How to get the most out of a travel journal

A travel journal: Your new best friend

A travel journal can be one of your most useful travel — make that life — tools. It can serve myriad purposes from recording your thoughts, emotions (an important aspect many overlook) and experiences to being a repository of creative ideas and even artwork. You can use it as a scrapbook, planning tool, contact book, organizer, reference book (for vital information such as passport numbers, hotel addresses, places to visit, etc.) and even a place to hide certain valuables.

It’s simple enough to put information into your travel journal. The hard part is being able to find or extract that information easily later on. But don’t worry. I’ll show you some techniques, hacks and tips for that and more based on decades trying a wide variety of travel journals and approaches. You’ll find these useful whether you’re an old pro at journaling or even if you’ve never used a travel journal before. And be sure to read all the way through this article since the Additional Resources section at the end is loaded with inspiring and helpful examples and ideas.

Getting started

The first and most important thing to remember is that there is no one right way to set up your travel journal. In fact, I’ve found that the best approach is to just start with something and learn as you go. My first travel journal was basically a daily diary: “Today I did this, etc.” Now, however, I use it in a very different matter. But it all comes down to this: What is the purpose of your travel journal?

First travel journal pages

Two typical entries from my first travel journal on my first trip to Europe in high school. I have upped my travel journal game a bit since then, or so I hope.

This is such an important question because it will guide what kind of notebook/journal/sketchbook you use, how you organize it and how you interact with it. If you’re just starting out, you may not even know your purpose other than to record your experiences. That’s fine. Start there. Then refine over time.

For me, I see my travel journal as a collection tool where I gather ideas, sketches, some to-do’s, trip details and anything else that interests me. But the main difference between this and most journals is that as a tool, I want to use my journal after I return. Not just for nostalgic reminisces on my trip, but to glean from it what I’ve learned, gained and become. I’ll explain this more momentarily.

Picking the right journal

Again, I’m not sure there is a universal “right” travel journal. Your goal is to find what works for you. You can start by determining if you want a blank notebook or a travel journal that comes with prompts, quotes, organizing categories, etc. Here’s a helpful list of 17 travel journals to give you an idea of the possibilities. Mostly, consider if you want to be drawing or even painting in your travel journal. If so, you’ll want thicker paper that won’t warp with the water or bleed through with ink. You likely will want blank pages, as opposed to lines, grids or dots.

Different page orientations

Just as there’s no right or wrong size (just what works for you), so too is the orientation up to you. As you can see here, I sketched holding the journal in a portrait orientation (left page) but wrote (right page, partial) using a landscape orientation. Both work.

If you want to use it as a form of a scrapbook, get one with pockets or that is expandable enough for when you’ve doubled the thickness with all those tickets, stamps, samples of currency, bottle labels and other elements you’ve glued to the pages.

Buying a nice looking or feeling notebook or journal can be motivating. But getting too nice of a notebook to use can be intimidating: You’ll be afraid to mess it up. Thus, I suggest starting somewhere in the middle. Find a journal or notebook that will hold up well (hard covers help in this regard), but isn’t so expensive you’ll only want to use it on special occasions.

Patterned paper pages

Even fancy patterns on your pages can be fun. I tend to prefer blank pages, but sometimes I’ll try different patterns just to mix things up.

Your travel journal is more of a workhorse than a show pony (though sometimes a bit of that too later on). You’ll get far more out of one you use all the time, where you write, scribble, doodle and sketch with the intent that only you will ever see it. If you choose to show it to others later, fine. But don’t make that your main goal, at least as a beginner, or you’ll never get the most out of your journal.

How will you use your travel journal?

Back to purpose, you can choose to have a general-use journal or one devoted only to your trips (or to a particular trip). I have done both, and there are pros and cons to each. A journal for all situations allows you to connect everything you do so that if a great work idea hits you on a trip, you can reference back to a meeting about that, etc. You can also find things easier in some ways since your whole life, trip or home/work, is laid out in a chronological fashion in one book.

Daily entry journal

Here’s a recent journal of mine that I use daily, as well as for trips. You can see the basic outline for this article here that I wrote on the plane on a business trip. How do I know it was on a trip? From the notation that the sketch was done from a photo in the airplane’s magazine somewhere between Baltimore (BWI) and Seattle (SEA)

A really popular approach these days to general journals is the Bullet Journal. Many people swear by this way of organizing their journal and their life. I love many of the ideas found in bullet journaling. But I choose not to follow that approach completely. Why? Bullet journaling is primarily intended as a productivity tool. I personally don’t find it helpful in that regard because, for example, tracking all my calendar events and moment-by-moment to-do’s in a journal slows me down.

Combine digital and analog

Instead, I use a combination of Outlook, Trello, Evernote and Scrivener (the latter two for organizing ideas and writing projects or content) on my phone and computer. The main reason for tracking tasks digitally is that they roll over automatically. I don’t have to constantly move them manually from one day, week or month to-do list to the next.

But the main reason I don’t use the bullet journal methodology for my travel journal is that when I travel, productivity is not my goal. Exploration and discovery are. I use my travel journal to capture what I learn as I explore the world around me and the world within me wherever I go.

