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.

 

Travel journal examples and how to get the most out of a travel journal

A travel journal: Your new best friend

Travel journal examples can spark ideas for your own journal. This matters a great deal because a travel journal can be one of your most helpful 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 travel journal examples, 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 travel journal 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 for travel drawing and notes 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 a sense of travel journal examples and possibilities. Mostly, consider if you want to do travel 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 do any travel drawing or 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, do travel drawing or urban sketching, doodle and record 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 travel drawing 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 journal 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 along with travel journal examples, 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 along with some of my travel journal examples:

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.

Travel journal examples of 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 travel journal examples of the key sections.

  • Shot list

    Here’s a travel journal 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.

Travel journal examples of elements to 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 a specific travel journal example, 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 and travel journal examples

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

Travel sketch

Travel sketchTravel sketch

  • If you really enjoy the travel drawing aspect of a travel journal, you might want to connect with the whole Urban Sketchers movement and see travel journal examples that include urban sketching. Here’s an example of an urban 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 travel journal examples and information, 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.

 

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.

 

Explore Your Worlds: What it means and why it matters

Explore Your Worlds: Cotswolds architecture in Bradford-on-Avon

Explore your worlds, not just the world

I’ve spent a lot of my life exploring the world. Then, several years ago, I realized that for everything I’d seen, there was so much I hadn’t simply because I couldn’t.

Some of the most important elements of life – love, hope and our deepest yearnings, for example – aren’t visible. In the pursuit of witnessing all I could from the world around me, I’d neglected the world within me. I’d seen great sights, but hadn’t fully brought my interior life – that invisible world of emotions, longings, creative interests and purpose – into the mix. But when I started to explore both of my worlds – the one around me and the one within me – everything changed. Travel took on greater meaning, purpose and joy while life back at home started to feel more like a great trip.

Exploring your worlds happens best when you not only explore your worlds, but you connect them and in so doing, derive the greatest pleasure from both. Let me give you an example from a recent trip to England of what it means to explore and connect your worlds.

Connecting your worlds

My wife and I were flitting about the Cotswolds region, exploring villages and vales. We’d seen plenty of old churches, shops and other architectural examples. For all the pleasure in beholding them, after several days, they started to look alike. With no real understanding of the history, cultural significance or making of the place, I only connected to it superficially.

Then one day, while visiting the small town of Corsham, not far from Bath, it started to rain. We ducked into a nearby bookstore and quickly forgot all about the showers outside. While glancing through the shelves, one book stood out: Rice’s Architectural Primer. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I had to have this book.

Explore Your Worlds - Cover of Rice's Architectural Primer

Initially, I was attracted to the whimsical illustrations (you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate a book filled with pictures). These were watercolors showing various buildings throughout English history and the architectural styles they represented. Pages revealed whole buildings and discrete architectural details along with their names.

Later, after the rain ended and we headed back to our B&B, I spent a few hours going through the book. Even this quick perusal equipped me to “read” a building, its elements and the story they tell. I remembered then — not for the first or last time — that understanding something, even to a small degree, increases your enjoyment of it.

That proved true the next morning in the village of Lacock when we attended St. Cyriac’s, a small parish church dating back to the 14th century. As we sat through a wonderful service and later were given a tour by one of the friendly ushers, I experienced the breathtaking joy of both exploring and connecting my worlds.

Explore Your Worlds - Lacock street and St. Cyriac's church

Explore with both your head and your heart

Even my brief exposure to Rice’s Primer enabled me to have a completely different conversation with the architecture of that church. I beheld stone joints, posts and windows similar to what we’d seen elsewhere. But now, each of them had a name: crockets, finials, spandrels, tie beams, cuspings, imposts and mullians. There’s something almost mystical about the personalizing power of knowing a name and what it does to change how you identify with someone or something. My relationship with the place changed because I not only saw it anew, I experienced it on a different level. There in that church, my love for books (and the specific one acquired the day before), connected with what I’d learned from that book and was now applying to the stone, stained glass and wood around me. This was more than learning. It was a shift in relating. And with that came an inexplicable joy because I was not just seeing this place in a new way, I was a different person because of it.

Explore Your Worlds - Cover of Rice's Architectural Primer

Why it matters to explore your worlds

Exploring your worlds and making these generative connections isn’t just a better way to travel. It’s about seeing in a different way by exploring in a different way which leads to more meaningful discoveries and, ultimately, a better way to live. It feels like Dorothy, landing in Oz and walking out of her small, black-and-white house into a Technicolor universe. Such moments and connections can be astounding and they are available to us far more than we realize.

Join me back here in the coming weeks as we scout out different — and often surprising — ways to explore your worlds so that you can get the best out of each trip…and each day.

Two ways that many travelers use to connect their inner creative interests and the world they see before them on a trip is through travel photography and paying attention to details. If you’re interested in improving your photography skills, whether you’re a beginner or more experienced, get a copy of my free Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos. The tips and techniques in it can really boost your confidence on a trip and after you return home to admire your images. For details, check out my free Guide to Seeing the Right Details by Asking the Right Questions. Both can really help you as you explore your worlds.

 

Pin This!Connect what you love

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.

 

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