The term ‘liminal spaces’ means ‘spaces on the edges of things’.
It comes from the Latin word for threshold (no, I didn’t know that, Wikipedia told me) and it expresses the state of being on the precipice of something, but not quite there yet. Not quite into the new thing, not quite out of the old.
Maybe you already knew that.
I learned it from my little sister. It’s a term that they use often in the art world (where she lives and occasionally lets me visit) to express how art pushes perception and makes mental and emotional transcendence possible, how it makes transitions possible.
It’s beautiful, no?
Trust me to take such an ethereal concept and make it all about banking.
But that is who I am as a person.
The idea is that you can be in a liminal space physically, emotionally or of course metaphorically and in most situations the term ‘liminal space’ is not positive. It is used to describe a place of uncertainty and discomfort. Not quite here, not quite there. Often riddled with anxiety.
That is not, for once, what I am going for.
I am using the term to describe a metaphorical space (i.e., a nugget of time) that is ‘unclaimed’ by your normal activities. If you have a better name for it, please tell me. I used to call it ‘the in-between spaces’ before I stumbled upon this term, and I like liminal better.
I was chatting to a client the other night.
The best kind.
And he joked about when I get the time to write given everything else I do. And as he and I actually do work together, he knows just how much that is. He also joked about whether he’d know it when he featured in one of my pieces. Yes, you will, was my answer. So here we are.
But back to the point we were discussing.
I write in my liminal spaces. For many years that used to be flights. When lockdown started that caused a problem, let me tell you. Because there was something about time that was already committed, time-boxed and off-grid that was not just good for the discipline of writing. It was good for the fluidity of the thinking. It wasn’t just that flights gave me the time to write. It felt like they gave me the freedom to write exactly what I wanted or needed to write in a way that doing it at my desk or at home didn’t work the same way.
I tried to create some liminal spaces for me, during lockdown. I tried to hack it.
On fine, sunny days I would take my laptop and a coffee into a park. No Wi-Fi. And nothing to do there other than soak up the sun and write. It was nice, but it wasn’t the same. It felt a little contrived. It didn’t quite capture the special energy buzzing in the space in between places. A low hum. Not a frantic, high-octane vibe at all, in the liminal places… and yet a sense of a taut drum, a thing poised.
I didn’t say all that during dinner.
But I thought it.
And that in turn got me thinking through the night and next day, like good conversations do. And the introspection reignited something I have been thinking about a lot over the past two years.
Where do we get fresh ideas from?
How do we stop ourselves from just shuffling along from task to task and day to day, doing what we always did and getting what we always got?
It doesn’t work the same way for everyone.
Some folks get inspired and energised by other humans. Others find people draining.
Some folks get inspired by school. Seminars. Webinars. Courses. Podcasts. Lessons.
Others get inspired by immersion.
Some folks get their best thinking done in the shower. That’s a liminal place if I ever saw one.
And maybe that’s the magic of a truly liminal place and why my attempt to force it didn’t work.
It’s bonus time.
It’s time that is already gone, already committed to another activity so you don’t feel forced to make it productive.
While you are sitting on a plane, standing under the shower, pounding the pavement or sitting still through a play. You are already doing something. The time is committed. You are not doing the things you normally do. Physically. And you can choose to think on nothing. You have that reprieve. The time is already gone. Guilt-free.
Your mind drifts away from the things you would be thinking about if the time wasn’t already given up to something. The things you normally think about get to breathe and rest, stretch and settle, and when you look again, they look different.
Hanging out the laundry or going for a walk to think about a problem doesn’t count, by the way.
Getting yourself out of the mental space you were in when you were actively working on something is key to achieving this replenishing magic I am talking about. Running out for milk between back-to-back Zoom calls does not achieve that. Cooking dinner for the kids while checking their homework does not achieve that. And trying to relax while actively stressing about something someone said or did, a problem, an oversight, a bad behaviour, won’t work either. They are elusive, the liminal places. You can’t summon them just because you need them. The same activity won’t yield the same effect every time. You don’t have a genius idea every time you have a shower or go for a run. Just sometimes. But the value of the liminal places is always there even if it does not manifest itself in a specific idea every time.
But be warned, liminal spaces are not just elusive, they are also fragile. If you are stressed and all wired up, even if you get yourself physically in the right place, mentally it won’t work.
Which is too bad because a constant level of stress seems to be the default in our industry.
Engendered by the overall tone, sustained by the wall of meetings and Zoom calls and long hours. We’ve talked about all this time and again (remember bankers behaving badly?). This is not new. Neither is what I am about to say next, and yet it feels like it has to be said.
Burnout is not sexy.
And it has few outward signs at first. It’s your brain that becomes frazzled initially. Your depth perception in problem solving, your ability to tell the urgent from the important. Your patience with complexity. Your instincts get blunter.
The physical side effects may or may not follow but the mental side effects have no outward signs other than maybe constant irritability.
They are affecting you though.
And in ways that are hard to measure, perhaps imperceptible but undeniably there. They are affecting the quality of your work. You are giving your company your all and yet… you are not… because by working yourself to the ground you are giving them less than your all, a lot of you being rapidly fried by the constant need to focus.
So what I am saying is… going to a play and having a glass of wine with a friend, is good for your employer.
Taking your charity day and spending the day stacking books or cleaning pathways in a park, is good for your bottom line.
Going to the gym, going on holiday, taking the kids to the park, is actually going to improve the quality of your work.
I don’t know what your liminal places are, but I know that you can’t live without visiting them for long without losing your creativity, flexibility, sense of wonder and occasionally sense of humour.
So find those liminal places that work for you. That allow your brain to wonder and wander. And keep visiting.
For the sake of your productivity and creativity, take time away from your desk. Do it often. Do it regularly. Do it with intent.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!