Thoughtful Travel: A new way to go

Thoughtful Travel - Airport TravelerEver watch people at an airport? You can usually spot the first-timers who are looking everywhere all at once. Or the families going on vacation, hauling enough plush and treats to run a daycare center. But my favorite are the business travelers. You can detect them from their typical posture: head down, body leaning forward, efficiently packed bags towed briskly behind them.

They are purposeful, focused and almost always on their cell phones. Sometimes this is obvious: the rectangle pressed tightly to their faces as they risk a cheek bone or jowl inadvertently ending their call. Other times, you see them scurrying like well-dressed homeless people, mumbling — apparently to themselves — until you detect the Bluetooth device in their ears.

Their conversations are surprisingly similar: fragments of “Just go back in there” or “We need to get it higher” or “What were you thinking?” or “Did you bring this up with _________?” A foreign anthropologist listening in for the first time might conclude this was some kind of bizarre mating ritual. But no. It’s simply business people airing their private conversations so the rest of us can enjoy their angst about market share or meeting their numbers by month end.

I know this world well because I am one of them. On business trips, I have a lot going on in my mind usually related to logistics or my upcoming meetings. But rarely, I find, am I thoughtful.

I use this word, thoughtful, in two senses.

First, thoughtful as in reflective. I’m often as preoccupied as the next business traveler. But I’m not usually present. I’m more on autopilot. And rarely am I aware of what this particular trip means, how it might be more than what it appears, how I might find more meaning and life amidst the hectic schedules of meetings, meals and the evening deluge of emails crying out for a response.

Second, thoughtful also can imply being considerate as in, “That was so thoughtful of you.” And when I’m in autopilot mode, I’m rarely thinking of others as we all stand in the boarding line jockeying to get 200 carryon bags into half that many overhead slots.

But maybe it is time for a change.

Meaningful travel is thoughtful travel. Or it can be when we seek to make the experience meaningful for others as well. I once missed a dinner meeting near the Orlando airport because I stopped to help a wheelchaired Vietnam vet find the bus to Jacksonville. Funny thing is that he wasn’t particularly pleasant or appreciative, but that didn’t matter. At least for that one evening, I took a moment to pull outside of my own little world to be thoughtful and helpful to someone else.

Give it a try. Be more thoughtful — reflective and considerate — when you travel. It sounds good, but if you attempt it, you may find like I do that it is easier to talk about than to practice. But give it a shot and see what you think…

To give you a nudge, I’ve just added another resource to this site. It’s free if you’ve signed in. I call it A Guide to Thoughtful Business Travel. Take a look and see if you don’t find something there to help make your next trip — especially a business trip — just a bit more thoughtful.

 

How to make your writing more interesting and memorable

How to make your writing more interesting: Image of The Gatteaux Family by Ingres

The Gatteaux Family by Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres

Want to make your writing or your art more interesting? Want it to stand out and be remembered better? Want readers to be able to visualize with great clarity what you’re writing about?

Add details.

There it is. Details. That’s the big secret, or at least one of them for crafting more interesting fiction and non-fiction and adding layers to your art.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent book, The Sense of Style, which sentence can you mentally picture (and thus likely retain) better:

“The set fell on the floor” or “The ivory chess set fell on the floor”?

Only two words differentiate the two sentences, yet that detail makes the second sentence more concrete. You can picture the ivory chess set better.

The ways in which you present details are as diverse as the types of writing you might do. But here are two considerations.

First, for fiction, use details to add depth and clarity to your descriptions. “It was a dark and moonless night” doesn’t make you feel the night as well as, “The darkness oppressed her, like the blackness of a cave, complete and unyielding.”

For non-fiction, wherever possible, use examples (as I just did above). Examples offer details while also providing an analogy the reader can relate to.

Details are your friend. But how do you go about making their acquaintance? You can rely on your imagination. But your imagination will grow if you learn to collect details and stockpile them for later.

