The Walk That Made One Special Christmas Unforgettable

Two years ago today I needed to figure out the perfect gift. But, sadly, I’m really bad at doing this.

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Gift giving is a skill I don’t possess and, honestly, it’s a skill I don’t even want. Life is much easier when you suck at giving gifts because the expectations people place on you are super low.  

And, then one day it really matters. That day for me was December 23, 2018.

Ava was in the final days of her radiation treatments for breast cancer. One of the side effects is deep fatigue. It’s the kind of fatigue that makes you want to sleep, but even when you do you still feel tired. Thankfully, the fatigue lifts gradually after the treatments are done. But, a couple days before Christmas they weren’t done yet and my wife was feeling it.

Typically my Christmas gift to Ava is a marathon race. She’s a runner and loves long distance events. She’d pick the race and I’d pay for the registration and a couple nights at a hotel if the race was out of state. It was perfect. She got a gift she liked and I didn’t have to think about it.

Because of her cancer treatment, we decided to change it up and do something together as our gift to each other. It would be decided later what that was. I was off the hook again.

Which made this a perfect opportunity. It had been a rough year for Ava and a special surprise Christmas gift would mean so much to her. I decided to make that happen.

I felt really good…until I realized that was the easy part…deciding to give her a special gift. The hard part, excruciating for me actually, was figuring out what that gift would be. I couldn’t ask her because this needed to be an unexpected surprise. I wanted to delight my wife in the midst of her going through a really hard thing. 

I had NO IDEA what to get her so I took a walk.

This is how I solve problems. As much as I love walking for fitness, walking for solutions is even better. I have more mental clarity when I’m moving. I’m more creative. I find answers when I walk.

And, it’s not just me. Marilyn Oprezzzo is a researcher at Stanford University. She wanted to find out whether people are more creative while sitting or while walking. The results were pretty clear. Creative thinking increased by 60% among those who were walking compared to those sitting.

This is how Steve Jobs created products that changed our culture. The co-founder of Apple often went for a walk when he had a creative problem to solve. He held most of his one-on-one meetings while walking…especially if the subject was serious.

It’s how I solve almost all of my problems now. At my job, I’m responsible for our on-air fundraising events. Earlier this year the pandemic hit just days before we were scheduled to do our Spring Fundraiser. I knew the plans I had spent months working on were no good so I took a walk and came up with an entirely new and appropriate strategy. 

Most of these blog posts are “written” while I walk. I think through what I want to communicate and how to best do that. By the time my walk is finished I have an outline in my head and then sit at the computer to write it out.

Walking also helps me organize everything going on in life. It helps me set priorities and a course of action. I think through the upcoming week on a walk and when I get home I put it in my calendar.

On that December 23rd two years ago after I decided to make Ava’s Christmas extra special I started walking to figure out exactly what gift would do that. What could I give her that would move her to tears? I wanted it to be that extraordinary.

The research at Stanford recommends having a specific problem to solve before you start walking. In other words, don’t just go for a walk hoping you’ll find a solution to an unspecified problem. I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish before I started this walk at 7am on December 23, 2018.

Within moments of walking and thinking I had an idea, then another one, and then another. They were OK, but none felt extraordinary. The researchers recommend you think of your walk as a brainstorming session. You might have to roll through a few ideas until you land on the best one.

The key, they discovered, is that your activity is done at a comfortable pace. If you have to concentrate on what you’re doing your mind won’t have the freedom to explore and take advantage of this wonderful connection between movement and creativity.

As I was trying to solve the Christmas gift riddle I was actually walking around our basement. It was cold morning and I didn’t want to focus how uncomfortable I was if I went outside. So I paced through several rooms thinking of ideas. And, then I saw it. Instantly, I knew it would be the perfect gift.

I don’t need to know the scientific reason behind why I think better and can find solutions when I walk. I just know it works. And, it worked beautifully on that day, just 48 hours before Christmas morning.

As I walked through our basement I noticed my iPad plugged in and charging. It wasn’t even the first time I saw it that morning. But, this time everything connected and I knew what I was going to buy. I left the house telling Ava I was headed out to get some last minute Chick-fil-A gift cards.

Less than an hour later I was home sneaking a bag from Best Buy down to my basement office. I wrapped it later that day and gave it to Ava on Christmas Eve because I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning. Two things happened that night. I forever changed expectations. And, yes, she cried.

All because of a walk.