Our most valuable thoughts are often those that arise by chance at the moments we least expect them.
There’s the brilliant business idea when you’re walking down the sidewalk, in no particular hurry to get where you’re going, merely taking in the sights and sounds. The drowsy midnight discovery that wakes you up from your pre-sleep hypnotic trance. The elevator epiphany. Traffic light insight. Bathtub revelation.
It’s these random moments that are the raison d’etre for the flâneur.
What is a flâneur, you ask?
The word is difficult (nearly impossible) to translate from French. French-English dictionaries define a flâneur as someone who strolls, loafs or idles, but that doesn’t do the term justice.
Let’s think of the flâneur as a connoisseur of the street—a highly observant urban wanderer who takes in everything they see as they seek experiences that fuel their creative minds.
The flâneur began as a literary figure and thanks to many commentators over the years, has evolved into an ideology that can be applied to our lives.
By thinking more like flâneurs, we can become more creative, simplify our decisions, start a business that earns us freedom and open up a whole new way of thinking.
Synonyms for flâneur include:
Note: Though some of these may seem to have a negative connotation, the term flâneur is generally now seen in a positive light and has been throughout history by a majority of the major commentators.
Let’s take a trip back in time and see what’s been said about the flâneur over the years.
THE HISTORY OF THE FLÂNEUR
The flâneur first began as a literary figure in the 1840s and since then has been theorized on by a number of thinkers across economic, philosophical, cultural and historical fields who each had their own unique take on the concept.
It’s been used as a tool over the years to help better understand urban life, modernity, individuality, and capitalism—and now it’s evolved into fully fledged way of thinking about the world.
To think, it all started with an Edgar Allen Poe tale.
Edgar Allen Poe (1840)
I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. “How wild a history,” I said to myself, “is written within that bosom!” Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view—to know more of him.Edgar Allen Poe (The Man of the Crowd)
In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe published a short story called The Man of the Crowd. It’s a tale told by a narrator who sits in a cafe perceptively people-watching, almost as if reading the soul of each person that passes by.
A mysterious older man walks by that immediately grabs the attention of the narrator, who proceeds to dash out to the streets and follow his new fascination in his sudden urge to know more.
The man leads the narrator through the London streets, aimlessly strolling all night through bazaars and shops, buying nothing and merely observing. The next morning, exhausted and confused by the man’s behaviors, the narrator stands directly in the path of the old man in an attempt to capture his attention.
But the old man doesn’t take notice and walks right on past as if he weren’t even there, implying that the two men—the observer and the stroller—are two sides of the same person.
In this story the word flâneur is never mentioned by Poe, but it did inspire Charles Baudelaire, his translator, to discuss the concept in his subsequent writing.
Charles Baudelaire (1845)
For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family.Charles Baudelaire (The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays)
The Parisian writer Charles Baudelaire established the flâneur as a literary figure, referring to him as the “gentleman stroller of city streets.”
While others at this point in history had seen flâneurs in a negative light and tried to paint them as unmotivated, indecisive men, Baudelaire held the flâneur in high esteem.
A flâneur, to Baudelaire, was an artistic soul that helped us better understand and portray the relationship between the individual and the city. For him, it became suddenly possible to remain anonymous and autonomous even within the ebb and flow in the heart of a metropolis.
Walter Benjamin (1929)
[The flâneur] would be happy to trade all his knowledge of artists’ quarters, birthplaces and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile – that which any old dog carries away.Walter Benjamin (The Arcade Projects)
Walter Benjamin was a philosopher and writer who adopted the concept of the flâneur spectator from Baudelaire. He saw the flâneur as an amateur detective-slash-journalist that worked to investigate the city with his highly astute observations. The street signs were his living room paintings and the newsstands his library.
Benjamin developed the concept of flânerie as this unique form of urban investigation. His flâneur was able to decipher city life as if it were a code to be cracked, scanning every street corner, every face and every wall in search of clues.
The flâneur, to Benjamin, was also a tool for interpreting modern capitalist culture.
Edmund White (2001)
[The flâneur is] by definition endowed with enormous leisure, someone who can take off a morning or an afternoon for undirected ambling, since a specific goal or a close rationing of time is antithetical to the true spirit of the flâneur.Edmund White (The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris)
American author Edmund White wrote a modern guidebook that opens up a version of Paris we would otherwise not see, taking us on a stroll through the city as seen through the eyes of the poetic flâneur.