Travel helps us in this regard. When we go out into the world with our eyes open and our notebooks or cameras or sketchpads at hand, we can see and then capture details we’d otherwise miss. We then bring back these small treasures to our studios for use in our work. Anyone can do this, but it helps to know some shortcuts and techniques. And where might one find such helpful tips?

I just completed a new paper, just for you, my guide to capturing and collecting details. It’s a free resource here if you’ve signed up on the site. I call it Come Closer: The Novelist’s Approach to Collecting Details because the basic concept came from an interview with a novelist I read many years ago. He described traveling to a city, for example, where a scene for his next book would take place. But instead of writing all the details about the whole city, he would find one interesting street corner and then document that thoroughly. He’d then have some great details he could throw into his descriptions that provided authenticity and made the scene more compelling.

I liken it to an Ingres drawing. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the 19th century French painter, is considered one of history’s finest draftsman. His drawings, such as the one above, are exquisite, but what I appreciate is his isolated use of extreme detail. In the above image, the background is a mere suggestion. Even the clothing is rendered with the minimal lines needed to convey meaning. But look at the faces. They are meticulously drawn. Ingres used details where they mattered and didn’t waste the effort in areas where they don’t. And so should we.

If you want to make your writing more interesting, check out the guide to capturing details. The beauty of it is that you’ll learn tips and techniques that will not only make you a better writer or artist, they’ll improve how you travel as well.

 

How to travel like a beginner – Part 2

Travel like a beginner: Airline seats

Even veteran flyers can find wonders in the often cramped space of an airline seat

How to travel like a beginner…or maybe not

This past week, I attempted to travel like a beginner, a novice unfamiliar with words like bulkhead, elite line or overhead bin.

I tried to view air travel as a newbie.

I failed.

Why it’s hard to travel like a beginner

I think I was doomed before I ever threw my carryon into the trunk of my car. While I laud the ideal of “beginner’s mind” and the underlying desire to experience afresh all the novelty of the first time, I believe I went about it the wrong way. What I found is that you cannot unknow what you know.

I tried to picture how a less experienced version of me would have reacted to travel. But instead of a deeper appreciation for the now and a deeper awareness of the experience as I had it, I spent more time in my imagination, filtering and speculating. Better would have been to concentrate on simply noticing more.

Boo hoo for me and my experiment to travel like a beginner. However, my efforts helped remind me of a few insights about air travel both good and bad that may be helpful to you as well. Let’s start with the challenges.

The hard part

  •  Airplane travel is a pain in the rear. Literally and figuratively. With newer seats being narrower and older seats having virtually no bottom cushion left, sitting for six hours leaves certain areas of one’s anatomy feeling like they’ve been dry iced. And then there’s the issue of proximity. Where else in our modern lives do we let complete strangers into our personal space for hours? Not seconds in a cramped elevator, or minutes on a crowded bus or subway car. Hours. As the shuttle driver kindly informed me on the ride to the airport, “You’d be amazed how many people never shower before getting on a plane. I had a guy here last week that made the shuttle bus wait so he could get one last toke on his joint (it’s legal here in Washington). I would not like to have sat wedged in next to him on a long flight.” And yet we do.
  • The airlines seem intent on making travel harder for us. Check out this insightful article on how the airlines’ make you suffer and see if it doesn’t resonate.
  •  Solo travel is better for noticing. On the first of many flights last week, I traveled with colleagues. We had some wonderful conversations. But my ability to be present and pay attention to the experience of travel crashed. You can’t pay attention to your surrounding and your conversation at the same time. Or at least I couldn’t.

Now on to the positives.

