Most people travel as an observer, and as a result, “see” a lot. When you travel as an active participant, the experience can transform the way you think, and how you see the world.
Here’s a situation familiar to many of us: We decide to take a vacation and go somewhere exotic. We plan the trip and mark our calendars, and as the date gets closer we get increasingly excited. Before we step on the plane, the possibilities seem endless. Anything could happen! Accidental encounters and adventures could change our lives!
We go. We have a good time. We see what we wanted to and enjoy the break from work. Upon returning home, we share the pictures and recount some of our experiences with friends. We give away the souvenirs. We step back into our lives. The glow fades and we settle to planning the next round of travel in our daydreams.
In the end, it’s a little sad. That incredible experience becomes like a mirage or a dream—similar to watching a movie, but a lot more expensive.
What if it doesn’t have to be like this?
Travel without participation and reflection is entertainment. Try to notice yourself in the journey, and capture the experience and insights when you interact with all the new things you are confronted with. You can get more out of your travel by using mental models to weave yourself into the experience, and come away enriched as well as entertained and rested.
First, inspiration from the past …
Just over 200 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher, feminist, and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was going through an emotionally difficult period. Her lover—the father of her child—wasn’t interested in being with her anymore. She was devastated and frustrated. As a philosopher, she believed it was important to live according to the ideals she espoused. The realities facing a middle-class woman in 18th-century England made that very hard. Women had essentially no rights. Having a child out of wedlock might have supported her ideas regarding how oppressive the institution of marriage was for women, but without the support of the child’s father, she knew she would struggle financially and socially. It was one of the lowest points of her life.
Wollstonecraft went to Scandinavia, mostly to recover some money for her lover and thus try to win him back. In this she failed. But she captured her journey in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In doing so, she revolutionized travel writing and healed herself.
The Letters offer remarkable insight into Wollstonecraft’s lively mind. As she moves through the unfamiliar surroundings of three foreign countries, she asks herself questions and explores the ideas brought to mind. Observing the agricultural development of Norway, in many ways behind that of England at the time, she asks, “And, considering the question of human happiness, where, oh where does it reside? Has it taken up its abode with unconscious ignorance or with the high-wrought mind?”
She learns why the locals are nervous about serving coffee and how different their fashions are. She comments on the different gardening practices and the beauty of the trees. In contemplating how the Norwegians organize their social hierarchy she makes comparisons to England and infers conclusions about her native country—namely that the way things are is not necessarily how they have to be.
Most importantly, she records what effect the traveling has on her. “When a warm heart has received strong impressions, they are not to be effaced. Emotions become sentiments, and the imagination renders even transient sensations permanent by fondly retracing them. I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen, which are not to be forgotten, nor looks I have felt in every nerve, which I shall never more meet.”
Here are some goals we can construct from Wollstonecraft’s approach to travel:
- Try to actively know the place you are in. Observe the customs. Interact with the locals.
- Learn the whys behind the observation. Explore the history. Ask questions. Try to understand the answers in relation to what you are experiencing now, setting aside any previous assumptions.
- Notice how the journey is affecting you. What memories surface? What new insights do you have? Are your opinions and beliefs challenged?
- Don’t plan out every detail. Explore. The map is not the territory.
So how do we put those goals into practice?
Here is where mental models can amplify the travel experience.
We all have a tendency to generalize from small samples. Our own little world becomes, without the infusion of new experiences, our frame for understanding the entire world. Travel broadens your sample set. You start to really understand the universals of the human condition versus the particulars of the area you occupy.
Travel is a great way to counter confirmation bias. Chances are, people in a different country will think differently than you. Interactions won’t reinforce your feedback loop. You will be exposed to new ideas and ways of approaching life that can remind you of the options you have when you go back home.
You can apply the power of algebraic equivalence. In algebra, as we solve abstractions such as x + y = 8, we learn that values can be equal without looking exactly the same. When you explore other cultures and ways of living, you see that there are many definitions of a good life and many ways to be happy. You begin to understand that equality of experience is different from sameness of experience. Not everyone wants what you want. This diversity in how we manifest our goals and desires accounts for differences in everything from personal philosophy to product markets.
The distance from your regular life can give you perspective. Using the terms of Galilean relativity, you get to be the fish instead of the scientist. The lens of travel can help you untangle problems back at home in many ways. The distance, both physical and psychological, also gives you the opportunity to observe yourself in your regular life without the day-to-day pressures clouding your judgment.
Try these specific tips to apply this mental models approach to travel:
- Keep a travel journal. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Travel is full of idle moments like waiting for transportation, or museum-feet recovery at the end of the day. Reflect and capture.
- Encourage serendipity in your experiences. Give yourself the chance to experience the unexpected. Over-planning reinforces your current biases. You can’t possibly know the best of a place before you get there.
- Be deliberate in setting your goal. Go somewhere with the intent of gaining something out of that experience. Don’t try to recreate your life at home, with the same restaurants and television shows.
- Be open to growth. Travel is an opportunity to choose to be different. Anticipate that you might add to the construct that is “you” when you travel. Embrace the additions to your identity so that you have new resources to draw on.
Through considering mental models and staying actively engaged, travel can jolt you awake, and show you the world in a different light.