I’ve known Nate Silver for a long time, and spend 10 minutes in my presence and I’ll be sure to remind you of that. I finished his book last night, and it’s amazing. I wasn’t surprised at the depth of his knowledge, because no one with an Internet connection would be, but the breadth of it knocked me off my feet. We often talk about baseball and poker and politics, but he doesn’t go quoting Julius Caesar here and there. The book is a masterpiece, and like all great masterpieces, it has a flaw. I wasn’t looking for it: most of the time, I was shocked that I’ve spent time with this human, whose brain could be running America (and as of last month, is qualified to do so!). But Nate grew up in the spartan hills of central Michigan, and I grew up on an island, and got to spend my early life near the ocean at all times. That’s the other thing I’ll tell you in the first 10 minutes you’ll spend around me, without fail. Martha’s Vineyard. Nantucket sucks.
In his conclusion, Nate writes:
Staring at the ocean and waiting for a flash of insight is how ideas are generated in the movies. In the real world, they rarely come to you when you are standing in place. Nor do the “big” ideas necessarily start out that way. It’s more often with small, incremental, and sometimes even accidental steps that we make progress.
I agree that small, incremental steps are how we form ideas, but they will hit you on the beach. What Nate doesn’t account for is that they have to hit you sometime, and his conclusion implies that these times are random, but the “getting inspired by staring at the ocean” isn’t contrived: It’s a real thing that happens.
Look at it this way: If you are building toward an idea, a “Eureka!” moment will come, at some point. For the same reason cloistered thinkers are encourage to take a walk in order to give their brains a chance to start putting together some puzzle pieces behind-the-scenes, looking at the ocean is one of the best ways to help you come to your magic moments. The staring-at-the-ocean “meme,” may I call it that, came from a place where staring out at the biggest feature on our planet affords us insight by bringing our own ideas down to size. And here’s the thing, the one thing I can speak for from experience: It never gets old. I can’t remember a time, growing up, when taking time at the ocean didn’t help me reorganize my thoughts in a constructive way. It may have happened, but if it did, it was rare. That was part of the magic of growing up on an island, a magic I still think and write about to an outsized degree, more than a decade later. It’s less “Lost” magic than pure practicality: When faced with the infinite on all sides, it’s hard not to be awed by life, however contained. It’s no accident Hollywood is mere miles from the ocean. As Nate might say, it’s the single greatest tool we have to separate the signal from the noise.