The peripatetic Greek philosophers already understood the deep connection between walking and thinking, but Nietzsche was the first to assert that the kind of thinking that happens when we walk is superior to that which occurs when we shut ourselves off in our studies. There are many others who concur. Darwin, for example, had a gravel path installed in his garden that he would walk around daily while reflecting on a particular issue. The number of laps he did depended on the difficulty of the problem he was addressing. He would stack stones at the start of his walk and then knock them down one by one as he went round, describing the difficulty of a dilemma as a three, four, or five-flint problem. In a different vein but with a similar objective (better decisions), Freud used to conduct walking analysis, sometimes going on for hours. In a famous case, he took Gustav Mahler for a four-hour walk to discuss how to prevent the disintegration of the composer’s marriage. We could cite many more examples (and do so in chapter 10 on the subject of novelists and philosophers) but at this stage suffice to say that today’s CEOs, investors and heads of state have embraced the mantra and practice of “walking for thinking” (President Obama advocated it). Among senior executives and decision-makers, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, was a precursor. We recall that almost 20 years ago, when one of us started to work at the Forum, Professor Schwab had already instituted the practice of going for a stroll when a complicated decision had to be made. He would take a colleague, a few employees, or even an entire team, to the hills surrounding Geneva for a brisk walk to ponder a particular problem or solve a sensitive issue. When the task at hand was particularly thorny or when the team building required an outsized solution, the stroll could extend to climbing a 3,000-metre peak somewhere in the Alps!
Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of the fashionable eyewear start-up Warby Parker, was impressed by two things when visiting the headquarters of the cult outdoor clothing company, Patagonia. The first was the thoroughness of their R&D process, and the second, more impressive, was the venue for their meeting. He is quoted as saying: “Instead of taking the meeting in a conference room, we took a walk to the beach. For me it was pretty special; for them it was quite ordinary.” Such an approach is perhaps less surprising when taking place at a firm whose products and philosophy are deeply rooted in the great outdoors. Rather more unexpectedly, today, the benefits of walking for better decision-making are increasingly recognized by those who flourish in the digital world. As reported by CNN and other media outlets, “Silicon Valley’s top execs are obsessed with taking walks.” Many of them, when facing a critical decision have made it a habit to take a stroll, particularly in nature. Lawrence Levy, Pixar’s first chief financial officer, went for hundreds of walks with Steve Jobs in the shadows of Palo Alto’s trees, observing that: “There’s something about being outside, doing something physical, taking in the air. Looking at the environment I found really conducive to connecting.” Steve Jobs was famous for the long walks that he used to take not only for exercise and contemplation, but also for problem solving and meetings. Walter Isaacson, in his biography (Steve Jobs), indicates that: “taking a long walk was his [Job’s] preferred way to have a serious conversation.” Today Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is equally famous for the walks on which he takes potential recruits. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, recalls that when he first had the idea of starting an online store, he mentioned it to his boss who then suggested they take a walk in Central Park, where they spent hours walking and discussing it. Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO, also does walking meetings behind its Mountain View offices in California. In his opinion, discussing while walking eliminates distractions and makes the conversation more direct and candid. He makes an interesting point about direct eye contact: because it is rare when walking shoulder to shoulder, it may encourage some employees to raise an issue from which they would otherwise refrain for fear of engaging in conflict.