Page from China travel journal

On a trip, I’m less interested in productivity than in explaining why this sketch was hard to do well.

In the last few years, I’ve taken up sketching and even watercolors, so for me, I now maintain a separate travel journal for each major trip. I use one that has thicker watercolor paper, so on a three-week trip, I can pretty much fill up the whole book. But for shorter trips, I do use my day-to-day journal. And I’ve even done both: Used my day-to-day journal to record words and a smaller sketchbook for drawings or watercolors. Again, no right or wrong way to do this. Just start with an approach and build from there.

Organizing your travel journal

What follows is how I organize my travel journal. It’s the same way I do my day-to-day but with some additional pages in the end for travel-specific information. My purpose, remember, is to capture ideas, information and experiences and then to be able to use these later. For that reason, the most helpful part of my journal is the index. I’ll explain that in a moment, but here’s what else goes into my journal.

Starting with a brand new empty journal

The first thing I do with a new journal is to put my name, cell phone number and email address on the inside cover.

Next, if the journal doesn’t have a rear pocket, I make one or glue/tape in a small envelope that fits on the inside of the rear cover.

If you glue in your own, consider hiding a few large denomination bills, both dollars and the local currency, behind the envelope or anything else you tape or glue inside the covers. It’s a great place for hiding back-up money. It works because once you start using your travel journal regularly, you’ll find it is one of your most precious possessions. You’ll learn to guard it like your wallet, passport or phone.

Stacks of travel journals

These are just some of the many travel journals I’ve filled up over the years.

In addition to the pocket or envelope in your journal, consider bringing a quart or gallon-sized zip lock bag to hold all the small items you pick up along the way. I used to shove them into pockets in my carry-on bag, but having a single location now keeps them from getting lost or mangled. And it keeps my travel journal from looking like George Costanza’s wallet on Seinfeld. This same bag can hold a glue stick, paper clips or anything else you want for adding items to your journal.

Start in the front and work back

I track everything chronologically noting the date at the top of each day’s entry. If it spans multiple pages, I’ll write “(cont.)” after the date on later spreads so I know to keep looking for the start of that day when I review the entry later.

I work in this chronological fashion for recording most of my entries because I find it flows better to write the item down right away and then figure out how to classify it later. I set up indexes in the back for classifying and locating the entry. But that comes as a review step, not a creative or collecting function.

What to write

Starting at the front section of the travel journal, I may use the very first page as a title page if the journal is devoted to a single trip. Otherwise, I skip over that page and then start with the date of the start of the trip and then just keep going from there. Here are the types of content I write/draw:

Sketching pages

Sometimes, I’ll devote a whole page or spread to nothing but sketches.

  • General thoughts. These make up the majority of my journal and are what you’d expect in any journal.
  • Sketches. I’m still just a beginner, but I’ve committed to one sketch per day, at home or on a trip. Sometimes they are involved. Others (most of the time), are just a quick gesture. But the discipline helps improve my skill.
  • A daily log. At the end of each day, I do a very quick list of summary activities, where I went, who I met, what I did. I actually note it like this: “(Log 11/27/19 – Wed.):” so that I can see at a glance what were log entries versus other ideas. For logs, the shorter the better. Here’s where bullet journal techniques can help: Record a few words as a bullet rather than full sentences. At the end of every daily log, I also record two specific items in addition log entries themselves, gratitude points and what I’ve read or watched.
  • Gratitude points: I jot down what I call a Goodness Journal (abbreviated as GJ) entry. This is the highlight of my day for which I am most grateful. On trips, this can often end up being multiple points.
  • Read/Watched: The second additional component is what I call Read/Watched (R/W) where I list any books I’ve read that day or any movies, programs, concerts, etc. that I watched. It can include podcasts and anything else you want to track. Before I started doing this, I’d get to the end of the year and couldn’t recall all the books I’d read. Now I can just by referring back to these entries.
  • Insights and Ideas. Most of my journal at home is filled with these. On trips, these happen more on plane, train or bus rides than every single day. But they could happen any time which is why I keep a pocket-sized travel journal with me or at least a note card or my phone so I can write the idea down immediately.
  • Quotes. These can be formal written ones I encounter or snippets of conversations I overhear. As a writer, I want to always be gathering dialog examples or clever turns of phrases.
  • To-dos. Yes, I said I record these digitally for the daily tasks. But sometimes on trips, you have opportunities for dreaming and planning. I mark all to-do’s with a checkbox I can fill in later. I like the bullet journal way they do this as well (a dot instead of a box).
  • Stamped page

    I had a gentleman in China demonstrate his woodblock stamps by stamping some examples in my journal. You can paste in stamps, tickets, receipts, postcards or any other artifacts from your trip onto your journal pages as you go (if you remember to bring some glue or paste).

