The surprising purpose of travel
1 It's 4:15 in the morning and my alarm clock has just stolen away a lovely dream. I almost return back to sleep before my eye catches my packed suitcase and I groan remembering that I'm going to the airport. The taxi is late and then lost and I'm getting increasingly nervous that I'll miss my flight. I run in when we arrive stagger through security and finally get to my gate. After all the trouble of this morning my flight is canceled and I'm stuck in this terminal for the next 218 minutes and my only consolation is a cup of complimentary airport coffee. This is traveling a burdensome series of running and waiting and after countless hours finally getting there.
2 Why do we travel? I don't mind the actual flying the wonder of being airborne in a dense metal bird. The rest of the journey however can feel like a tedious lesson in the ills of modernity from the predawn x-ray screening to the sad airport malls selling clusters of keepsakes. It's the result of a globalized world and it sucks.
3 Sometimes of course we travel because we need to. Because in this digital age there is still something important about the handshake at a business luncheon. Or eating mom's special food on Thanksgiving. Or seeing your girlfriend on your 2-year anniversary.
4 But most travel is decidedly optional. Only corporate travel about 30% of trips over 50 miles is truly compulsory. Instead we travel because we want to because the annoyances of the airport are offset by the thrill of being someplace new. Because work is stressful and our blood pressure is too high and we need a vacation somewhere tropical. Because home is boring. Because the flights are on sale. Because Paris is Paris.
5 Thanks to modern aviation we can now move through space at an inhuman speed. For the first time in human history we can outrun the sun and move from one hemisphere to another in a single day. Of course it's not enough to simply get on a plane. If we want to realize the creative benefits of travel then we have to re-think its overall purpose. Most people after all escape to Paris so they don't have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here's the irony: Our mind is most likely to solve our most stubborn problems while we are sitting in luxury in a Left Bank café. So instead of contemplating that buttery dessert we should be conscious of those domestic issues we just can't solve.
6 The larger lesson though is that our thoughts are saturated with the familiar. The brain is a space of near infinite possibility which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in finite literal prose not symbolic verse. A bit of distance however helps loosen the cognitive chains that imprison us making it easier to mingle the new with the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective. According to research the experience of an exotic culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness making it easier to realize that even a trivial thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: In China this is often seen as a compliment a signal that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America the same act is a subtle insult an indication that the food wasn't good enough to finish.
7 Such multicultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are open to ambiguity willing to realize that there are decidedly different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This in turn allows them to expand the circumference of their "cognitive inputs" as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses.
8 Of course this mental flexibility doesn't come from mere distance a simple change in latitude and longitude. Instead this renaissance of creativity appears to be a side effect of difference: We need to change cultures to experience the disorienting diversity of human traditions. The same facets of foreign travel that are so confusing (Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me?) turn out to have a lasting impact making us more creative because we're less insular. We're reminded of all that we don't know which is nearly everything; we're surprised by the constant stream of surprises. Even in this globalized age we can still be amazed at all the earthly things that weren't included in the Let's Go guidebook and that certainly don't exist back home.
9 So let's not pretend that travel doesn't have its drawbacks or that we endure jet lag for pleasure. We don't spend 10 hours lost in the Louvre because we like it and the view from the top of Machu Picchu probably doesn't make up for the trouble of lost luggage. (More often than not I need a vacation after my vacation.) We travel because we need to because distance and difference are the secret cornerstones of creativity. When we get home home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed and that changes everything.