Types of souvenirs: Choosing the right one on a trip

Souvenir stand in Nicaragua

This souvenir stand in Nicaragua sells both locally produced items and other types of souvenirs.

Souvenirs as Artifacts of Meaning

Folding display of Paris

Some types of souvenirs fire on all cylinders: They are small, and like this tiny diorama of Paris, they store flat but open up. Such souvenirs are unique and are good reminders of your trip or gifts to others.

William Morris, one of the leaders of England’s Arts and Crafts Movement, once said, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” 

The same criteria can be applied when considering the types of souvenirs to pick up on a trip. For example, musical instruments, bowls, carvings, weavings, paintings, drawings and an entire army of busts and small figures have found their way into my backpack or carry-on. Each represents a moment on a trip, a physical marker of time and place. Most lean toward beautiful rather than useful (typical tourist souvenirs, alas, are rarely either). But each has meaning.

Why buy a souvenir?

Beyond the utility or aesthetics of an object, is there any other justification for lugging something home with you? Of course. Here are some criteria I use when evaluating types of souvenirs.

  • The object is locally made. In the best cases, it represents a craft or trade for which that country or area is known. Hopefully, it will also register on the beautiful scale.
  • The object delights. It charms and whispers to you, perhaps because of beauty but often for non-aesthetic reasons—quirkiness, nostalgia, uniqueness, etc. It defies all your “at home” logic on reasons why you don’t need it. But these kinds of objects have a reason all of their own and rarely, once they make the journey back with you, do you regret their acquaintance or purchase.
  • The object fits a pattern. It aligns with an existing collection or perhaps the dream of one.  
  • The item matches the interests of a friend or family member back home. You realize it would make an excellent gift.

The object, or at least the exchange of money, serves as a means to an end. That might mean: 

  • To develop a relationship so that you can take the person’s photo or find out more about their craft or life there. This works particularly in busy markets where photographing a merchant may distract from other potential customers they have. In short, you buy something to compensate the person for their time.
  • To further a local tradition that might die out without visitor purchases.
  • Because the vendor has made such an interesting pitch or story that you treat a small purchase as much as a reward for entertainment as for the product itself. 
Small clay Moroccan buildings

Sometimes you buy a souvenir, such as this one from Morocco just to help out the vendor who has been kind to you.

What about other types of souvenirs?

A final category consists of items that seem appropriate at the time but result in the same “What was I thinking?” reaction at home as that Singapore Sling-induced tattoo. These would include aloha shirts or muumuus, Lederhosen, most hats, and velvet paintings that appeared far more sophisticated back in the gallery. If such purchases make your trip experience better, go for it. But recognize that as much as you’d like, the item, taken out of its initial context, won’t restore the magic of the place or the moment. You can’t recreate your trip at home by wearing that floral muumuu everywhere. But you can select those types of souvenirs that are beautiful (there goes the velvet cat painting) and useful (there goes the Lederhosen) in their own right, as well being filled with memories and meaning.

Wooden shoes

Yes, people in the Netherlands once wore these wooden shoes. But would you wear a pair at home?

For you and for others

Carved mask from Costa Rica

Some types of souvenirs can make great gifts for the right person, but others, such as this mask carved out of balsa wood by an indigenous people group in Costa Rica, may be ones only you will fully appreciate.

The term “souvenir” is defined as “a thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place or event.” Unfortunately, the word has become associated with kitschy fridge magnets, t-shirts, shot glasses and stuffed animals dressed in so-called local attire (that the locals rarely if ever wear except when selling these items). But souvenirs can be so much more than what you buy from a souvenir stand.

They can be wonderful to collect for yourself, but they can be especially meaningful as gifts. Great gifts are thoughtful— in both senses of the word. They show that you were thinking of the person and you took great effort to choose wisely.  

The rewards of souvenirs for others

Bringing back thoughtful souvenirs extends the delight of your trip long past your return as you help others experience a small piece of your adventure in a way that matters to them. You create a token of memory for them (just as your own souvenirs do for you) so that every time they see or use your gift, they think of you.

Making the pursuit of suitable gifts part of your trip adds an element of quest to your journey. You’re always on the hunt for the appropriate gift which, in turn, causes you to think of the person while you’re away. If you consider bringing home gifts as a duty, you’ll end up with the cheap types of souvenirs. If you treat it as a search of delight to let others know you care enough to find something just right, then it adds a wonderful layer of discovery and meaning to your trip.

All that sounds great. But how do you know what types of souvenirs to bring home? Here are some thoughts on how to get the best souvenirs on your trip. 

Accordion book from Asia

This small book unfolds to reveal hand-painted flowers. Such types of souvenirs are unique to the region you visited yet tend to be appreciated by a wide range of people back home as gifts.