The book is also filled with author commentary, where he at one point argues that “Americans are particularly ill-suited to be flâneurs.”
White discusses what he believes stops individuals from being flâneurs, including:
- Relentless urge toward self-improvement
- The need to constantly work
- Rigid agendas and itineraries
Nassim Taleb (2004+)
[A flaneur is] someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision opportunistically at every step to revise his schedule (or his destination) so he can imbibe things based on new information obtained.Nassim Taleb (Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder)
In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb introduces the concept of the rational flâneur—someone who doesn’t get locked into a given way of doing things. The opposite? A tourist.
Taleb’s flâneur is someone who seeks out optionality.
Because you can’t predict what’s going to happen, he argues, you stand to gain more by positioning yourself in such a way that you always have options (and preferably ones with great upside and little to no downside). That way you can evaluate once you have all the necessary information and make the most rational decision.
His flâneur is an experimenter, a master of trial and error. He’s a self-learner who is never the prisoner of a plan.
The rational flâneur merely needs to a) avoid things that hurt him, b) keep trying new things, and c) be able to recognize when he achieves a favorable outcome. In this way, he achieves freedom through opportunism.
THE BREAKDOWN: WHAT IS A FLÂNEUR?
The concept of the flâneur can also be seen as a metaphor for life. It’s a backlash against the overly logical, goal-driven attitude of the world. Thinking more like a flâneur allows us to maintain our freedom and our artistic, creative minds in a world that is increasingly pushing us to be by the book.
Let’s break down some of the characteristics of the flâneur:
1. A Flâneur is a Wanderer
A flâneur is someone who approaches life in a peripatetic manner.
peripatetic a: of, relating to, or given to walking b: moving or traveling from place to place
Flâneurs are true modern wanderers, balloon-like and at the whim of their own curiosity as they navigate the world.
They walk without purpose or itinerary, strolling from place to place perhaps basing themselves in particular locations for relatively short periods, or perhaps staying a while.
They are highly aware that the best things that happen in life happen as a matter of chance. This purposeless strolling opens the flâneur up to an infinite number of new chance encounters that otherwise would not arise.
Seeking the unexpected, they welcome the exhilaration of getting lost. Through this process, they’re able to find things unimagined or stumble across parts unknown.
In searching for what it is they don’t know, the flâneur is able to see beyond their immediate worldview. Counterintuitively, it’s through not seeking that the flâneur finds.
2. A Flâneur is an Observer
Flâneurs are passionate observers who thrive in environments that stimulate the visual senses.
With their discerning gaze and high observational skills, they’re able to see things that others fail to see. They go through life seeing the world as if for the first time, seeing things for what they are while remaining detached.
Every person they encounter conceals a story. Every sight they see hides a new insight. As they seek out what surprises them, they make discoveries. This is precisely what makes them great creators, teachers, entrepreneurs and thought leaders.
3. A Flâneur Focuses on the Immediate
Rather than being self-focused and thinking long term about personal goals, the flâneur looks externally. He thrives on the immediate, or as Baudelaire put it, “the tyranny of circumstance.”
4. A Flâneur is a Documentarian
A flâneur is the kind of person with many fascinating stories to tell.
Though flâneurs explore for the sake of their own personal enjoyment, they may document any knowledge or ideas they’ve extracted from their journeys in the hope that they may be of use for others.
Like reporters, flâneurs collect inspiration, images, thoughts, memories and experiences for future works. They record their impressions, share their learnings and document their failures. It’s in doing so they find their voice as creators and attract others who learn from their lessons or share similar interests.
5. A Flâneur is an Experimenter
Flâneurs know that real discovery is made when you’re living on your edge, and they’re not afraid to get out of their comfort zones and try new things.
It’s through experimentation that the flâneur finds freedom. They go through life conducting what Nassim Taleb calls “rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research,” maintaining their freedom yet staying opportunistic.
Flâneurs have a deep hunger for experience and are not afraid to get hurt. In fact, they’re highly aware that it’s by getting hurt or failing that they become more robust. Through seeking out randomness, life remains constantly exciting and inspirational.
As Taleb says, “Difficulty is what wakes up the genius.”
As long as they are able to think rationally, spot good outcomes when they arise and avoid things that greatly set them back, the flâneur will come out ahead.
