“Keep close to Nature’s heart. Break clear away once in a while and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” -John Muir
Who am I to argue with the father of the National Parks System, which is about to celebrate its 102nd birthday? So, I headed to Mirror Lake, high atop the Uinta Mountains at 10,400 feet.
Muir wrote: “Hiking, I don’t like the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the woods – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter’? It’s a beautiful word. Back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when the people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply ‘a la sainte terra’ to the Holy Land. And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, we ought to saunter through them reverently.”
Do not worry, this is not another feel good story. These are stay better clues. I am wondering if Nature’s Awe can hack into more of neuroscience’s “Aha” moments for us.
“People think Teddy Roosevelt established Yosemite National Park, what a great president.' BS. It was John Muir who invited Roosevelt out and then convinced him to ditch his security and go camping.” - Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia founder)
The great documentarian Ken Burns added, “Muir's three-night camping trip with President Roosevelt in 1903 could be considered the most significant camping trip in conservation history.”
Burns explained, “As we got to know him, Muir ascended to the pantheon of the highest individuals in our country; I'm talking about the level of Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, and Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson -- people who have had a transformational effect on who we are."
I was ready for all that transformational stuff. But Mirror Lake highway just was not ready for me, yet. I am stuck. See, this is the kind of stuff that happens to flatlanders when they ascend to National Forests.
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” - John Muir
John Muir grew up on a Wisconsin farm. He spent much of his adolescence inventing things like a field thermometer, an automated saw for logs, and a gadget that would help tip him out of the bed in the morning. But here was my favorite -
In his Story of My Boyhood and Youth Muir wrote, “I invented a desk in which the books I had to study were arranged in order at the beginning of each term. After three minutes allowed for dressing each morning a click was heard and the first book to be studied was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk, thrown open, and allowed to remain there for the number of minutes required. Then the machinery closed the book and allowed it to drop back into its stall and moved the rack forward and threw up the next in order, and so on, all the day being divided according to the times allotted to each study.”
So, hang in there my fellow hardcore capitalists, given his background we cannot dismiss this guy as just a tree-hugging right brain naturalist.
He took his skills into industrial work but was accidentally blinded for several months from a factory accident, ending that career. In 1867, he walked from Indiana to Florida. From there he sailed to California and walked from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada “Range of Light” he called it. Despite being able to recite the entire Bible at an early age, he described the images from nature as the real proof over any words.
If he could do all that, then surely I could walk the rest of the way past this blocked road.
Muir once wrote, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out I found, was really going in.” A man of science and industrial training, he always aimed to prove his beliefs about nature through his explorations and writings. He also profitably ran an orchard using his machinery skills, proving respect for nature and growing capital are not mutually exclusive.
From the book A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir: “More than ever his method of opening others’ eyes must be through scientific exploration and scientific explanation. The beauty of the natural world would be revealed through an immersion in facts and mechanics.”
Something drew me back to this line in my notes many times. We are all surrounded by lots of the same facts and mechanics. Why are a few able to draw original ideas from them better? They are immersed IN them, not on Twitter opining on them.
Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN explains “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings they start. You start to reflect, rethink your assumptions, you start to reimagine what is possible.”
I believe this brilliant quote to be true. But, I have always stopped there, appreciated it, but never explored why.
So, I parked on the side of the road and walked. And, walked and sauntered…and then kept walking. Running a business, and a family with 5 kids, I am very used to the idea of throwing up my hands and asking for help, or invoking sell disciplines and running away. But, for the first time in I can’t remember how long, I did not have anything to rush to. I built our new little summer office nearby for a reason - to do things after the Stock Market closed that I had never done before. On one of those walls is a piece of art with an anonymous quote, “Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.”
With more than a few gasps from my sea-level trained lungs, I made it.
A bright blue lake sitting that high in the sky was an undisturbed beauty unlike any I had seen. Surrounded by an eleven to thirteen thousand foot mountain range, you have no choice but to feel small. Whether you believe in God or not, you cannot help but at least appreciate that we are all struck by something called awe in that moment.