    Emotions. Writing down how you felt in the moment it is happening or shortly thereafter will mean so much to you later on. Go beyond the facts to the feelings. Forcing yourself to put what you’re experiencing in words helps to clarify the experience better. And don’t worry if you can’t. Some big moments defy words, but even noting that — “It was an incredible experience I can’t even yet describe” says more later than, “Great dinner in Prague.”
  • Descriptions. These are either quick notes on what I’m seeing, hearing, tasting or tasting, or longer ways to capture the details of a place. See Look Closely for details on how to do this as a way to learn to see details better or to write better based on your travels. I also make sure to write down the names of places, people, food, local expressions and anything else I want to write about later. Don’t assume you’ll remember it or can look it up later. Write it down.
  • Miscellaneous. I’ve had artists draw in my journal, had people stamp it (see photo above), record different colors of beverages spilled or intentionally dripped on it and a wealth of other things added. Be open to how you can use your journal. Or for fun, try this exercise: Come up with as many ways as you can think of to use your travel journal on your next trip.

The back of the journal

The front of the journal is used for a chronological input of information each day (or whenever you choose). The goal there is to record the idea, insight, drawing or information just like in a diary. The back of the journal is where you’ll organize it all for later retrieval.

Working from the last page backwards, I set up a series of index or topic pages (see the list below) where I record anything related to that topic either verbatim (if I have the time and forethought to write it down there such as contact info or a quote I came across) or as a page number reference and summary line from the front of the journal (hence the reason these back-of-the-journal pages are called Index Pages).

For me, I find that most index sections only require one page (e.g. for Contacts or Travel Details) but I leave two pages for Ideas or Vocabulary since they tend to have more entries. I write small (some would say ridiculously small), so if you don’t, you may want to leave more room.

Review your entries and record them for easier retrieval

I don’t assign page numbers as I write in the front of the journal. Instead, I jot down a page number later, maybe daily, maybe weekly, as I review my journal. Writing down the page number during the review phase shows me which pages have been indexed. No page number indicates it still needs to be indexed. As I review each page, I also code the entries themselves on the journal pages by highlighting the topic or assigning a word or letter to let me know what it is. For example, if there’s a quote, I will write “Quote” and circle it right before the quote. For blog ideas, I’ll write “blog” and circle that, etc. If  an idea that has distinct merit, I’ll draw a star next to it. Particular project ideas get a corresponding code, e.g. if it’s about my book on Hidden Travel, I’ll write “HT” and circle that. The whole point is to make it easier to spot the entry when you’re reviewing the page later.

Quote example page

Here you can (hopefully) see how I’ve written and circled page numbers at the top and put a box around the word “Quote” on the left page and “Visual appeal article” on the right page. Then, on the Quotes index page, I’ll write “108” and circle it with a quick notation like, “E.B. White on saving/savoring the world.” On the Ideas index page, I’ll write “109” and circle it with the notation, “Visual Appeal article questions.”

In case you’re wondering why the index/topic pages go in the back and not in the front like a table of contents, it’s because I often add topics as I progress through the journal. Working from the back gives me room to add new pages whereas if I’d started from the front and I didn’t guess correctly, I’d be out of room before running into my journal entries.

Pre-Trip Items

Some of my index/topic pages get filled in (or at least started) before my trip either as planning or to load my travel journal with important information to have on my trip. Here are some of the key sections.

  • Shot list

    Here’s an example of a shot list from my China trip journal. I tend to write pretty small in the back section of a journal! The whited out area was my passport number in code. Writing key information on pages with other entries makes it even less obvious this is something valuable.

    Travel details. I use the app, TripIt, to record all my reservation information. I also print out a copy in case my phone is lost or not working. But in my travel journal, I’ll record some key addresses and phone numbers of hotels or reservations as yet another backup. Mostly, I write down the passport numbers of everyone in my party, the phone number of my bank (in case my credit card is lost) and even (sometimes) the credit card numbers themselves. However, for anything confidential, I always write these in code, mixing up the order of the numbers or adding in extra ones so that if I lose my journal, no one other than a cryptology expert could figure these out. I also have a back-up copy of all this in a password-protected file stored on the cloud.
  • Vocabulary. On trips to countries where I’m learning the language, I’ll add new vocabulary words here usually starting long before the trip. These are key words to practice, as well as new ones I pick up as I travel.
  • Shot list. When planning my trip, as a photographer, I make a list of specific places, scenes, techniques I want to try or even times of day I want to shoot. Check out my Beginner’s Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos for more on this and other travel photo techniques. In addition, as I review guidebooks or articles, I’ll add interesting places to this list. Even if you’re not a photographer, you can make a list of “must see” places or “must do” experiences or activities. Writing them down really helps because it makes it so easy to find all these in one place rather than hunting through a guidebook or other pages on your trip.
  • Themes and Moments. This is yet another pre-trip fill-in page. I try to come up with a theme or quest for each trip. Writing down ideas about that or defining it really adds to the anticipation of the trip. On this page, I’ll also jot down ideas for creating magic or defining moments for others on the trip. This includes ideas for the activities or contact info for places or people that will be part of the activity.