Thoughts from others on collecting souvenirs

On the January 30, 2019 podcast of Women Who Travel (from Conde Nast Traveler), the three hosts noted these ideas for souvenirs:

  • Scarves: They are light, easy to pack and each country has different styles and materials.
  • Jewelry: In particular, earrings are small, usually inexpensive and reflect different regional designs.
  • Books: One great idea is to buy a book about the region and get it signed by the bookstore owner or clerk where you bought it.
  • Postcards: You can collect these for you or mail them home to select friends. In our online world, taking the time to write and figure out how to mail a postcard is an act of true love or friendship. And with postcards, the more bizarre, the better. Also, don’t overlook the freebies in your hotel room.
  • Matchboxes: These are harder to come by as fewer people smoke, but still available. Bottle caps, corks and similar items also work.
Moroccan scarves

My sons and I purchased some scarves in Morocco both as souvenirs for others and practically, to protect against blowing wind when we rode camels into the Sahara. Who says your souvenirs can’t be useful?

Additional considerations for collecting or giving souvenirs

I think all of the above can be great types of souvenirs. In addition, here are some other considerations for meaningful souvenirs, for yourself or others.

Seal box

This tiny box (about an inch wide) from New Bedford, MA reflects the marine heritage of the place and fits into that souvenir category of quirky yet oddly compelling. At least to me. The seal’s flippers move when you shake the box.

  • Local crafts or specialties: As noted above, these are usually at the top of my list. Some examples include animals and insects woven from local grasses in Hawaii, wood carvings in Indonesia, nesting dolls in Russia, personal chop (engraved stone) in China, Christmas ornaments in Austria, batik in Thailand, copperware in Egypt, glass in Venice, silk kites in Korea, etc. Best of all is when you get to meet the artist or craftsperson. That adds additional meaning and helps ensure your money stays in the local economy.
  • Copper engraving

    This colored engraving on a copper sheet from Cairo is a good example of something specific to that area and also flat.

    Flat things. These are easy to pack and come in a surprising range of options including prints, maps, posters, small paintings, fun cocktail napkins, bottle labels, paper cuttings, coasters, shadow puppets, photographs/drawings from local artists, collages, weavings and even local currency. Use cardboard or other hard surfaces to protect your more precious items in your bags.
  • Textiles: They’re flat and they fold. Sure, you’ll likely have to have a carpet shipped home, but smaller rugs, wall hangings, pillow cases (you can buy the pillow and just bring the beautiful case home since most pillows are easy to replace) and other decorative items can enhance many rooms and settings.
  • Clothes, hats and shoes. Beyond decorative textiles are ones you can wear. But proceed with caution here. I’ve found these are either home runs when you find something totally unique or one-and-done wonders that seemed great on the trip but you never wear again (such as the above-mentioned lederhosen, moo moos, etc.).

Wooden bowls from Costa Rica

  • Small bowls, cups, vases or boxes. Every culture has their variation, whether of ceramic/porcelain, wood, glass, metal or other material. They fit in a rolled up pair of socks and something about the very small size makes them appreciated gifts. Plus, they tend to be items you can use, as well as admire on a shelf.
Tea set from China

Bowls can include cups and this contemporary tea pot

  • Gifts of nature. A seashell, an unusual feather, piece of wood or sea glass, a chunk of some memorial like the Berlin Wall (buy these, don’t make them a DIY project or you just may be staying longer in country or paying a lot more for your trip in fines than you anticipated), dried tea leaves from a tea plantation (along with some of the processed tea you purchased there), sand (in a small baggie or pill bottle) from a beach or a famous desert, etc.
Frog coin purse

Some types of souvenirs like this coin purse made from a local frog in Nicaragua seemed so bizarre that I bought it as a fun gift. Only later did I stop to consider that it wasn’t so much fun for the frog. Be wiser than I was on the types of souvenirs you choose to purchase.

  • Musical instruments. This doesn’t work for everyone, but if you’re musically inclined, each culture has their own stringed, wind and percussion instruments. Many — harmonicas from Germany, penny whistles from Ireland, maracas from Mexico or small drums from Uganda — easily fit in a carry-on bag and can be fun to learn. For those who still buy CDs, picking some up of local music can also be a great gift for music lovers.
Ornaments

When considering types of souvenirs, don’t overlook the seasonal ones like Christmas or other ornaments such as these from Germany.

  • Bags. As more cities ban or charge for plastic shopping bags, it’s fun to have alternatives. In almost any country, you can find variations of materials from cloth to canvas to woven fibers. Many are hand-made or have quirky designs that make them fun items to collect and to give to others. Bonus tip: Buy a local shopping bag and keep your stuff in it and you’ll fit in much better as a local than with a garish backpack.
  • Kitchen utensils and towels. I’ve found that practical gifts have a better chance of being appreciated by friends and family who haven’t been to the places I just visited. Unique or interesting kitchen utensils go over well as gifts for any foodies or chefs. We’ve brought home ingenious peelers, beautiful kitchen towels or hot pads, dish towels with comical designs, even interesting spoons. You can expand to other rooms of the house as well with home office supplies unique to a country, lights, bookends, candles, trays, etc.
Chinese tea pot

A unique teapot can be a wonderful type of souvenir for tea-drinking friends.