6. A Flâneur is Streaming Life
Against strict enforcement of schedules and systems, the flâneur is not focused primarily on maximizing productivity or reaching a specific goal. There’s no need to overthink life or feel pressure to manage or plan out every hour of the day to be as productive as possible. Instead, they’re taking life in, letting it take them where it goes instead of needing to be in control all the time.
They don’t allow themselves to be made prisoners to appointments, plans or life situations.
Instead, flâneurs spend more time making real-time decisions as they come across new information. They live their lives in pursuit of open, flexible plans as opposed to living according to a strict, orderly itinerary.
In this way, they’re essentially streaming life.
7. A Flâneur Makes the Whole World Their Home
Flâneurs feel just as at home in the heart of the city as they do between the four walls of their dwellings. Their notion of home remains fluid and adaptable.
In doing so, they move beyond an identity that’s tied to geography and reinvent themselves as citizens of the world.
This very trait is what makes them such great observers. This level of empathy, tolerance, and connectedness leads to interactions and insights that would otherwise never arise.
8. A Flâneur Seeks Meaning
Flâneurs are in search of what makes them better.
Rather than a hedonistic search for the next hit of pleasure, the flâneur is in search of what resonates deeply with their inner self, and they remain secretly attuned to the true essence of things. Flânerie is not just about aimless wandering or being idle, it’s instead about seeking out what speaks to the soul.
Through observation and exploration, the flâneur comes to better understand himself and the world.
9. A Flâneur is Free
By definition, a flâneur is someone in possession of a large amount of leisure time, able to take their time to wander without restriction.
For the majority of us, it’s jobs or financial goals that restrict most of our time. So in order to completely remove ourselves from such strict schedules, it’s necessary to create some level of financial freedom.
Flâneurs may find ways to achieve financial freedom through entrepreneurship or through melding their passions with their work.
But ultimately the freedom flâneurs possess is a state of mind. It’s about slowing down and soaking up more of life, being more present to surroundings and finding inspiration from what excites. It’s the ability to shut off the voices in our heads and see things for how they really are—free from bias, judgment or ego.
PASTIMES OF THE FLÂNEUR
THE FLÂNEUR’S CREDO
Trial and error
Focus on quality
Carving your own path
Obsession with experience
Focus on quantity
Obsession with knowledge
SIMILAR AND RELATED TERMS
- Renaissance man
- Digital nomad
Here is a list of some of the most creative and successful artists, creators and thinkers from history who epitomize the essence of the flâneur:
- Henry David Thoreau
- Nassim Taleb
- J.K. Rowling
- Albert Einstein
- Charles Darwin
- William Wordsworth
- Pierre Trudeau
- Thomas Jefferson
- Virginia Woolf
- Soren Kierkegaard
- Guy Laliberté
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Ludwig Van Beethoven
- Rebecca Solnit
- Louise Lecavalier
- Leo Tolstoy
- Leonard Cohen
Have others to add? Let me know in the comments.
WHY THE WORLD NEEDS MORE FLÂNEURS
As kids, we’re wide-eyed and curious, roaming freely and unburdened by life’s responsibilities. But as adults, life becomes increasingly rushed, pre-planned and devoid of randomness.
We’re constantly connected, over-informed and stuck in the predictable. We’ve become addicted to bite-sized information and allergic to deep, contemplative thought. In our businesses, we opt for predictable cookie-cutter solutions and quick Band-Aid fixes.
But it’s when we’re too focused on a certain way of doing things that we end up missing opportunities. Our obsession with organization and time management often means less brilliant creative solutions and more of the mediocre.
A lot of life is unpredictable and it’s through rational risk-taking that we create innovation and growth.
What if we adopted more of flâneur mindset and took the long road to discovery? What if we slowed down more often to take in more of what’s going on around us? What if we set aside a little more time to recharge and reconnect, and to seek out that which inspires us?
Connect the Dots becomes a lot more interesting when you have more dots to play with.
So I say we embrace the chance encounters and go on more random adventures. We’re constantly evolving individuals, and we should be making more real time decisions.
Let’s start celebrating uncertainty and ditch the scripts, even for just a day.
Note: I called this an “Incomplete Guide” since I consider it a work in progress and there’s lots I’m still learning. If you have anything to add or any comments, please do so. I’d like to keep this article continually updated and ever-evolving.