Add as you travel

Here are some typical index/topic pages in the back of my travel journal that get filled in as I go:

  • Contact information. I keep a separate page to record the names, email addresses, etc. of people I meet along the way. If, in a hurry, I just write down a name and email address in the front-of-the-book journaling section. I’ll later record the page number and contact name on the page here so all I can find all my contacts in one place later.
  • Ideas. This becomes a catchall for any creative ideas I’ve had. I normally start with the page number(s) followed by a brief summary such as “27 – 29: Dining room chair design” or “73: Article on architecture styles in Morocco.”
Ideas Index Page

Here’s the Ideas Index Page from my China trip journal. I had started the page on the left as a vocabulary list but made room from more ideas when I ran out of space on the page on the right.

  • Books and Movies. This too is a catchall for any form of entertainment I want to read. I constantly get book and movie (and even song or podcast) recommendations as I travel that I add here with an open check box. I also record books I’ve finished to this list noting those with a checked box.
  • Quotes. As noted above, these may be written quotes I come across or snippets of dialog I pick up. I either write the quote here directly or reference the journal page where I wrote the quote with a reminder such as “53-quote from Leipzig waitress on timing.”
  • Things I Notice page

    You can do a trip highlights page on the flight home, but sometimes it helps to record a summary of details in the midst of your trip of things that stand out to you.

    Projects. I have a few big creative projects going all the time like books I’m writing or courses I’m creating. I could just add the page number references to the Ideas page. But because I end up having so many ideas related to a specific project, it helps to give each project its own index page.
  • To-do’s. I said I like to keep my travel journal free from productivity and time management, but I always have big-picture to-do activities that arise on a trip. I’ll record these as I go in the journal section, but for longer-term ones I don’t want to lose track of, I sometimes add a to-do index as well in the back of the journal. This can also be a great place to record future planning ideas for things you want to accomplish after your trip.
  • Trip highlights. I’ll normally note the big moments in the journal section as they occur. But often on the flight home, I like to review these and capture them all in one place with the page reference and a brief notation. I may also add in additional ones at this point because sometimes, you don’t realize how powerful or meaningful a moment was at the time.

When your journal is full

Eventually, you’ll fill up your journal with entries. You’ll then review and have every page numbered with key entries noted in your index pages. Then what?

I use Scrivener (for writing projects) and Evernote (for others) as software/apps to track ideas over time. Thus, when I finish a journal, I go copy the content from my index pages into one of these digital programs.

There are several reasons for this. First, it helps to have all your ideas over time in one place so you can view them easier. Second, with the online tools, I can tag content by subject making retrieval later much easier. Most of us focus our efforts on having ideas and maybe writing them down. But those ideas won’t serve you well if you can’t find them later. Finally, putting everything into one place helps me see patterns and related ideas which, in turn, sparks new ideas.

It all relates to the concept of Collect, Connect and Share. If all you’re doing is collecting, you’re missing out on the main value of your journal.

Make a copy

This may be overkill to some, but my journals are precious repositories of life. I would hate to lose them. I could dictate the contents and transcribe that, but I don’t have that kind of time. Instead, Evernote comes to the rescue.

The Evernote app has a photo function. I open the app and take pictures of every spread or page of my journal. I save the results as an Evernote file and can even tag it by date, country or other criteria. It then resides on the cloud (and I also do a back-up on a drive at home). That way, if the original gets lost, I know that all those memories are secure.

Let’s review

Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Know the purpose for your journal
  • Choose the type of journal based on your intended purpose.
  • Start with something that’s not too nice so that you’re not afraid to mark it up.
  • Keep daily entries in the front and a list of index pages in the back of the journal.
  • Periodically review your journal entries. As you do, number each page and record that page number and a brief reminder on the appropriate index page.
  • At the end of each journal, photograph each page and save to a secure location. Then enter the index information into whatever tool you use for tracking all of your ideas over time.

Additional resources

Here are other resources to both inspire and help you get the most out of your travel journal:

Travel sketch

Travel sketchTravel sketch

  • If you really enjoy the sketching aspect of a travel journal, you might want to connect with the whole Urban Sketchers movement. Here’s an example of a sketch by Stephanie Bower. I took some of her architectural sketching courses online at Bluprint and they were excellent.

Sketch of Croatia building

Parting thoughts

Finally, if you want even more information on travel journals, be sure to read Lavinia Spalding’s excellent book on the subject, Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler. Here’s one of many great quotes from the book:

“If we’re committed to honest investigation, the travel journal can be a cornerstone of growth and a catalyst for great work, providing a safe container for astonishing discoveries and the life lessons we take away from them. We write words in an empty book, and an inanimate object is transformed into a living, breathing memoir. In turn, as we write, the journal transforms us. It allows us to instantly process impressions, which leads to a more examined layer of consciousness in both the present and the future. It’s a relationship, and let me tell you, it’s no cheap one-night stand.”

You might want to consider writing that quote down in your travel journal. Either in the daily entries or on the quotes index page. Or however you want to do it. It’s your travel journal and the possibilities are endless.

