particularly attractive venue, she's there! That's how she replenishes her spirit.
Travel is another favorite way to wander, literally and figuratively. Diane Graves, professor, assistant vice president for Academic Affairs, and university librarian at Trinity University in San Antonio, wrote, "If I couldn't travel, I would shrivel and die!"
For Graves, travel is lifeblood — travel to experience interesting people and places, but also travel into vivid worlds created through immersion in literature and the arts.
"Getting up, moving, seeing the world at a slower pace (by raft or on foot) really helps me… You can't beat the 1.7 billion year-old Vishnu Schist in the Grand Canyon's Inner Gorge for putting your life into perspective.
"I would say my other form of wandering is via literature and the arts. I need to take those breaks from work, from the news and so forth, and help reset my brain by reconsidering the human condition (literary fiction) or experiencing the best of human achievement (art museums and galleries, live music performance). It gives me hope, and reminds me that, while my work is important, it's not brain surgery."
Reggie Henry, CIO for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), reported an completely different kind of travel — arranged entirely by his wife. Knowing his need to periodically wander and re-center to stay fresh and focused, his wife directs him to take a week-long solo trip once a year. She makes all the arrangements and chooses destinations that may surprise or challenge him to wander and clear his mind of clutter. Henry said these trips have brought him to new levels of acceptance, growth, and renewal.
Travel to unusual destinations slightly off the beaten path is Harris Pastides's preferred mode of wandering when he has more than an hour of listening to Led Zeppelin to spare — like maybe the luxury of several days for renewal. He likes a location with plenty to see and do. He enjoys being an active explorer: neighborhoods, museums, restaurants, entertainment districts, the green grocer, and the corner café. He is restored by wandering the streets and engaging people and novel patterns of life — in some ways similar to his presidential duties back home, but with the pleasures afforded by small discoveries in fresh locations prompting new perspectives.
To be sure, not everyone feels a burning need to unplug from professional responsibilities and go somewhere special to wander and recharge. Joanne Dehoney, EDUCAUSE vice president for Planning and Partnerships, reported that she relishes wandering at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference. Despite her substantial responsibilities before, during, and after the conference, she's able to focus on the great insights, energy, and new ideas that come from bringing some of the finest thinkers in higher education together under one roof. For Dehoney, the conference is a savory smorgasbord of intellectual delights.
David Lankes is professor and director of the School of Library and Information Science and associate dean of the College of Information and Communications at UofSC. For him, the benefits of wandering can accrue at any time.
"In information science we have a term, 'information encountering,' which describes how serendipity changes what folks are looking for as they are seeking out information. When I think of wandering, I think of it as bound to serendipity — that type of inspiration and fusion that occurs when a ready mind meets an unexpected trigger… So I wander all the time, but with the ends of my conceptual threads dangling about me. Some people talk about getting away from work, or disconnecting. I can't, really. It's not a compulsion, but more that I enjoy not only physically wandering, but meandering through my cognitive landscape, taking novel paths through things I know, and often ending up in unexpected places."
What about you? How do you wander? My friends and colleagues have described wandering as relaxation, rejuvenation, renewal, restoration, replenishment, recharging, re-centering. What paths do you travel to tune into your internal gyroscope, to find your balance, to find your center?
As Lankes summarized,
"…for me wandering is a matter of serendipity, readiness, and threads. As I wander cities I feel like a camera just taking in new raw material for my next threads… As I talk with new people, I am also throwing novelty into a ready net, seeing what catches (which makes me very bad at small talk). Then, it's the movies, or the shower, or mowing when fusion occurs unexpectedly… It is like living in a constant state of construction."
As your formal invitation to wander, consider these words from Lord of the Rings:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings.
- Listening to Assem Binni, Hijaz scale, and Jaber Fayad, Hijaz improvisation.
Bill Hogue is senior clinical professor of Information Science at the University of South Carolina and executive consultant for Enterprise Initiatives.
© 2017 William F. Hogue. The text of this blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.