A s the plane touches down, the tires give off a screeching sound, the force of the braking sends loose items rolling, and the pilot welcomes the crowd to its destination. Most passengers feel a sense of excitement, relief, and maybe some lingering nausea. I always feel a bit of melancholy that the flight has come to an end. It means we’re back to Earth, where time resumes its steady march and the to-do list war reboots. If I’m lucky, this is just a layover. Then it’s back up to thirty thousand feet.
The sky is a place, I've found, where I can do the type of deep thinking that the daily grind doesn’t allow. It’s where I go to reason through important decisions, consider radical solutions to messy problems, and reflect on life’s biggest questions. I made the call to move across the country for a new job in seat 5F on my way to San Francisco. I wrote my marriage vows in the exit row on a bumpy flight to Chicago. I considered moving back to Wisconsin to run for mayor of my hometown in a middle seat en route to the Dominican Republic. I find clarity in the clouds.
A few years ago, while working in a sales role that involved visiting clients around the country, I had a rare opportunity to seriously up my travel game. A friend who worked for a major airline made me his “registered companion,” which basically meant I could fly for free. I would show up to an airport, wait until a flight was undersold or a passenger missed a connection, and take the empty seat. All in all, I took 173 flights that year. San Francisco to New York. Hartford to Dallas. Los Angeles to Seattle and a myriad of other combinations.
By my own calculation I spent a full month in the sky. Some of these trips were for work, others for fun, and a few were completely spontaneous: I’d pack a bag, go to the airport, and end up somewhere in the western hemisphere. A couple times I even got first class, though more often I found myself stranded and sleeping in the airport. But usually, I just appeared to be another passenger—annoyed by a delay, thrilled by a Biscoff cookie, and ready to get in the air.
Anyone who flies often knows to pack only the necessities: noise-cancelling headphones, a journal with two pens, a reusable water bottle, and a backup pair of socks, because there’s really nothing worse than cold feet on a long flight. The boarding process offers a great opportunity to settle in. After the first twenty times listening to the safety video, I learned to start a playlist before I even reached my seat. Then there’s this awkward period when the plane is taxiing before take-off—you’re not allowed to use any electronics, it’s too early to break out the snacks, and you get interrupted by announcements while scrolling through the movie options. That’s the time I prep myself for the opportunity right around the corner.
It’s difficult to force yourself into deep thinking. If it were easy to switch from the automatic, unconscious animal brain to the slow, contemplative, rational self, then most therapists would be out of a job. In my own experience, the most valuable role a therapist plays is that of Question Master. They erect parameters to focus your thinking, which allows you the freedom to explore. Creative thinking works much the same way. If I gave you thirty seconds to come up with an invention, you might find it difficult because the options are endless. If, instead, I asked you to invent a way to help a working parent keep track of his child’s homework assignments, you would probably start spitballing rough ideas right away: refrigerator magnets, backpack reminders, lunchbox calendar, the list goes on.
Deep thinking, like deliberate creativity, is triggered through conscious questions. When other passengers are learning how to buckle a seatbelt for the nth time, I’m asking myself what brought me joy yesterday? What worries me about the future? What would I do as president for a day? Who should represent us if aliens were to visit? These questions aren’t meant to be answered, although obviously we would send Tom Hanks to greet the aliens. Instead, they serve to lower me from my high horse of productivity, and to transition me into a space suspended in time where I can finally just think.
Journaling is a great way to draw out those deep inner thoughts that are difficult to communicate in everyday conversation. To keep up with a normal pace of speech, we tend to rely on the same tired language to express the simplest version of new ideas. Writing longhand in a notebook designated for that purpose allows you to stop mid-sentence to craft the best possible description of your thought. I like to think of those “aha” moments like a butterfly that lands just long enough to register in the mind, but departs before it can be inspected. Journaling lures the thought closer, just long enough to capture a mental snapshot on the page. Over years, I’ve filled notebooks with all sorts of things: daily goings-on, letters to my younger self, bucket lists, movie ideas, and business plans. I had found my mind palace, set up parameters for deep thinking, and developed techniques to capture the occasional shooting star.
Then came COVID-19.
The pandemic has drastically reduced flying in the United States. On April 14th of this year, air passenger traffic reached a record low of 87,534 travelers, compared to more than 2.2 million travelers on the same date in 2019—a 96% decrease. While daily TSA passenger screening numbers have rebounded slightly since then, they still hover around 35% of their pre-COVID levels. For those of us who still have to fly, it’s no longer the escape-in-the-sky I found it to be. Being surrounded by strangers, which once gave me a feeling of anonymity that sparked creativity, now puts me on edge. The food and beverage service is no more, unless you count pretzels in a bag in another bag. And you suddenly become aware of how many surfaces there are on the inside of a plane.
Without flying in my life, I have been searching to replicate the time and space for serious reflection that long flights had wedged into a busy calendar. I’ve tried long morning walks, daily meditation, and stargazing. Once, I sat in the back seat of my parked car for an hour with no phone before a neighbor knocked on the window to see if I was locked in. Others are turning to rural Airbnbs, which have experienced 25% growth this summer, or are becoming first-time boat owners to escape the lockdowns. None of these come close to producing the same sense of controlled freedom I felt sitting on a lightly padded aluminum frame with thirty inches of legroom. How do you replicate an uninterrupted four-hour block of time when an entire world of distractions surrounds you?
I wish I could leave you with a happy ending and tell you how I’ve found the perfect replacement for my deep thinking practice. But the search continues. The pandemic caused major disruptions across every aspect of life: from work to travel to time with family in between. On the other hand, it has provided newfound opportunities to focus on what’s in front of us: working from home means spending more time with loved ones. Less time stuck in the classroom or the office means more time outdoors. And less frequent flying means that I have countless hours back in my schedule. While the pandemic has unsettled old habits, I’m using this structured, suspended time—“in transit,” so to speak—to think deeply about what might come next.