 

Find what you love

Find what you love - Puppet Maker's ShopUse your trip to find what you love

Trips provide intriguing opportunities to find what you love. And for me, the best moments on a trip — those powerful, defining, magic moments — are ones so filled with meaning and emotion that I wish to linger long and absorb them. And yet, I never quite can, for I must inevitably move on. That leaves me with a poignant sensation of both loss and gain. I find something that deeply moves me in a place (gain). Yet as a traveler, I cannot stay in that place (loss). Still, I can take something of great value with me from the experience of having been there (long-term gain). I lose the place but gain the moment and all that it entails.

These defining moments are ones I can create for myself or others (as I discovered in Italy and Slovenia). But they often arrive unannounced. I open a door, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally (as what happened to me on a recent visit to Erfurt, Germany) and I enter a different world. And in that world, in unexpected ways, I discover a great passion and even, sometimes, a greater sense of purpose.

Erfurt's Kramerbrucke (Merchant's Bridge)The puppet maker of Erfurt

In the heart of Erfurt sits the Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ bridge). Built of stone in 1325 over the Gera river, half-timbered homes and businesses sit atop the bridge making it the largest and oldest inhabited bridge in Europe (sorry, Ponte Vecchio in Florence: you’re number two). Over time, a number of craftspeople have moved in with studios and shops. One of them, Martin Gobsch, makes hand-carved wooden puppets there. Or so it seems. For what he really creates is magic.

Outside his shop is a miniature window theater.

Theatrum Mundi, ErfurtDrop in a euro, and a sinister-looking queen pulls back her cape-draped arm to reveal a fantastical scene of Snow White and industrious dwarfs moving about. It’s a mechanical marvel that would delight any child. And yet those who linger longest and whose expressions reflect the most childlike wonder are adults like me.

Step inside his shop, and the awe grows. Magnificently carved wooden figures and corresponding drawings make you feel as if you’re part of a fairy tale. Most people who enter Martin’s workshop leave enchanted. But for me, it was something more.

I had found what I love.

A different kind of connection

If you look at the factors that Dan and Chip Heath note in their book, The Power of Moments, as most contributing to a magic moment, one of them has curious dimensions beyond its obvious intent. The concept of “Connection” normally implies that you have moments where you feel a deep relational tie to others, a collective experience of joy, pain or deep sentiment as in a wedding or funeral. But Connection works as well on the emotional level where you connect to something within you, a past memory that triggers all sorts of associations and feelings.

Martin Gobsch at workMy favorite visual example of this is in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille, when the food critic Anton Ego tastes the dish of the same name as the movie. Immediately, he’s transported to his mother’s kitchen as a boy eating the same food. So it was for me in Martin Gobsch’s shop. The lighting, architecture and decor took me back to Merlin’s Magic Shop at Disneyland where I worked as a magician through college. And his Theatrum Mundi (the name of the window theater) also reminded me of the elaborate window displays at Disneyland I used to marvel at as a child.

Tie all that into my adult experience working in my own wood shop at home (equally untidy yet remarkably well-suited to the work at hand) and you get a collective experience that is more than a trip down memory lane. Stepping into Martin’s studio provided a connection of deep emotional resonance to the subtle factors and ingredients of delight that made those past experiences so formative for me, in my youth and even today.

Martin Gobsch's shopFind what you love: The power of inspiration

In the video above, Martin Gobsch says that one of his goals is to inspire others, not just to experience wonder, but to create and make things by hand. It’s not a craft, he notes, that’s been passed down to him so much as one that has died out that he is now re-establishing. When I spent time with him in that shop, examining all the details of his work and asking him questions about it, I too was inspired to spend more time drawing, carving, woodworking and making more things by hand. All of these are things I love but rarely make time for.

A friend once noted that we value more something we’ve had, lost and have found again than gaining something new. I think that’s true, in part because of the emotional attachments we form even with inanimate objects that have become part of our lives. In a similar manner, I find that when I return to what I love but have left unheeded too long, it’s like a brand-new discovery only better. I get the same delight of connecting with something I enjoy, but along with that comes all the memories of past related experiences. I find what I love all over again.

Find what you love - Drawings of puppets

Find what you love – Drawings of puppets – copyright 2019 by Steve Brock

Find what you love: The takeaway for you

When you’re someplace new, whether on a vacation or just in a new situation, pay close attention to what triggers your attention. When I first read about the puppet maker, though I have only a passing interest in puppets, the fact that this artisan carved them from wood by hand intrigued me. I’m always interested in seeing artists, particularly sculptors and woodworkers, at work in their shops or studios. I wanted to make sure, if possible, that I found his place of work and I’m so glad I did.

For you, if something even hints at connecting to a deeper interest, pursue that. It may feel silly or unimportant at first, but you never know where it will lead. Make it a quest to find what brings you your greatest joy. Trips allow you the freedom to do this in ways you can’t — or won’t — at home. You won’t usually find what you care most about unless you go looking for it, even if you’re not entirely sure how it might manifest itself. And even though you may come across it in an unexpected place or manner, often it is the effort of the pursuit that gives you the eyes to see it – or clues of it – when you come across it.

Puppets and sketches - ErfurtWhen you do, you leave transfixed and transformed. In cases such as this one, where it connects to creative passions and interests, it leaves you inspired. Not just to keep discovering. But to eventually return home and make something yourself.

