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Sep 16, 2014

Street Wisdom – some reflections


A stroll to clear my head or a wander to gather my thoughts has featured in my life for as long as I can remember. However, it’s difficult to do this in a busy city like London.
When my friend David Pearl introduced me to Street Wisdom it seemed to me to be the perfect solution for using the streets to think about some of the questions those of us involved in the workplace have been pondering for years.
The idea behind Street Wisdom is simple: we only use the streets to get from one place to another, we rarely look up and never engage with what and who we’re walking past. Street Wisdom proposes that the streets around us are full of answers and ideas if only we’re open to receiving them: simply open your ears and your eyes and you never know what you might learn. Each participant is encouraged to ‘ask’ the streets a question and look for the answer in adverts, overheard conversations, shops – wherever.
Serendipity played its part as at the time I was looking for an engagement mechanism to fast-track our Big Conversation: the centrepiece of our Beyond the Workplace initiative.
Regular readers will know that the idea behind the Big Conversation is to get everyone involved, even tangentially, in the workplace to contribute their thoughts and ideas about how to move forward.

Street Wisdom in Action Sheffield1





For too long these discussions have been happening between small groups of people with similar experiences and motivations – Beyond the Workplace is all about engaging people from across the workplace spectrum to get to the core of the challenges facing the world of work in the 21st century.
It was my belief that to get novel perspectives, you have to use novel methods: sitting around and talking has been yielding the same tired ideas for years. What better way than ‘Street Wisdom’ – something new to nearly all of the participants – to try and shake out some new ideas?
Although I was hopeful, even I hadn’t imagined how successful the events to date turned out to be. Feedback from participants of all ages and backgrounds was unanimously positive, with many remarking that they’d be taking the concept back to their workplace and indeed their personal lives.
With two events completed now in London and Sheffield, my co-blogger Ciara and I have been reflecting on our experiences. Here are the views of a Millenial.
The idea of getting out of the four walls of your home to gather your thoughts, refine ideas or seek inspiration is as old as time itself.
The Romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries put great emphasis on the natural world: for them, communion with nature was central to human happiness and fulfillment. It was their greatest source of inspiration and they credited their time in it with their most important ideas and art.
This notion of ‘getting away’ from the world and from people to learn more about the world an people is perhaps counterintuitive when you think about it – but of course we all accept it without question.
Companies often run training days or teambuilding sessions away from the big city because received wisdom says that fresh country air, the birds and trees are conducive to this sort of contemplation and personal growth.
I think they’re dead right – despite growing up in London, I’m a country girl at heart and deeply value my time to think and just ‘be’ away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Needless to say, therefore, I was initially sceptical of Street Wisdom: I’d never had a eureka moment waiting for the N207.
As it turns out, I was missing the point: the difference between the engagement that street wisdom encourages and simply walking is the difference between hearing and listening: between seeing and watching.
Like many Londoners, but most of my forays in town are conducted with my headphones clamped over my ears, my eyes on my shoes and my hands in pockets. Recently I noticed there was a pretty imposing tower block right over my local station which I have used my entire life. Apparently, it’s always been there. I’d literally never looked up.
Most people on the tube seem to have just one major objective in mind: not to, under absolutely any circumstances, make eye contact with fellow commuters. We flick through free newspapers or play Angry Birds: it’s fair to say us Londoners are not the most engaged of people.
I think it’s because the alternative simply doesn’t occur to us – media, books and other people have always told us look around and take in the countryside; we do it almost unconsciously. The idea that this sort of introspection can happen on urban streets, especially ones as thronged as London’s, just doesn’t cross our minds.
And that’s what Street Wisdom is all about: opening people up the possibility that there is worth to be found in the very hustle and bustle that makes most people put their head down and walk as fast as they can to their destination.
Certainly, this stubborn country mouse was persuaded.
The ambitious question I arrived with was ‘how can I be most productive and procrastinate less?’. A tall order for Wardour Street, you’d be right to think.
To my complete bewilderment, the streets gave me my answer after all of about 30 seconds. Its advice? Written above a grille on the ground of Bear Street: ‘switch rooms’. Switch rooms. I’m not sure exactly what a switch room is but the suggestion was pretty spot on.
I guiltily thought of where I do most of my writing work- sat up on a load of pillows in my bed with a laptop. I’ll often get distracted by my bookshelves which simply have to be realphabetised RIGHT NOW, or a pile of washing that simply CAN’T be put off any longer, or ‘while I’m here I might as well just have a reeeeally quick power nap….for 3 hours’.
I suppose I did know that it wasn’t the best environment for working, but I’d manage to persuade myself that it was best where I was comfortable, away from the kitchen, and out of everyone’s way.
They were poor excuses, but I think everyone does it in one way or another. Anyway, switching rooms – to a place where there wasn’t a bed, less distractions and where I associated with concentration and productivity – was the best thing I’ve done for my writing in a long time.

Having (literally) stumbled across my answer so quickly, I was feeling pretty smug. I still had an hour or two to kill before we were all meeting up to feedback on our experience, so I went and treated myself to some chill-out time and a cappuccino.
I sat outside a cafe off Leicester Square, but I couldn’t switch off. It turns out you don’t have to be pounding the pavements to get the benefits of Street Wisdom. I sat and became completely engrossed in people watching, in the snippets of conversations I overheard and the shop windows opposite. It was simultaneously relaxing (such a weight off to stop trying to shut everything out!) and energising and I felt so much better for it.
Judging from the feedback and discussion session afterwards, I wasn’t the only one. The sounds of excited voices took over the room and people stayed talking and creating long after ‘home time’.
So next time I’m in need of some time to decompress, I might head to Camberwell instead of Cornwall – you never know what you might see, if only you put down your phone and open your eyes.

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