  • Hobby-related items. Have gardening friends? Interesting tools, seeds or ornaments make great gifts. Sports fans? Team shirts or other paraphernalia are always a hit. Readers and writers? Journals, pens, stationery or even distinctive bookmarks work well.
Handmade journal

This handmade journal from Indonesia is an example of a type of gift that works for anyone who writes or draws.

  • Small pewter sculpture of sausage vendor

    For years, friends have given me small figures from around the world. Thus, I further this collection on trips with types of souvenirs like this pewter sculpture of sausage vendor from Germany. He’s about 3 inches tall.

    Collections. This is a no-brainer. If you or a friend have a collection of anything, use your trip to expand it. My wife has collected dolls since she was a little girl. Each trip is an opportunity to see how a particular culture makes dolls. My mom has collected turtles for as long as I can remember. On every trip, I help to add to their numbers. Knowing other people’s collections makes gift buying — and receiving on their end — much more rewarding.
  • Food and drink items. Mustard from Germany, jam from Norway, chocolate from Belgium (or so many places), spices from Morocco, tea from China, herbs from Peru, macrons from France, honey from Slovenia, wine, aperitifs, coffee or other local drink specialties, etc.
  • Cheap souvenirs. I didn’t say you shouldn’t bring back the tacky items. Just don’t make them your exclusive or even primary purchases. Pins, patches, spoons, flags, toys and items that have no logical reason for existence other than as a souvenir—any of these could be good memory makers or gifts in the right context. I have an entire collection of tacky bottle openers that my in-laws and I give reciprocally from trips. Buy it once and it’s cringe-worthy. But the same type item every trip and its a collection. Still, always ask this: Where did this item come from? (Safe bet, China). So unless you’re in China, strive to find something made locally if you can.
Bottle opener collection

These are just some of the many bottle openers I’ve picked up on trips and have given to my in-laws.

A few ideas for what to do with the stuff you keep

  • Write it down. On larger items, you can put a small sticky label on the bottom of the item to remember where it was from and when. But a better approach for many is this: Keep a Memories List. Either on a computer or on paper, after each trip, make an inventory of your acquisitions. It’s almost as much fun to go through that document after many years as it is to see the items.
Framed print from Spain

One way to solve the display issue is to purchase souvenirs like this lithograph from Seville, Spain that come already framed. That won’t work for large prints, but this frame is about 5 inches square.

  • Decide how you’ll display the items. Personally, we do what museums do. We rotate our collections so they don’t grow old. Keep some out and more in storage. And think about that storage next trip when you want to bring home half a dozen items. There’s a point where collections turn into clutter. Be mindful as you travel. One truly memorable item, perhaps one made by an artist you met, can be better than five items you forget about a week after you’re home.
Glass rhino from South Africa

This glass rhino from South Africa is a good example of types of souvenirs that are small, easy to pack and can fit easily into a shadowbox or other display case.

  • Think creatively about containers or display areas. Shadow boxes can be handy for displaying small types of souvenirs. Best of all, once you start using this kind of display, you shrink the size of what you look to buy to fit. Dedicated shelves also work as do display cabinets. I like the comment on the Women Who Travel podcast about scarves: One of the hosts has a drawer just for all the scarves she’s collected. Each time she opens it, all the memories flood back. With flat items, many can be framed and hung if you have wall space. Or, as we are now doing, put them into archival sleeves or mount them on acid-free sheets and keeping in a large scrapbook.
Coffee cup from Scotland

Items like this uniquely glazed coffee cup from Scotland can be a great souvenir because you can keep it yourself or give it to others since anyone can always use another mug, right?

  • Give them away. You have the trip. You likely have photographs you took on that trip. Hopefully, you also have a journal where you recorded the key moments. Souvenirs are nice. And small, meaningful ones can be amazing. But personally, I’ve derived far greater pleasure from bringing home thoughtful gifts for others than most of those I’ve done for myself. Most. Not all. I have several I love and that speak to me in ways a photo can’t.

Final thoughts

So go ahead and collect these special artifacts of meaning. I’ll let you figure out what to do about the storage issue. But do one last thing: examine them. If that teacup you purchased in Wales just sits on a shelf, it has little value. Thus, take it out once in a while. Look at it. Use it even. Remember the moment you first saw it. Let your souvenirs be true artifacts of meaning by being aids to your memories of the places and experiences they represent.

William Morris would be very pleased with that. And so will you.

 

Creating defining moments on a trip

Seminary Library Ceiling

Ceiling of the Seminary Library in Ljubljana, Slovenia

The best moments on a trip, defining moments, often occur serendipitously, or so they seem. You go looking for one thing and then suddenly, something unexpected occurs and without warning, your jaw is dangling, your eyes expand to Ping-Pong ball size and you’re babbling like a baby or, conversely, bereft of any words.

