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Take a walk in the desert

No one can see their reflection in running water.
It is only in still water that we can see. (Lao Tzu)

A friend of mine was telling me about the new apartment he and his family have bought. The building is under construction, and is located in a prestigious part of a major city. We got into a discussion about choosing where to live. He prefers large cities, and I prefer living far from a city (although I work in cities).

I mentioned that one can get a lot more house for the money in small towns or in the country. My friend pointed out that people don’t choose to live in cities because they are expensive, but rather cities are expensive because everyone wants to live there. He assured me I needn’t worry about hordes of city folk pouring into the desert to escape the city, because most people don’t want to escape the city.

He mentioned there are a million things to do in a city. I countered there are a million things to do in the desert, too. You can look at this cactus, you can look at that cactus…there’s a million of them.

Actually, there’s more to see in the desert than just cactus, but his point is well taken. It took me only a few seconds to think of several good reasons to live in a city:

  • Vibrant social life
  • Many and varied cultural activities
  • Many jobs available
  • Strong market for small businesses
  • Exposure to cultural diversity
  • Professional sports franchises
  • Easy access to shopping, entertainment, etc.
  • Mass transit systems
  • Generally good public education
  • Inexpensive city universities (in some cities)
  • Feeling of association with a place that defines you
  • Access to major airports, train stations

You can probably think of more.

I’ve lived in big cities and I understand the benefits, but there’s another side to the coin.

Continuous noise and stress, with no respite, grinds a person down. Even individuals who thrive in a fast-paced, vibrant urban environment have to pause from time to time, to clear their minds and center themselves. In most large cities, it’s all but impossible to find a quiet spot.

The sounds of sirens, truck engines, construction, traffic, and crowds are always present. You might find a relatively quiet spot somewhere between buildings, in a courtyard, or inside an apartment that doesn’t face the street, but the sounds of the city are still audible. (And no, a yoga studio located seven feet from a busy street isn’t what I mean by “quiet.”)

It isn’t only a question of noise. There’s also the smell. Walk along a sidewalk in New York City, and you smell the garbage that awaits pickup in front of the buildings. When there’s a garbage strike, the smell is inescapable. When your nose isn’t assaulted by the scent of garbage, it is stung by the smell of vehicle exhaust fumes.

And then there’s the light. It’s never really dark in a city. When I mentioned that the darkness of night in the desert impressed me, another friend insisted that it isn’t really dark in the desert because you can see perfectly well by starlight or moonlight. He said he had once visited a cave, and that was truly dark.

His comment provides a good example of the way cities can rob us of perspective. When I said it was dark in the desert, I didn’t mean it was pitch black. I meant it was dark enough to see the sky. The light didn’t come from light bulbs. The starlight isn’t blocked by smog.

There are other stress factors that people tend to overlook, as well. You can find the best of everything in a big city, and the worst of everything can find you, too. The necessity to maintain a high state of situational awareness at all times creates stress. Yes, you can walk everywhere, but when you do so you have to be alert. You can’t relax. Ever. And that’s when you aren’t even doing anything. You’re just walking, or using the subway or buses.

As I write this, there’s a news report of random knife attacks on the New York subway system. That situation won’t last long, but then there will be something else. There’s always something, and not only in New York, but in all cities. You can never relax.

If you don’t happen to live close enough to your job to walk or take public transit, then you’re in traffic. Heavy traffic. Probably for an hour or more each way. Stop and go. Stressed-out drivers trying to wedge their way into the stream. Fender-benders avoided by mere centimeters; probably many times each day. By the time you arrive at the office, you’re already stressed out, and you haven’t even begun to work yet (unless you attended a meeting by phone while you were driving in).

A question worth asking is: What effect does all this noise and bustling around have on your effectiveness on the job? Can you bring to bear the full measure of your creativity? Can you maintain focused thought long enough to complete a task?

Can you even tell that you’re stressed out, or are you so habituated to it that you don’t even notice?

I haven’t always lived in the desert. When I first moved here, and I began to take walks, I was astonished at the effect it had. The quiet is palpable (and no, I don’t mean that you lose your sense of hearing, Mr. Cave; I mean you can hear real things instead of traffic noise). You can actually slow down enough to think.

It’s peaceful enough that you can discover things you didn’t know were waiting to be discovered. Things you can take back to the city with you, because they are inside you.

Live in a city if it suits you, but I suggest you get away from the city occasionally to decompress. You might be surprised at the positive effects.

Does this have anything to do with “effective software development?” If the connection isn’t clear to you, then maybe you’re due for a walk in the desert.