The good part

  •  Airplanes gets me where I want to go. Pretty obvious, but important. As my friend Al has told me, “I don’t like to travel. I like to have arrived.” Me too. But we forget that 100 years ago the same trip that takes us five hours would have taken five days and two hundred years ago, five months or more.
  • I can’t recreate a first-time thrill, but I can relive it. The few times I was able to travel like a beginner — but only with conscious effort — were on takeoff and landing. Try it. Next time the wheels leave or touch the runway, remind yourself of how amazing it is, what you feel in your stomach and what a marvel for something as big and heavy as a plane to fly.
  • I get to meet some wonderful people. That forced intimacy makes conversations easier. I can participate in the life of a stranger in ways I never would in other settings. And while most chats are superficial, some of those conversations can be life-changing.
  • I realize how entitled I am. The hassle of travel makes me aware of how much I take space and “my rights” for granted. Discomfort can be revealing.
  • I find space to reflect and create. I intentionally do NOT use wifi on a plane unless in a business “emergency” (determined by me, not by others). Airline cabins are one of the few locations you can’t be called or, without wifi, bothered. How many places do we have left for quiet reflection and concentration? When I see my airline seat as a sanctuary—albeit a very crammed one — it changes how I view my entire trip.

What might change your view of travel? Try being present to the experience of it. You too may find more to air travel than just getting to your destination. Just be aware about those seat cushions…

 

How to travel like a beginner…even if you’re not one – Part 1

Latte: How to travel like a beginner

The next time you eat or drink something familiar, try and imagine what it would be like doing so for the first time.

I’m about to board an airplane for the first time in almost four months. I haven’t gone for this long being grounded in over four years.

At first, I thought I would go stir crazy or miss airline travel. That never happened. Perhaps it is because I look to travel for novelty and adventure and day-to-day life has kindly been supplying more of both than I either anticipated or, in some cases, relished. But in less than 48 hours, I will once again be plane-bound.

This gives me an opportunity — a boost really — to try something I’ve been wanting to share with you for some time. The concept of “beginner’s mind” or Shoshin in Japanese derives from Zen Buddhism and is often associated with the book by Shunryu Suzuki where he states the famous line, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” But “beginner’s mind,” like the quote itself, extends far beyond it’s Zen roots and can be applicable to all of us today.

At its heart is the idea of approaching anything, particularly a subject or skill which you have already mastered, with the openness, excitement and receptivity of a beginner. Beginner’s mind is less about memory — remembering back to your first experience with something — and more about confronting that now familiar experience as if it were completely new to you.

You can try this with any familiar object or experience. Take, for instance the act of tasting your favorite food or drink. Let’s say it’s a cup of coffee. The next time you sip a cup of coffee, consciously engage the experience. What are you really tasting? What is it like? Do you taste the bitterness (assuming you haven’t overloaded the drink with sweeteners)? Can you recall how you first reacted to that bitter taste? It likely wasn’t pleasant. So can you now consciously try and imagine what this sip would be like if you’d never tasted coffee before? Feel the liquid warmth. Be aware of how you swallow. Try to describe the aroma to yourself.

You may be wary of the Zen roots or think the whole notion is New Agey, silly or too esoteric. But try it. Because just the act of trying it will reveal how much we have lost our ability to experience the wonder that daily surrounds us. We have become so familiar with the marvels of technology and of nature that we blithely march through our days unaware of all the experiences that would blow our minds if we encountered them all in one day as a complete beginner.

I plan to do my best to approach air travel like a beginner this week. Likely, work pressures and habits will kick in and the best intentions will yield few results. But who knows?

To be continued…

Discover hidden worlds in your own backyard

Snail drinking water: a discovery of a world in your own backyard

I ran across this thirsty little fella in Rothenburg, Germany, but it could have been in my own backyard…if I would simply take the time to pay better attention.

How many hidden worlds lie in your own backyard? More than you may realize.

Literally, if you were to pay close attention to all the details of your home or backyard, you’d be amazed by what you find. Xavier de Maistre did just that.

Journey around your own room

In 1790, de Maistre wrote a book, Journey Around My Room. According to Alain de Botton in one of my favorite books, The Art of Travel, de Maistre engaged in a different form of travel. No baggage, carriages or ships to deal with. Simply the decision to observe what was all around him but rarely noticed.

Locking the door to his room and donning a pair of pink and blue pajamas, de Maistre began to see the familiar in new ways, discovering hidden worlds in his own bedroom. De Botton notes that:

… de Maistre’s work sprang from a profound and suggestive insight: the notion that the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of…South America.

