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A train journey with Einstein: quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward.

December 8, 2015

It’s not the best way to see the land, travelling at speed on a train, walking has always been the appropriate pace for contemplation, but it can still be a pleasure. I would love to go to the Himalayas and cross over into Nepal to do the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

I like train journeys. I like their rhythm of the rail and the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of – for the moment, I know where I am going. I always travel in the quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward. There’s something special about the cadence of the movement, and keeping your eye on the horizon.

When I was a child, every train ride was an adventure, especially the trip to Scarborough. Not so much for where I was going, as for what I saw along the way. As the journey progressed, the scenery shifted from the hills grazed by sheep, to the patterns of man-made dry stone walls, then passing through through damp fields of dreamy cattle, over the hill and there was the sea.

I was fascinated with everything on the journey – the geology and landscape, people standing on platforms and people running for their trains, the ticket inspector and his stern demeanour, the throng urgently pushing to get on the train before the folks alighting could step onto the platform. I just soaked it in and the journey dovetailed with the rugged terrain, the wind and the water table – it’s a Northern thing. Who doesn’t feel a frisson at the thought of what you see out of a train window?

Today, trains are much faster than they were in my childhood, and the North Wales, North Yorkshire or Northumbrian landscapes I traverse on have lost much of their diversity. You can see too many business and retail parks from trains these days.

Yet, I am always surprised when a fellow passenger slumps into the seat next to me, plugs herself into a headset and starts rambling on about her day, presumably to some selfless good listener who likes the sound of her voice as much as she does herself. Look up, I want to say. Turn that thing off. There’s a world passing outside.

From planes you see clouds, from boats you see seabirds, from cars everything streaks past too fast to notice. But several authors have used the transitory moment of reflection on a train, when time seems to freeze as the landscape rushes by.

The most famous example is perhaps Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington Two trains moving in the same direction briefly overlap – and Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on the parallel train. No one believes her, no body turns up, so her friend Miss Marple has to investigate for her. Having read the book, to this day I’m always a bit nervous looking across in those seconds when two trains move together.

A while back, I read an interesting book that compared business life to a train ride or a series of train rides. Business life is like a train ride, it read. We get on. We ride. We get off. We get back on and ride some more. There are delays, some good journeys, some bad. At certain stops there are surprises. Some of these will translate into moments of joy, some will result in bad news. The direction of travel. Eventually we get to our destination.

However, many of my trains seem to get delayed and arrive late, perhaps reflecting the gap between what we want and what we can have in business. The paradox – and the most important point – is that it is through the privation of not getting what we want when we arrive at the next station, that we learn about our business.

I suppose in our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, less frustrated versions of ourselves. Our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration. If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.

Notwithstanding this wistful vestige of an existential neverland of train travel lodged in my psyche, where I create and hold on to various possible versions of my business self and possible outcomes – pockets of possibility that exist no matter how remote the probability of realising them might be, I do enjoy the tranquillity and time spent alone on my train journeys.

So that’s how I came to get the train to Edinburgh the other morning from Manchester. I needed time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. A day return with the train as my working space was just the job – sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Long, solo train journeys are the perfect place to think and reflect. This habit of personal, private reflection is something that I’ve developed in the past few years. It is a purposeful activity. It involves thinking about an experience and stuff you’ve got going on, and trying to make sense of it in order to learn something from it. I use this to develop new perspectives. This drives learning and change, it is a way of working through issues and thinking of solutions, a way of improving the way you work.

Besides modelling my own hairstyle on Einstein’s, as part of my approach to reflection, I’ve always tried to adopt his maxim we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own and was able to visualise the main stages on the way to solving a problem. He regarded his major achievements as mere stepping-stones for the next advance.

What Einstein did, he did using tools available to all of us. He had no magic wand or secret subscription to Google. He used thinking tools and methods available to everyone, the same books and research journals available to all scientists of his day. His principal tools were a notepad, a pen and pencil. He thought and wrote and calculated, and out poured his extraordinary achievements.

What made Einstein tick? Intuition, unconventional thinking for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s imagination, and his ability to visualise the issues before him –  ‘thought problems,’ where he would paint a picture of the problem he was trying to sort out. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

And that’s what I do on my ‘thinking train journeys’, I say to myself, How would Einstein approach this situation? to breakdown and get to the root of an issue I’m stuck with. Here’s my Einstein disruptive thinking tool kit for train journeys, in his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. The blokes over at Apple and Google had all the smart computing skills and knowledge they needed to have successful careers in IT. What makes Jobs and Ives, Page and Brin household names is the fact they imagined – what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then they created it.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Same problems, new ways of thinking We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein’s thinking here this resembles the Blue Ocean Strategy model, and Job’s Think Different motto.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward on anything. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Kindle Touch, Kindle Fire and now Kindle Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Einstein kept pushing the boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Notice Einstein didn’t put absolute amounts on each of his variables – he lived his life by constructing ‘what if’?’ formulas to look at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein believed that to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

Prepare yourself for chance I never think of the future, it comes soon enough Einstein had particular strengths, an acute intuition that guided him to the fertile ideas and revealing experiments to undertake, he had a characteristic tolerance and even delight in contradiction.

Einstein tells me to think about what I’ve never thought about, but also to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses. How many times have you metaphorically banged your head against a wall for a long time with a particular problem?

One of two things is true at this point, either we keep banging our head and the wall will crumble soon, or we should do something different and hope things get better. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, perhaps it’s good to reflect upon that.

So on my ‘thinking train journeys’, which I do about once a month, Einstein is my travelling companion. By the way, he’s a massive tea drinker. When we talk about taking the time to reflect, it’s about thinking differently, and not just sitting there and daydreaming, it’s about picturing the alternate realities – working out possibilities of new realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the revolution before it finds you.

The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind, we just have to find them. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves. So get yourself on a train, in the quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward, and see where it takes you and your thinking.

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