I started studying the science of awe to understand more. What a cool job, that I did not even know existed. Professors and scientists are uncovering the hardwiring behind goosebumps and what happens in the brain when you are overwhelmed by awe. For starters, time feels like it stands still. So, the heart rate slows way down. We get lost in those moments, finally answering the question of how to be more present. Nature’s giants demand that you just be there. Since anxiety is a hyper-focus on self, this becomes impossible and goes away. You are physiologically humbled.
After several immersions like this, it was what happened afterwards that started to get my attention. Yes, my fellow grinders, I believe this pays off in addition to all that live longer and happier stuff. As a business owner and investor, I can confirm never having met some of the ideas that emerged. Others came out a tweak different than considered before. A few more ideas popped out that I forgot were stored in the back, because of all the new information I keep stuffing in the front. The amazing thing about this kind of peace of mind is that it seems to unlock a big door in there somehow.
Simon Sinek summarizes the brain well, in plain English. “Our rational and analytical brain has access to about 2 feet of information. We access this when we are thinking through a problem. Our limbic brain, which is our subconscious, has access to the equivalent of about 11 acres.”
All our best files are hiding and waiting to be sorted out in that giant subconscious cabinet. Our conscious is overflowing with every input we cram in there. But, the conscious does not have the key to that backdoor. Overnight, one of those files occasionally get slipped underneath the door, to the front of mind ready to be revealed at some point the next day. That is why people correctly say let me sleep on it.
Making that list of pro’s and con’s and big brainstorming sessions in the office with your smartest allies, is still critical. Your mind must engage the question first. But, if you have ever wondered how in the world the idea just all the sudden came to you when you were not thinking about it the next day, the subconscious delivered it.
How can we unlock this door more often? Too many of us never slow down to even try. Instead, much of the focus in my field of investments, seems to be to train ourselves to think differently, often with frustrating results. Knowing the conscious part of the brain is where all our analysis and decisions are made, makes us want to train and whip it into shape.
Kahneman and Tversky won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for their research showing why people make irrational decisions. They use all sorts of smart words to explain why our framework to thread a question through, is often biased or just terribly wrong by the time it becomes our answer. A tidal wave of different responses since that Nobel Prize have basically agreed with George Costanza recommending “Do the opposite.”
“The Berkshire meeting in Omaha is a great place to meet 40,000 self-described contrarians who all think exactly alike.” – Morgan Housel
Dealing with a variety of flawed inputs and assumptions, we know our conscious decisions and instincts are often wrong. Growth is accelerating in the amount of information to shove into that malfunctioning conscious machine. We have now been reconditioned that to question our conscious is the best solution.
Unless…maybe…they are powered down to unlock the subconscious more often.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” - Albert Einstein
Since that Nobel Prize there is new research in neuroscience journals that seems to agree with what I just experienced, and I am certainly not alone. This research reveals the brain is absolutely capable of making optimal decisions – but only when the subconscious makes the choice.
Our subconscious sits underneath the conscious part of the brain. It solves our problems without thoughts, like managing our nervous system and organs. It also is in charge of all our insight and creativity. The conscious wrestles with questions. The subconscious is waiting with our best answers. Often referred to as intuition, there is a messaging system from the bottom of the brain that will nudge the top with those solutions. What the conscious often concedes as incomprehensible, the subconscious is ready to process perfectly once the problem is handed off overnight. We call these “Aha” moments the next day.
What if we could pick that Aha lock with Awe?
Awe strikes at the limbic system in our brain, because it runs our emotions. We always knew it felt awesome. But, since the limbic system runs through the subconscious maybe it has deeper consequences. There is some newer science emerging to explain a “mind-blowing” experience. That moment of Awe lights up the circuitry of the subconscious while you are awake. Aha!
Disclosure: I can barely saunter across one mountain, so all of Muir’s records are safe. I do not claim to be an expert at ANY of this. As a matter of fact, knowing what I do not know I count as a true advantage. I owe any success to being more curious than convinced.
P.S. Anybody that is blessed with a family and career they truly love, is wonderfully starved for free time. But, it does not take much to make a big difference. Wonder a lot, then wander even a little. Look at what just a 20-minute walk can do outside the office or in the neighborhood.