That mind-set is essentially one of being receptive which is easy to do when we encounter the new and exotic. Less so in our own backyards. As de Botton comments,

Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new in a place we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.

It starts with actually seeing what you see

Paying better attention and truly noticing the wonder in your own backyard is one way to overcome this blindness. Another is to seek out new places in your own neighborhood that you’ve never visited or observed closely before.

If you live in our near a large city, you’ll likely find many neighborhoods you’ve never explored in depth. Living near Seattle, one such area for me is Seattle’s Chinatown and International District.

This neighborhood is one of those places I normally just pass through on my way to some other destination. Or on the few times I’ve wandered through there, I’ve felt adrift, desirous of some new discovery but usually unsure of what to look for. At times, through no hostility but more a sense of disconnection, I’ve felt like I just don’t belong there.

All this changed for me a few weeks ago.

A glance at an article in our local paper started a chain of events that helped me to discover the hidden worlds in my own backyard so much better. I’ll explain more about this over the next few entries here. But for now, think about what it means for you to discover hidden worlds in your own backyard. It may be a neighborhood you’ve never visited before. Or it may mean opening your eyes — being receptive, as de Botton notes — to what surrounds you every day.

And no, you don’t need to don a pair of pink and blue pajamas to see it.

 

The myth of the unique travel experience

Workers at the Eiffel Tower, a unique travel experience

So what if millions of other people have been to the Eiffel Tower before you. It’s still a unique travel experience FOR YOU especially when you see it in a new way as with these workers silhouetted at dusk.

You travel far off any known tourist map to encounter what you believe will be a unique travel experience. No one there speaks your language or appears to have ever encountered a Westerner before. You learn enough of the local language which, combined with gestures worthy of Marcel Marceau or an Academy Award, get you by.

You come home from this seemingly unique travel experience. You post stories and photos on your Facebook page. Tweet about it. Tell everyone you know about your unique travel experience.

Then one day, a friend sends you a link to someone else’s travel blog. You read about her unique travel experience. Maybe it was to the same place you visited. Or maybe someplace completely different. But the emotions she felt, the wonder she discovered, the authenticity of the culture, the change in her perspective – her very life – it all seems uncomfortably familiar.

In fact, her unique travel experience sounds just like your unique travel experience. The one you now realize may not have been so unique…

Dealing with disappointment

At one point in my life, this realization would have really bugged me. I used to feel that if my trip wasn’t a unique travel experience, then somehow, it was diminished. If I ran into other travelers, especially other Americans, then the “authenticity” of the experience took a hit. It simply wasn’t as special.

I used to also believe that if someone else didn’t say “Goodnight” after I did as I went to bed, monsters would get me in the night. You might be surprised at the effort it takes to ensure that your “Goodnight” isn’t the final word.

Thankfully, I outgrew the “Goodnight” fear around age ten. It’s taken me a bit longer with the obsession of having a unique travel experience.

But here’s what did it.

I’ve come to realize that while a completely unique travel experience may seem to be a myth, the reality is this: It doesn’t matter.

Why?

Why the idea of a unique travel experience makes no difference

  1. The very term “unique” implies some kind of comparison. And comparisons, at least of experiences, rarely help or add any value. What do you ever gain by comparing your trip to someone else’s?
  2. The fact that others have similar emotional responses to their trips that you had to yours isn’t a downer. It’s a cause for celebration. How cool is it that deep down we share a common humanity that enables us to enter into a mutual experience? If you see your unique travel experience as a form of community and not a competition, it enhances rather than detracts from the experience.
  3. Discovery is personal. This is one of my pet maxims about travel. You can visit some place like Angkor Wat, the Eiffel Tower or the Great Pyramid, places millions before your have seen, and guess what? It’s still a discovery for you. It is and always will be a unique travel experience because there is only one you. Others may have similar responses, but they’ll never be exactly the same.

So enjoy your unique travel experience. Or rather, don’t even think about it as such. Think about it as a meaningful experience. To you. And if others have had similar ones, great. That just gives you one more topic you can enthusiastically dive into with that couple you share a train compartment with on your next trip. Because it is likely you share so much more.