You Don’t Need a Plane Ticket: The Truth about Travel and Creativity

lonely on the coast

I wasn’t supposed to blog while traveling. Traveling through Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia, a computer is mostly dead weight. I’m just happy to have my camera, a notebook, and occasional wi-fi (completely let go of the internet?? Hah, I’m a millennial after all.)

But my two weeks here is coming to an end, and I’ve been thinking a lot about travel and creativity. Is there a connection? Does travel provide any real benefit?

It depends. The science backs some kinds of travel and not others. Two people can visit Costa Rica, but staying in a secluded resort is quite different from couch surfing. The science shows that they even stimulate your brain differently. It shows what I have come to learn: the important part of travel isn’t seeing museums or monuments, but the people you meet and the cultures you experience.

The scientific link

The automative link

Recent studies suggest travel encourages cognitive flexibility and an ability to make connections from very disparate forms. You’re connecting new and different experiences with your own history. This creates new pathways, and forces you to think differently (especially if you have to brush off your rusty Spanish or French or Serbo-Croatian).The more willing you are to immerse yourself in something different, the more you challenge yourself, and the more benefits you’re likely to find (up to a point).

Think of it like a closet. You’re so used to the clothes you wear on a daily basis, there’s a de facto order to it. The clothes you like, you make easier to reach. There are other pieces, but they are out of sight and out of mind.

Clean your closet and suddenly those old pieces may come to light. Pieces you long forgot about. Some you may throw away, but some you keep. Your style may not significantly change, but you’re wearing your clothes slightly differently, or you’ve made space for new pieces.

But you don’t have to leave home

Travel is one way of gaining this creative boost. That’s right: one way. I know that not everyone has the same opportunities I’ve had. You don’t need to fly thousands of miles to experience these cultural moments. Here are some other ideas for getting the same neural benefits.

  1. Host travelers
    Strangers become friends

There are people from around the world traveling, many looking to meet locals. If you can’t go to Beijing, why not host someone for a few days?

Couchsurfing allows you to do just that. As a site based on references, you can get an idea of people before they ever come to your place. While I’ve mostly used it as a traveler, I can say honestly that it’s a great site, full of passionate people from around the world. Couchsurfing gave me the opportunity to discus oil politics in Dubrovnik and archeology in Haifa, watch old episodes of Alf and eat sultanas (the most delicious raisin…ever.)

As a host, you always have final say about who does and who doesn’t stay at your place. Some places (like NYC, Los Angeles, etc.) will be way more popular than others. If you’re interested in this, read this piece for further insight into hosting and how it works.

Not ready to host? Many urban areas will have public events, from happy hour to hiking. Try going to some events in your area. Some may have a place to stay but want to meet new people. Many start out meeting travelers for coffee and going on impromptu tours of the city. Who knows? You may start seeing your hometown in a different light.

  1. Learn about another culture
    black sphynx

Travel only provides benefits when you’re immersed in a different cultural experience. For generations when you traveled, you couldn’t avoid interacting on someone else’s terms. Today, you can get a stamp in your passport while staying in an American hotel, and only eating KFC and hamburgers. Comforting, but not engaging.

Yet, often there are various cultures or groups living near each other (if not next door). Why not explore one near you? For instance, there’s a thriving Ethiopian community in DC. Some ways to learn about Ethiopian culture include:

  • Eating Ethiopian food
  • Learning the language
  • Reading Ethiopian history or literature
  • Taking an Ethiopian dance class

These pathways of learning can be applied to many different cultures. Where it takes you may surprise you. You may find yourself learning new aspects of history (like the East African Campaign of World War 2) and meet new people. While you may not be able to enjoy a two-week vacation, this kind of research can stimulate your brain anytime, anywhere.

When you are learning about someone else’s heritage, language, or country, tread lightly. It’s important to know the difference between learning about another culture and cultural appropriation. One is respectful, and the other is not.

  1. Leave your social comfort zone

When we travel, we often have to deal with things we don’t usually do. For instance, right now I’m wearing a shirt for the second day in a row (yes, it does have a stain or two, don’t tell my mother.) I’ve dealt with hot buses, bizarre sunburn lines (yes you can burn your collar bone) and many smoky cafes.

When you travel, you have to accept some different social norms. Changing norms push you to think about your own life differently.

But who says you only leave your social comfort zone when you get out of town? You can challenge yourself in some other ways including:

  • Cut down your wardrobe with Project 333
  • Perform at an open mic night
  • Go vegetarian for a month
  • Take a social media fast

While none of these changes seem all that exotic, they will make you rethink your life. Who knows? Maybe you’ll reclaim some more space in your house. Spending less time on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll find more to write your novel.

Traveling can be an amazing thing. I’ve been lucky enough to meet many wonderful people and learn more about the world, history, culture, and myself through it.

But the power of travel is not the distances we cover, but the cultural connections and interactions. These are available here and now, without a passport or a pricey plane ticket. The question is, are you ready to reach out and take it?

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