And when you do that, you find what you love all over again.

 

 

Taking shortcuts: Guess who gets cheated most?

Taking shortcuts: sketching in Lijiang

My son sketching a busy night scene in Lijiang, China.

I’m a big fan of shortcuts. They save you time and energy. They demonstrate your ingenuity. (You, after all, found a faster way to get something done. Clever you.) They free you up for more important or interesting activities.

I love shortcuts.

When they work.

Which, I’m finding out, isn’t as often as I thought. I had a recent reminder of this when I was in China a few months ago.

Shortcuts and speeding up the process

There, I took up sketching. I was traveling with my son, an artist, and I wanted to be able to do what he was doing, you know, that father-son bonding-type thing. What started as a relationship-building tool soon became an enjoyable experience on its own. But emperors of old could have built entire sections of the Great Wall in less time than it took me to sketch a small section of a city wall.

Thus, a little over halfway through our trip, I had a brilliant idea. Always – always – beware when you judge any of your own ideas as brilliant. But c’mon, tell me this doesn’t sound like genius: Instead of sketching say, a statue, I’d speed up the process with some shortcuts. I’d snap a photo of it on my phone then hold the phone beneath a page of my sketchbook (whose pages, lo and behold, were the exact same dimensions as my phone, surely a sign), and trace just the outside edge of the statue’s image through the paper to get the proportions right. That’s all. No copying over all the lines (which, of course, would be unfair). But just that outside edge? Brilliant. Then I’d finish off the rest of the sketch just as I normally would with no outside aids.

Such a time saver. Clearly, an innovative approach to shortcuts and drawing. I started to consider my acceptance speech for the inevitable MacArthur Genius Award.

Shortcuts: When saving time doesn’t

In my great enthusiasm, I explained the idea to my son. He just looked at me, his expression lying somewhere on the spectrum from amused to aghast. OK, it was pretty much on the aghast end, a look as if either he’d just stepped into something offensive or he was questioning his lineage. His eventual reply left no doubt: “That’s cheating, Dad.” I could detect disappointment exuding from his pores.

Heck, it was just a few shortcuts, not as if I’d worn the same pair of underwear for a week or evidenced some major moral failure. Or so I thought. But from his perspective, it was more than a quicker way to draw. In fact, the notion of wanting to speed up the sketching process itself lay at the heart of his response. To him, drawing was a prayerful and meditative activity. So taking the short cut of tracing only robbed me of the fuller experience. Behind his objection lay an expression of concern: why would I want to miss out on something so powerful and gratifying? Following that line of thinking, my phone tracing would be the equivalent of taking an exquisite seven-course dinner, dumping each dish into a blender, switching on the frappe mode, then downing the whole in a single breathless chug.

“So I guess I shouldn’t do it, huh?” I asked in a small voice. The parental expression I received from my firstborn said it all. And guess what? He was right. Smart boy, my son. Takes after his mom.

With shortcuts, consider more than just the outcomes

Now that we’re back, I do love having a sketchbook filled with drawings from our trip to China. But more importantly, I love what it took to make that, the flow and the joy of creating. I think back to my favorite moments of the trip such as when my son and I sat side by side on a lonely mountain, lost in the scene before us and the slow, laborious, beautiful process of rendering that scene on paper. Or when I was sketching on my own and a young Chinese woman came up and asked if I’d pose for a photo with her dad who was too shy to ask himself. And yet he wanted a photo with me not just because I was a foreigner (I had several requests almost every day for that reason alone), but because I’d been sketching a particular pond. He cared that I cared enough to draw this one tiny corner of his country. I would have missed that interaction had I taken some shortcuts, snapped the scene on my phone and traced it later.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve found another way, a better way, to get my drawings completed faster. It doesn’t leverage any new technology. It allows me to enjoy the process as well as the outcomes. And it doesn’t involve shortcuts or cheating.

It’s called practice.

 

Finding passion in unlikely places

Passion doesn’t always arrive in the ways you expect.

After a day touring through quaint villages and lonely byways of England’s Cotswolds region, we were ready for a relaxing evening at our inn, The Village Pub in Barnsley. Yet as we turned into the inn’s parking lot, we had to negotiate our way around an unfamiliar object.Finding passion - steam engine

There, in splendid redness on the side of the road, amidst the low rumble of its engine and the vapor spewing from multiple vents and seams sat a steam engine. The image above will explain far better than I can. Apart from museums or books, I’d never beheld such a machine before, at least on this scale.

Finding passion - Steam engine and trailerWhen I was a kid, I dreamed of making a model steam engine, but even though the versions I saw were far less ambitious than this one (the models were stationary and about six inches long), the cost and complexity exceeded my paper route income and tween metalworking skills. I was fascinated then by the very elements that made this behemoth so wondrous: intricate metal parts and fittings combined with the heft of huge iron and steel components. Each rear wheel likely weighed more than my car.

Finding passion - Chris LarsonI approached the man clamoring over the vehicle and, unable to articulate any coherent specific question, said simply, “Tell me the story here.” He came over, arms and hands blackened with grease.