But these magic or defining moments don’t have to be accidental.

The Power of Moments

As Chip and Dan Heath point out in their excellent book, The Power of Moments, such occurrences can be created. Moments that are both meaningful and memorable don’t lose any of their appeal because they are manufactured. In fact, as I recently discovered on a trip to northern Italy and Slovenia with my wife, 24-year-old son and his recent bride, the intentionality put into crafting such defining moments can actually enhance them.

The Power of Moments provides a framework for these “defining moments.” Such experiences demonstrate one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Elevated – they occur outside of our normal routines.
  • Insight – they provide a new understanding, often an “aha” moment of clarity or awareness.
  • Pride – they reflect a sense of accomplishment.
  • Connection – they make you keenly aware of your relationships and draw you closer to others.

Applying The Power of Moments to a trip

In an effort to enhance our trip, I suggested that each of us take on the responsibility to create a learning experience for the others. Each person could choose whatever they wanted, but the goal was to make it meaningful for the other travelers as well. For example, I would have loved to have attended an all-day photography workshop, but that likely wouldn’t have thrilled my non-photographer family.

I honestly expected some pushback from the clan on this. I steeled myself for responses such as, “This feels like homework,” or “We don’t have time for this on our trip.” But nope. They all took it as a welcome challenge.

And here’s what happened.

If at first you don’t succeed, try cheese

My son had planned on having us all learn how to yodel. We were, after all, in the Italian Alps with Switzerland a nearby neighbor. But the timing and location of the yodeling school (yes, there is such a thing) didn’t work out. So he shifted to plan B.

In the small town of Feldthurn where we stayed for several days, he found a class teaching traditional woodcarving, a specialty in the region. But once again the timing didn’t fit our itinerary. On to Plan C: cheese tasting.

Creating defining moments on a trip - cheese tasting

Our four cheeses complete with warm wine/apple juice drink and jam to mix within

We’d passed through several regions famous for their cheesemaking. In one of these, my son purchased a variety of different cheeses. Then one evening in our rented apartment in Ljubljana, Slovenia, he had us taste four types. Our goal was to identify the flavors and bonus points if we could name the cheese. I’m not a huge fan of cheese, but he carefully selected mild ones with interesting flavors: smoky, spicy, and rosemary, for example. He explained each, provided apple slices, crackers and sparkling water to “cleanse the palette” and made the whole experience surprisingly (even for me, the non-cheese guy) enjoyable.

Of vines and blooms

Creating defining moments on a trip - wreath making

Making the final touches on one of the wreaths

My daughter-in-law presented her “experience” the same evening. She had been gathering a variety of flowers along the way, most dried already. She then used those as raw material to teach each of us how to make small wreathes of vines and flowers. It’s not a craft I’d have chosen myself, but as with the cheese, it became a wonderful creative and bonding event. In addition, on our first day in Italy, she ran across an article in a magazine about a local drink for a cold evening made of wine, apple juice and cranberry jam, all heated and mixed together. She served that while we made the wreathes.

It’s all about how we felt

Creating defining moments on a trip - felt sheep

The final product, a felt sheep, with elements in the background of works in progress

Two evenings before our cheese/wreathe/warm toddy event, my wife had arranged her “experience” in the small town of Solcava near the stunning yet remote Logar Valley in Slovenia. The region is known for its production of felt. Through a helpful woman at the tourist information center there, my wife contacted a local felt artist who agreed to do a workshop for the four of us that evening. At 5:00 p.m., we showed up at her studio and soon we were taking pieces of raw wool, layering them, adding a mixture of soap and water, and rolling the wool in our hands until, as we joked, our fingers began to lose the whorls of their fingerprints. Taking soft wool from the local sheep and rolling it long enough until it stiffens is like magic. We came away with little felt sheep, a felt mushroom and a deep respect for what it takes to make felt by hand. I would likely never have bought such cutesy items as souvenirs. But because we made them ourselves, they took on much greater significance.

Booking a library

Creating a defining moment on a trip - Seminary Library

The Seminary Library in Ljubljana, Slovenia

My experience occurred in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (lewb-liana). I had arranged for us to visit the Seminary Library there. It was the first public library in the country, set up in the early 18th century. This isn’t your neighborhood branch public library. The few images of it I’d seen of it reminded me of something out of Harry Potter. Unfortunately (or maybe not – there’s added value to the elusive nature of the place), you can’t just show up and visit. You have to arrange for a private tour in advance. And so I did. The idea was to create an experience that would remind us all of our love for books. The plan was to immerse ourselves in this beautiful space with all the old, leather-clad volumes, ornate wooden shelves and stunning ceiling frescoes. Then, primed with bibliophilic zeal, we were to walk to a charming nearby bookstore I’d researched that carried art books and supplies, hand-made journals and a good selection of English-language books. I would then give each person a 20-euro bill that they could use to buy any book or item in the bookstore of their choosing. We’d then visit one of Ljubljana’s many riverside cafes for coffee, gelato and the chance to share about our purchases and favorite books. The whole experience seemed like a sure winner for my reading-obsessed family. Until my son picked up some bug early that morning that wiped him out that entire day. Thus, only my wife and I visited the library. It was wonderful, but not the meaningful moment for the whole family I’d envisioned.

