The Influence of Proximity

When I first moved to Boston in July of 2007, I had a 25-30 minute commute by foot from my apartment door to the office I was working at every weekday. Twice a day I passed 68 and 70 Gordon St.—two stately, Victorian homes with “yards” that were no more than 15′ square.

70 Gordon St. was full of well-kept tall flowers, blooming plants, and climbing vines. It was the beauty high-point of my morning commute. The wildflowers on the sidewalk side of the yard grew so tall and lush that the gardener kept them from sprawling out onto the concrete with thick twine lassos. I imagine it was difficult for her to walk through her own yard.

68 Gordon St. was full of weeds and bare patches of New England dirt.

Left to its own devices and the whims of its owner, 68 Gordon St. would remain a neglected, overgrown, ugly excuse for a yard. But a completely natural, oddly unexpected thing started to happen each week. Tiny spots of color started showing up in the 68 Gordon St. yard. A wildflower here and there, obviously smaller than its neighborly counterparts, but there nonetheless, growing between the weeds. Splashes of beauty, brought about by a little wind and long periods of proximity.

I don’t know that there’s a specific timeline at work here, but sooner or later, things start wearing off on you if you’re in proximity to them for long enough. If you want to grow and learn in any field, the quickest way to some form of success in that regard is to learn from others. Put yourself around what you want to be. Be near. Be in it. Behold what you want to become. I don’t say this with a goal of emulating. I think the greater goal has to be to contextualize it all. Make it your own. But if you want to make beautiful art, put yourself in the company of people making beautiful art. If you want to be an Olympic short track speed skater, don’t waste your time at the local rink thinking about it, go find world class skaters. Get to learning. Simply being around people who are trying new things and creatively learning will rub off on you. It’s inevitable.

If you don’t know anyone doing what you want to do, go get a library card. Start checking out the mass of wisdom and knowledge that’s available to you every day, free of charge.

This principle doesn’t always play out in the beauty-from-ashes manner; the opposite can be true as well. If you’re an optimistic, good-natured kind of person and you exist everyday in a work environment or social circle full of cynical complainers, they will eventually wear you down to a sliver of your former (or future) self. If you’re deeply motivated and full of ambition, sit in the company of the wrong personalities for too long and you’ll find yourself thinking the status quo looks appealing. And then you’ll die. It just might take another 40 years.

Both sides of the proximity equation have the potential to embolden you to greatness (or at least to next-ness, which is highly underrated.) Being in proximity of charisma, skill, beauty, and wisdom will craft you into something to be reckoned with. Conversely, being in proximity of lackadaisical, cynical, wet blanket types can push you forward in a search for more fulfilling work and life. 

Or it can break you.

When it comes to what you keep close, and what keeps you close, choose carefully. Choose wisely. Choose for the long term while living in the short term. You’re losing or gaining your creative soul with every step you take towards or away from the people and attitudes in your periphery.