His name was Chris Larson. He and his wife, who was busy talking to an inquisitive server from the inn, were on their way to a steam festival down the road. They’d stopped at the inn for dinner since at four miles per hour, theirs had been a long journey from central Dorset county. It was a drive I would make in 90 minutes the next day but one that had taken them most of two days to accomplish.

When he mentioned a steam festival, my naive response was, “You mean there are more of these machines out there?” Indeed, there are. Over a hundred steam engines would be at this festival and there were dozens of these festivals across the country. An entire sub-culture of steam engine enthusiasts existed.

Finding passion - view from driver's seatChris invited me up into the driver’s area. We had to use a ladder propped against the rear wheel to do this. He showed me how he fed coal into the furnace and explained how he’d made this giant beast of a vehicle practically from scratch. He whipped out his phone (a rather anachronistic moment standing in a century-old vehicle using a 21st century mobile device) and showed me photos of the initial pieces he’d bought: part of the engine block, elements of a wheel and a few other odds and ends. My guess is that all of those original components amounted to at best 20-30% of this final vehicle. That meant he’d machined, forged, manufactured, scavenged and assembled all the rest on his own. Amazing.

Eventually, I had to let him go dine with his wife. I wondered how he was going to clean up those greasy arms for the rather upscale pub dining room. But the two of them ate outside on the patio and I left them to enjoy their meal in private.

Finding passion - front of engineFinding passion - engine lampBesides the marvel of encountering something so unexpected, seeing Chris’s steam engine and all the associations, memories and nostalgic longings it evoked made me realize something.

Chris had found his passion. He’d dedicated untold hours and a good deal of expense, I’m sure, in building that steam engine. Now, as he tours the various steam festivals, he can show off his work to wonder-eyed kids of all ages – like me. He’s able to connect with others who share that passion or are awakened to one they never realized they had. He, in short, lives in a world consumed by what brings him joy.

Before we turned into the inn’s parking lot, I didn’t know that any such steam engines still existed, especially in such great working order. So it makes me wonder: What else might be out there that grabs my heart? My passion? I’m not planning on building my own steam engine any time soon. But it delights me to know there are others that are.

It brings me a deep sense of gladness to realize this world is filled with people who do follow their dreams. Who take their passion seriously. Who tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges to bring to life what others don’t even imagine as possible. Who then find similar dreamers and doers who support, encourage and help them to carry on.

Finding passion - engine detailsI’m inspired to build, to make, to create. I’m not sure what it will be yet. But like that moment when I first saw Chris’s steam engine, I expect it will come on almost like magic.

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Tips for connecting your passions to your trip

Sometimes, trips reveal moments of inspiration that connect your inner and outer worlds. These moments, like my time with Chris and his steam engine, can evoke buried emotions and inspire you to do something new. But you don’t have to wait for those magic moments. You can pursue them. To help you do that, try these for your next trip:

  • Research possibilities. Before your trip, research everything you can about your hobbies in the places you visit. A Google search with the country name and your hobby name will produce some great starting points. Pursue them.
  • Connect with others. Find out about fellow practitioners of your hobby in the same way. Try Facebook Groups or Reddit or other hangouts of people interested in your interest. Ask there about the places you’ll visit. You’ll uncover some great leads and may even make some new friends you can visit once you’re there.
  •  Expand the reach of your hobby. Let’s say you like to paint. Obviously, you’ll want to visit galleries and museums, but also hunt down art supply stores, find out about local classes or gatherings of other artists. Investigate different media and techniques (e.g. what can you learn from watching Japanese artists using calligraphy brushes?).
  • Hunt down local practitioners. If you love gardening, visit not only formal gardens, but nurseries where you can meet local gardeners. Strike up a conversation (if language permits). Who knows where that can lead?
  • Be open to new creative interests. This is one of the best benefits of travel: It exposes you to ideas, new approaches, inspiration and completely new areas that you may never have known about at home. You may discover a new sport, a new game, a new form of weaving or architecture or industrial design. Keep your eyes open for new possibilities.
  • Note the differences. Pay attention to how locals in the place you’re visiting do the same things we do, only differently. Note how their billboards vary from ours. How ordering a coffee isn’t the same. How hot water comes from unusual types of heaters. How “common sense” isn’t as common there. This isn’t just an anthropological study in cultural differences. It’s a quest to uncover creative possibilities that spring from noticing familiar items or approaches in new ways. For that, seeing the familiar in a new way, is the heart of all creativity.
  • Say yes. Let go of your hesitations and engage in new activities you’d never try at home. This is your chance to make a glorious fool of yourself because no one will care. Experiment. Accept invitations. Explore. Treat your trip as a scavenger hunt for new sources of inspiration and if you do, if you’re open to all sorts of new opportunities, you’ll find far more than you thought possible.

What hobbies or new creative interests have you indulged in or discovered on a trip?

