How to master travel—and why it matters for beginners AND seasoned travelers

Master travel - Blue Mosque line

Master travel? What’s that?

Whether you a beginning traveler or an experienced road warrior, chances are you’ve never considered how you might master travel or even why you might want to.  When you first start traveling, you just jump in and let the novelty and excitement of the journey propel you forward.

As an experienced traveler, you figure you know how to travel already. But eventually, as with all endeavors, you hit a plateau where, though the destinations may change, your trips start to feel oddly similar. You may believe that you have mastered travel, but it can start to feel as if travel has mastered you.

You desperately try to mix up the activities or sights, but a similar routine or pace has crept in over time. You’re in a bit of a travel rut. Trips are still fun, but they lack the meaning or sense of life-changing possibility that they used to provide. What do you do when this happens?

You learn to master travel

Why learning to master travel matters

If you’re a beginning traveler, that starts with realizing that travel is a skill that can be mastered. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (queue the music) is to seek ways to improve that skill.

If you’re an experienced traveler who needs a boost, well, the remedy is surprisingly the same, but for a different reason. You’ll want to learn how to master travel not to learn new approaches so much as to get you out of—to free you from—ones that no longer serve you well. 

In both cases, your goal is mastery of a skill you probably didn’t even consider to be one.

Until now.

Master travel - Ship at night

10,000 hours of travel

You may have heard or read the stat promoted by Malcom Gladwell and others that you achieve mastery after 10,000 hours of practicing something. It’s a widely quoted finding.

It just may not be true.

This article does a good job of summarizing the more recent research on the subject noting that 10,000 hours of practice was only an average and that it doesn’t apply the same to all kinds of activities. For example, with travel, 10,000 hours of time spent on trips (not counting sleep) would be about two years of consistent travel. If you’re only taking a vacation for say, a cumulative total (counting weekend trips) of a month per year, using the 10,000 hour mark means you wouldn’t hit mastery for about 21 years.

Oh, and that is counting every waking moment on a trip as “practice” when in reality, you’re likely only thinking about the actual travel part of your trip a fraction of the time. Thus, you could probably double or triple the number of years to reach the mastery level of traveling if you based it on the 10,000 hours idea.

Good thing you don’t have to.

Why? Because what seems to apply more than time if you want to master something is a combination of interest and what’s called deliberate practice. Let’s start with the former.

Montreal

Love what you do

As a traveler, you’re not training to win a travel award or to be admitted to the top travel school in the country (and no, I don’t believe there is such an institution…yet). Nor are you competing with others to be the world’s best traveler nor are you turning pro. Unless you have to travel for work or other necessities, you travel simply for the love it. And you know what that makes you? An amateur.

The word “amateur” derives from the Latin “amare” which means “to love.” We sometimes deride amateurs for their lack of skill but true amateurs, those who take on something new for the sheer joy of doing it, don’t care. It is in the doing they find satisfaction, not necessarily in the mastery. But here’s where a paradox of mastery comes in.

You don’t have to be a pro at something but you do need to know enough to enjoy it. As my surfing coach Shaun says, “You have to reach that point of being stoked.” Once you hit that level of really loving it, you’re hooked. But many people give up before that point because they don’t get good enough to enjoy it. So you need to work to reach at least some degree of proficiency. With travel, this is pretty easy because the process itself is so enjoyable. In fact, I suspect you may never have even thought before that travel is a skill you learn, right? That’s because we don’t usually consider fun activities as something requiring effort and practice. But practice does make perfect. Sort of. Only, however, if you do it right.

Master travel through deliberate practice

Doing the same thing over and over may seem like practice. Instead, it usually means mindless repetition. A better approach is what is known as deliberate practice. Being aware of how to navigate through an airport or train station, how to choose the best flights, how to know before you arrive if a hotel will be good—all of those are travel skills that come with practice. But if you don’t think about learning those skills and only pick them up haphazardly, they’ll take you much longer to master.

If, however, you practice deliberately, some of the more frustrating elements of travel—like getting a decent seat on a flight or learning how to find great local restaurants—get much easier, much faster. And the better you get, the more you enjoy. The more you enjoy, the more you’ll push yourself to be better not because you have to, but because you want to. And in so doing, you’ll discover a whole new level of travel because you’ve learned to master travel.

Naples, Italy

But what happens when you’re an experienced traveler?

All of the above is well and good for learning how to travel initially. But once you’ve done it for a while, how do you get out of your travel ruts and routines? Here’s the fun answer: Same thing. Deliberate practice. 

The exact same approach that works for beginners in learning how to master travel works for master travelers who’ve plateaued. To understand this, let’s apply some key attributes of deliberate practice to travel. I’ll note how to do this for both beginners and seasoned travelers wanting a new boost in their trips.

  1. Concentrate. For both types of travelers, be mindful and aware that you are learning a skill. As you learn to navigate the metro in Paris, make a conscious effort to pay attention to how it works. Treat it as if you will be quizzed on it later. Does that take away from the fun of your trip? Actually, it can enhance it because every mundane logistical task now becomes a creative challenge. For seasoned travelers, this means paying attention to what moves and delights you. Note what has started to feel routine and what still feels fresh. What feels missing? Be aware of your emotions and interests as you travel and you’ll be able to diagnose how to make changes for your future trips.
  2. Give yourself a break. Yes, you want to master travel by learning how to do it better and treating it as a skill to acquire and perfect. But you don’t have to do that all the time. Use the down times on a trip to mentally inventory what you’re learning. Then, the learning or practice part of this won’t bog you down when you’re in pure exploration mode. This applies to both types of travelers.
  3. Write it down. Having a travel journal is so helpful for many reasons. For beginners, you can record and even track your learnings as you go so you’re more aware of them later. For seasoned travelers, you’ll want to record what you learned in step one regarding what is working for you emotionally and what’s not. For both types of travelers, also write down as the ideas come to mind, additional travel skills you want to learn. That way, you can deliberately pursue those over time.
  4. Experiment. Try different approaches to a travel challenge whether it’s your first trip or your 100th. If you’re used to taking a taxi or ride share, take the bus. Or vice versa. If you always pack a lot into your trips, try a slower approach. Then record what you learn. Glean what works and discard what doesn’t. For beginners, you’re seeking to find your travel style or cadence. For experienced travelers, you’re looking to discover a novel approach that will break you out of your travel habits and let you master travel in a whole new way.
  5. Be consistent. Don’t just try all this once and stop. It will take a lifetime to fully master travel. You can always learn more. But that won’t happen if you forget to learn. If you go back to not paying attention to the process and the skills you’re acquiring, you’ll travel like everyone else and your trips won’t get better. They may be different, but they won’t improve. You have to be deliberate about practicing travel to master travel.

Enjoy the process as you master travel

This may all seem like hard work. But hard work, if it is enjoyable, adds greater meaning to life. If you travel only to lie on a beach and sip fruity drinks, don’t worry about how you’ll master travel. You don’t need to. But if you love travel and want to continue doing so more and more over time, start thinking about travel as a skill you can learn and even master. It may not be as easy as lying on a beach, but it is so much more rewarding.

As a friend of mind often reminds me, “I don’t like to travel. I like to have arrived.” Most of us do, especially on today’s flying buses and over-crowded attractions. But when you master the harder parts of travel itself, you’ll find a greater sense of accomplishment and greater joy, both in the arriving and in what it took to get you there. Mastering travel will make the hard parts of the journey easier for beginners. And best of all, taking a deliberate practice approach to master travel will help experienced travelers continue to reap rich rewards from travel for years to come.  

 

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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.