What we learned

The library visit ended up being more of a typical trip excursion, highly enjoyable – the librarian, our guide, was gracious and wonderful at explaining the history and context, plus it is simply a gorgeous room – but because it was incomplete from the original plan, not a defining moment per se.

The other experiences, however, were phenomenal. In fact, at the end of the trip, all four of us agreed that the two evenings, one making felt and the other doing the cheese tasting and wreath making, were the peaks of our trip. Why?

  • They involved elements that could only have happened by being where we were on the trip (adding to the already elevated nature of travel).
  • They demonstrated effort and creativity on the part of each participant to put together an experience that they knew the others would enjoy. As a result, the connection for us as a family was dramatically heightened.
  • We actually made things with the felting and the wreathes. That provided a strong sense of accomplishment and pride and gave us tangible reminders of the experience to take home.
  • We learned about areas most of us knew nothing about, particularly the felting workshop. Insight was thus a key factor.
  • Best of all, the very act of being intentional on a trip to use “ingredients” we gathered along the way and to design experiences that meant something to all of us, that truly helped to turn these into defining moments.

It proved to me that magic, defining moments can be planned. They can be crafted. They don’t take away from other activities on a trip. In fact, they add to them. For example, because all but the library took place in the evening, we still did our hiking, sightseeing and other activities during the day. But the events gave us something to look forward to at day’s end.

Honestly, even at the start of our trip, I was skeptical that this would come off well. I figured people would flake on doing it or that what we did wouldn’t be all that special. I was wrong. I hope to incorporate other such experiences in future trips because they add so much. They created peak experiences during the trip and then, on our last evening together, by recalling what we did, it created a wonderful end experience.

What you can do

If you want to try to create a defining moment on your trip, start by reading The Power of Moments. Understanding more about elevated, insight, pride and connection will help. Then, do a bit of research to know about what your traveling companions like and how that aligns with the specialties of the area you’re visiting. Finally, if, like us, the original plans don’t work out, just be open to alternatives. They’ll present themselves along the way and that too can add to the meaning and fun.

We’re a family that loves art and craft. If that’s not your thing, find something that is. Sports, history, cooking, music, adventure activities or any hobby you and your traveling companions enjoy likely has a relevant outlet on your trip. Just discovering what that might be is half the enjoyment.

One final tip is to focus on the details of a place like we did: cheese, flowers and felt. Find the things the place is known for then pay extra attention to those. You may find my Guide to Seeing the Right Details by Asking the Right Questions helpful in this regard. Whatever you do, make it fun. That alone will help make it memorable and maybe even magic.

 

Why failure isn’t

Why failure isn't - Thorny flowersFailure isn’t what you think it is

Failure. So many of us go to great lengths to avoid it. But should we? What if one of the greatest secrets to success turns out to be how we think about and approach failure?

How we interpret failure

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck states that people tend to have one of two different mindsets or ways of interpreting the world. The first is what she calls a “fixed mindset” that assumes what we’ve got in terms of talent, intelligence or creative ability is all we’re ever going to have. Those with a fixed mindset judge success based on how they line up against some set standard. They feel better about themselves if they score well against that standard. They also pursue success or flee from any chance of failing in an effort to prove how innately talented or bright they are. If they get an “A,” that shows how smart they are. If they get a “C,” that affects their very identity as they now feel less smart just because of an average grade.

The alternative is a “growth mindset” that sees everything, including failure, as an opportunity for improvement. An “A” to this group means they studied hard (as opposed to feeling innately intelligent). A “C” means they should study harder next time. In comparing the two mindsets, Dweck writes:

 In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

(Carol Dweck quoted in Maria Popova’s helpful summary of Dweck’s book)

In short, if you see the world through a fixed mindset, failure will always be bad. Growth mindset people, however, will see it as an indicator that you are improving. Two very different approaches to failure.

Other ways to think about failure

If you’re locked into a fixed mindset, I may not convince you failure can be a useful thing. But one way I’ve found to make failure seem less intimidating for anyone is this: redefine, or rather, reframe it.

Failure is a catchall term we use for anything that doesn’t go as planned. But as travelers know, sometimes the best journeys aren’t the ones we set out to take. What one person considers a failure, another sees as a boon. It all comes down to your perspective and that, in turn, is affected by terminology. So let’s explore some other labels or ways to consider failure.