 

 

Boredom, creativity and the addiction of distraction

Boredom: bored camel.Boredom may not be as boring as you think

Of the three things you most avoid that may be what you most need — suffering, failure and boredom — the latter seems like the most innocuous. Suffering and failure might feel more like an open wound or severed limb. In comparison, boredom’s more like a hangnail: not pleasant, but more of an annoyance you’d prefer would go away.

And that is exactly the problem.

You and I do all sorts of things to avoid being bored when in fact, embracing boredom may be one of the best things you can do to enhance your creativity and problem-solving abilities.

No, really.

Boredom and creativity

Being bored (and I’m talking about short-term boredom such as standing in line, being stuck in traffic, waiting for an appointment, etc. as opposed to long-term situations like a less-than-stimulating job) provides something rare: mental space for daydreaming. Without white space or a blank mental canvas, we don’t allow ourselves the ability to imagine. And without imagination, it’s hard to be creative.

Those stretches of time when you have nothing else to consider gives you the chance to make seemingly random connections that are at the heart of creativity. So much of our creative life occurs indirectly: we back into ideas or connect dots from different realms. Welcoming boredom or opportunities to not think about anything in particular allows you to ponder things in a different, non-linear way. And that’s when the creative ideas often flow.

But you’ll never get there if don’t open yourself to boredom. And if you’re like me, you can’t do that unless you address a hidden but powerful addiction: distraction.

The addiction of distraction

An addiction? You tell me. How long can you go without checking your phone or email or Facebook or a TV screen? How comfortable are you with silence? How often do you read the ads on the metro or subway just to have something to do? Distraction. It’s an addiction in our society and all the worse for the fact we don’t realize we suffer from it.

Distraction not only robs us of creative thought, it diverts us from deep thought. We’ve become so ingrained at checking our devices and living in a constant state of unfocus that we likely don’t even realize the toll it has taken on our ability to do better, insightful work.

Going deep

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses the impact of distraction and its allies — networking and so-called productivity tools that keep us constantly connected and thus constantly checking rather than concentrating. I love this quote of his:

No one ever changed the world, created a new industry, or amassed a fortune due to their fast email response time.

Cal Newport

His point is that to do the kind of breakthrough work that makes a significant difference to society, we need focused time and effort. And that’s not easy in a culture addicted to distractions. Newport offers a wealth of solutions in the book, but one of my favorites is this.

Because distraction is so strong, we can’t beat it by trying to contain it. That’s why the approach many promote of carving out say, a day a week, for focused work with no social media rarely succeeds in the long run. That’s like telling an alcoholic to not drink one day a week. You don’t overcome addictions that way.

A better way to do focused work

Instead, Newport suggests a rather radical flipping of that process. Instead of carving out time in your week for focused work, instead, think of your week as being all about focus. Then, create small windows within each day for distraction. For example, as much as you can, arrange your schedule so that you refuse to go online or check your phone except every two hours and then for only 15 minutes. Be ruthless in sticking to this schedule. If you need to look something up online for the focused work you’re doing, wait until your two hours are up. If you absolutely can’t proceed without that information, at least wait five minutes. That way you’re training your brain not to give into the addiction pathology. You’re forcing yourself to at least pause before you automatically go online.

If you don’t do something dramatic like this, distraction will kick in. As an addiction, that means our brains have become trained to default to distraction whenever we’re agitated, bored or semi-engaged in something else. You need to break those habits of distraction and this reorienting your schedule is one way to do that.

Since reading Deep Work, I’ve tried this approach. I haven’t always been successful (addictions die hard), but when I stick to it and orient my day around focused time with distraction breaks rather than the other way round, the results have been dramatic. I get far more done and I haven’t missed out on any emergency emails, Slack messages or tweets that I just couldn’t live without.

What you may be missing most

I realize this last suggestion doesn’t relate directly to boredom. But it is a powerful way of breaking free of the addiction of distraction. So is embracing boredom. I highly recommend giving both a try. For when you do, you begin to realize how much you’ve been missing in your attempt not to miss out on anything.

If you haven’t already, check out the overview of this three-part series on the three things we avoid that we may most need, as well as the specific entries on suffering and failure.

 

The secret to making something great

The secret to making something great: The Great Works

Great work like this doesn’t happen by accident

The secret to making something great isn’t really a secret. It’s just something we tend to forget or chose to ignore.

Until we can’t any longer…

*******

Last month my wife and I helped our youngest son move into his dorm to start life at a new university. He’s in the film program there and for orientation, that department invited the new students and their parents to tour the studio and to hear from various professors.

One of the faculty relayed to the students the secret to making something great. He didn’t build it up as some earth-shattering revelation. He merely noted the following:

Exceptional people, those who produce the best work in their fields, tend to do the work no one else is willing to do and to work even when they don’t feel like it.

Ugh. This secret to making something great hit home. His words made me realize that I do want to make great work. But too often I prefer to do what others do and make my creative efforts mostly when I’m in the mood.

Beyond what he said, however, lies a deeper question, perhaps the underlying secret to making something great:

What do I — what do you — want more: Comfort or our best work?

Great work requires hard work. It’s that simple.

It’s just not easy.

Do the work no one else is willing to do and work even when you don’t feel like it.

Let’s go do some great work.