Plot Twists

I love this comment in an email from entrepreneur Danny Iny of Mirasee.com:

…as long as you’re still breathing, it isn’t over. Failure is only failure if it happens in the last chapter – otherwise it’s a plot twist.

So true. If we see the story of our lives as long-form narrative, even some major setbacks are just road bumps that add interest. They are what build character, increase our resilience and make for more compelling lives.

Trying

If you try something and it doesn’t work out, you haven’t necessarily failed. You succeeded in trying. That’s a win. The biggest problem with avoiding failure is that you never try anything new. You take no risks. And if that happens, you never grow or frankly, truly live.

Improvement

How many times have you made a “mistake” only to find that the end result was better than planned? Would you call that a failure? No way. In the Renaissance, artists took the word pentimenti which originally meant regret or remorse and redefined it as meaning a reconsideration or change of thought. In this video from The Getty Museum, you can see how these “reconsiderations” play a big role in improving works of art.

Practice

In learning how to play a musical instrument, you’ll make multiple mistakes. That’s all a part of the process and why you practice. Those mistakes aren’t failures. They are essential steps in building your skills and capabilities.

Awareness

So-called failures make us aware for areas in which we need to improve. Without periodic failures, we can fall into the trap of thinking we’re successful at everything. That not only enhances arrogance, it decreases our desire and ability to learn new things. Again, like not trying or risking, the result is stagnation and complacency.

Experimentation

As Thomas Edison famously noted, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” He saw all that effort as a natural part of the process of eliminating unknown factors. This process includes experimentation (for exploring alternative approaches when you don’t know where to start) and testing to reduce unknown variables (for when you know where to start but not how to proceed). You’ll kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, but that’s all part of the process.

Experience

I remember hearing the story of an executive who made a tremendous blunder costing his company something like $20 million. He walked into the CEO’s office and handed in his resignation. The CEO read the letter then tore it up saying, “I just spent $20 million to make you a better leader. Now go back and do your job.” That CEO understood one of the most valuable aspects of so-called failures: If we learn from the experience, we let it change us. We improve. We become wiser.

We learn far more from failures than successes because we pay better attention. And in so doing, we gain hard-won yet invaluable experience. As a result, we do better work not in spite of our failures, but because of them.

The necessity of failure

So I say to you, stop thinking about failure as something to avoid. Use one of the alternative terms above to name it for what it is, a positive, not a negative. A necessity, really, for any creative endeavor.

Consider this: You really can’t create without failure. There are no perfect first drafts. No unreworked canvases. No orchestral arrangements that spring to life in final form. Failure is baked into a process that is less about sparks of genius and more about plain old showing up and doing the work. As author Kevin Ashton notes in How to Fly a Horse, “Creation is a long journey where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead. The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”

Neither should you.

Now go back and do your job.

Better.

 

If you haven’t already, check out the other entries in this series: 3 Things You Most Avoid May Be What You Most Need and Why Suffering May Be Better For You Than You Think

 

Why suffering may be better for you than you think

Suffering - tombstonesWhat do we do with suffering?

There are only two things which pierce the human heart. Beauty and affliction.

This quote from Simone Weil reflects the power of beauty and affliction to move us. Both cut through the superficiality of daily life to help us see what truly matters. Affliction, or suffering, comes in many forms. Some is forced upon us against our will: disease, injustice, oppression. Some is the result of our own mistakes or actions that went awry. Some just happens. The question isn’t why. Get in line to ask that one. Rather, what do we do with suffering?

Developing empathy

One benefit of suffering is that it forges empathy. Or it can. I know that when my wife went through chemotherapy for breast cancer, there were, in general, two types of patients in the chemo ward. The first — and fewest — were those who turned inward and became bitter. The second were those who, despite their own pain, reached out to others. They learned from their own struggle. As a result, they were better able to assist others going through their own dark seasons and hard places.

Suffering and learning

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

This quote from Aeschylus, the originator of literary tragedy, was famously used by Robert Kennedy after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It reveals another aspect of suffering: We cannot truly learn without it. We can gather information, facts and data. But deep learning — wisdom — only comes through applying that learning through experience. And experience is not always a gentle teacher. We remember best those moments that were most emotionally charged.

There’s a reason many writers, composers and other artists often create their greatest works during times of heartache. We are more in touch with our emotions and we understand the world in a far richer way out of our suffering than we do during periods of elation. It may not be fun. But great art isn’t about fun. It’s about truth. And for complex reasons, we are able to see what is true and what matters with greater clarity through our pain more than through our pleasure. Or put another way, we’re more motivated to express our deepest thoughts as a way of coming to grips with our suffering. Wisdom and art frequently come at a painful cost. And yet, in hindsight, we tend to find that the suffering was worth it.

The value of struggle

Suffering can foster empathy, increase wisdom and change how we view the world and others. But it can also help us to grow and overcome.

Think of the mountain climber or triathlon winner. Each endures tremendous suffering not because he or she enjoys it, but because the ultimate goal is worth the struggle. In fact, that end result is only attainable because of the struggle. Most of us aren’t the best in our fields because we’re not willing to pay the price. “No pain, no gain” is fine we think, for a middle school PE slogan. But in reality, we dislike the pain so much that we sacrifice the gain. Simply put, greatness doesn’t happen without struggle. And struggle means suffering of some kind.

The idea of “grit” or the ability to endure what is hard in order to achieve something greater has become increasingly popular as a concept these days. But we’re still reticent to practice it. Why?

Because in the US, we have made an idol of comfort and we protect that comfort at all costs. We prefer a numb existence over the effort and discomfort that comes with striving or trying something new. But as all good travelers know, you never grow or truly feel alive inside that fluffy, padded comfort zone. Sure, it may not feel pleasant to step outside it and enter the struggle. But like going to the gym for a hard workout, you don’t focus on what it feels like at the moment. You think about how good you’ll feel when you’re done.

Is it worth it?

Here’s the funny thing. From my own experience and from that of everyone I know who has endured great suffering, the vast majority say the same thing: It was worth it. To anyone who hasn’t been through such pain, that seems unimaginable. And yet, it’s a common response. The suffering has produced hard-earned rewards.

Whether it is increased empathy, wisdom or growth, you do discover — but only by going through it — that suffering has value. Again, you need not pursue affliction for its own sake. Just realize when it finds you that there is blessing on the other side, and rarely in the way you expect.

In the end, the hard won lessons are the ones we end up valuing most.

 

Read the overview on the 3 things you most avoid that may be what you most need if you haven’t already to understand better why suffering, failure and boredom may not be all you thought they were.

 

Creators and innovators: a meaningful trip – Part 2

Creators, innovators and a meaningful trip: San Clemente Pier

Creators and innovators: The announcement

“Congratulations! You have been selected as a finalist in the 2015 Creators and Innovators Upcycle Contest…” The words in the email to my son Connor began a series of events that led to one of the shortest, yet most meaningful trips I can remember.

Vissla, the surf clothing company sponsoring the competition, requested all the finalists ship their boards to an art gallery in San Clemente, CA where they would be put on display. In addition, Vissla invited all the finalists to attend the show opening at the gallery during which time the winners would be announced.

Vissla covered the cost of shipping the board and a hotel room for the night of the event. But Connor still had to fly down there and somehow make it to the event. I could tell this was a big deal to Connor. And since his 18th birthday was coming up right before the event, we decided to splurge.

Creators and innovators: The trip

Creators, innovators and meaningful travel: Nomad Hotel

Our room at the Nomad Hotel where Connor is going through his goodie bag from Vissla

Thus, in early October, Connor and I landed in San Diego, picked up a rental car, tooled around San Diego, had lunch out on Coronado Island, then leisurely made our way up the coast to San Clemente.

There, we checked in to the wonderful, funky, surf-themed Nomad Hotel that Vissla had arranged. On one of the beds was a bag filled with Vissla clothing and gear, all in Connor’s size. From there, we drove down to the San Clemente pier, looked around then arrived at the gallery as the opening was starting.

Creators and innovators: The event

I could write a book on the conversations that evening, but let me focus here simply on the highlights:

We met with the team from Vissla, all of whom were wonderful, welcoming and so glad we could be there.

Paul photographing Dane's board

Paul photographing Dane’s board

Vissla’s story itself is fascinating. Founded by Paul who was previously head of all the North and South American operations for Billabong, the company primarily produces surf clothing. But Paul, a former pro surfer, has a passion for “Creators and Innovators.” He honors not just those who practice the art of riding waves but also those who create the boards and equipment needed to do so.

This whole competition surprised everyone at Vissla in its popularity. Being the first time they’d done this, Vissla expected a few entries from locals. Instead, they had hundreds from all over the world.

What made the evening so fascinating was that wonderful phenomena that occurs when people of passion come together. The gallery was packed, spilling onto the sidewalk with a wide array of people, all connected by a love of the sport.

Gallery view

This is a view of the gallery from the sidewalk that ended up overflowing with people from the opening.

As we met and spoke with each of the finalists, it was clear that no one really cared who won. Everyone was just glad to be there and to share ideas with each other. Each contestant was genuinely interested in everyone else’s entry, from the functional board made of cardboard and Paper Mache (and covered in fiberglass) to the fins made from recycled plastic bottle caps melted and reformed into objects of beauty. By the end of the evening, Connor and the others were all figuring out ways to connect and work on new projects after the event.

Connor's board

Connor’s board in the longboard mode hanging in the gallery.

Eventually, a team of judges made their determinations and they announced the winners. First place went to Dane from Australia for a board that used the inner core from old doors but combined with foam and fiberglass in such a way as to be a work of art.

Second place went to a guy from Japan who made this amazing board from recycled Styrofoam cartons used in that country for transporting raw fish.

Third place went to…Connor! For that, he won one of Vissla’s cool wetsuits. Everyone agreed Connor had one of the most original ideas. They loved that even the wheels on his board were made from pallet material. They especially liked how detailed his user’s manual was. “Ikea could learn a thing or two from you,” was a common refrain that evening.

Later that evening, Vissla approached Connor and offered to buy his board for their corporate art collection. He eventually agreed to sell them the board. He plans on using the money to fund his start-up company making other kinds of long boards and surf t-shirt designs.

Creators and innovators: The takeaway

To me, a conversation I had with the board designer/shaper Donald Brinks epitomized the evening. Donnie and I got to talking about creativity and the design process and how everything is connected. How you learn something in a seemingly unrelated area, and it sparks an idea that would seem completely unconnected but makes total sense once you put the two together.

Creators, innovators and meaningful trips - Connor, Dane and Eric

Connor (left), Dane (center) and Eric from Vissla.

He commented on how you know a surfboard is right when you pick it up. I likened it to choosing a guitar. You can’t explain why, but you just know it is the right one by the way it feels or sounds or some other inexplicable factor. All the “data” you’ve spent a lifetime collecting suddenly connects in that moment and you know beyond doubt that this is the right one.

That’s the way this evening – this whole trip – felt. A vast array of interests and unlikely connections came together and worked in ways that amazed Connor and me because they were so unexpected and yet, so perfect.

In all, the entire trip was just over 24 hours. But it is one that will likely last a lifetime.

 

If you haven’t done so yet, you can read Part 1 here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why sunsets move us

Why sunsets move us - Cambria Sunset

Why do sunsets move us?

Just look at the number of photos of sunsets to know that as trite as they may seem, we still marvel at something that happens every 24 hours. In this second of a three-part series on sunsets, let’s look at seven reasons why sunsets move us.

Sunsets move us…literally.

We rarely appreciate sunsets from inside. We have to step outside – or even walk or drive a ways – to see them unobstructed. When I’m inside, I feel I’m missing out on the full effect and so I head for the nearest door to see – and feel – the sunset better. If you look at most photos (your own and others’) you’ll find they usually occur on vacation or at some other relaxed moment when we’re already outside. Since most of us live and work indoors, we have to be intentional to behold the sunset. And in moving physically to view them, we’re also moved emotionally by what we end up experiencing.

Sunsets make us aware of time.

In the first part of this series, I referred to the Celtic concept of “the time in between times,” the twilight hours where the boundaries between this world and the next seem thinner. Sunsets make us more aware of the mystery of time itself as we witness day transition into night. Too often, our lives feel like pure process, a non-stop blur of activities. We note time only as a resource that feels far too scarce. But with sunsets, we stop looking at our watches or cell phones because we feel behind. Instead, we’re aware of time passing in a different way; we appreciate time without resisting it. Odd how something as visible as a sunset can make us aware of something as invisible and powerful as time.

Sunsets are non-essential.

We don’t have to stop and watch that big orange orb drop from the sky each evening. But we do, though usually only when we’re not working or distracted with daily routines. “Squandering” our time on something so useless by all practical considerations gives the event even greater value. It reminds us that the most important moments of life aren’t the ones we measure but the ones we truly live.

Sunsets help us enter into night warmly.

Night is, in most cultures, associated with death. But sunsets help us to recognize that the nocturnal period is bookended with light. In the Christian faith, for example, death is not the end of the story. We need not fear what the night brings. Sunsets remind us of that and make the coming of night just a bit more welcoming.

Sunsets are real.

We can’t manufacture them (though we can mimic them). We’re surrounded by so much superficial beauty that when we encounter the real thing, we get lost in awe even though we may have seen thousands of sunsets before in our lifetime. Never underestimate the power of authentic beauty to touch our souls, even in something as cliché as a sunset.

Sunsets involve waiting.

I won’t begin to count the ways my impatience manifests itself each day. Given how little I like to wait, why will I take long stretches of time to stare at an object that at any other time of day I barely notice? I think there’s something freeing about waiting in situations where we’re not aware we’re waiting. We learn to be present…and learn that waiting is possible. We discover the anticipation that comes with waiting enhances the experience and makes us appreciate the experience even more. Sunsets reward our waiting with more than just a show of color and light.

Sunsets are beautiful.

I’ve saved this obvious statement for last. But why are they beautiful? First, there are all those colors. Warm colors, like a welcoming fire on a cold night, the color of home and hearth and even romance. Second, sunsets are a changing, even surprising beauty. Like snowflakes, they are never the same twice. Third, when clouds are involved, we experience both color and a kind of texture that even the best images can’t replicate. Sunsets are not just multi-sensory (we feel them as much as we see them). They are multi-dimensional and in the best cases, envelop us in their beauty.

That’s my take on why sunsets move us. How about you? Why do you value a beautiful sunset?

And be sure to come back next time when we explore some simple ways to get your best photo ever of a sunset.