031: Boosting Creativity the Easy Way

In This Episode: There’s a proven way to boost your creativity, open-mindedness, thoughtfulness, and more. The best part: it’s also fun, interesting, and can even be done while working, or on vacation.

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My wife and I just returned (a few hours before recording this!) from a trip we called “ScIreland” — a tour to the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. This will definitely not be a travelogue, but rather an exploration of the reasons why we travel: how travel, especially to foreign countries, makes humans smarter, happier, more creative, and thoughtful. Just the sort of things that This is True is about in the first place.

Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

I have a love-hate relationship with travel. I love doing it, even though I hate the disruption to my schedule. I do travel a fair amount of travel around the U.S. for business, such as conferences, speaking engagements, and consulting gigs, but now that technology is making it easier and easier to get my work done even in foreign countries, I’m hoping to do more foreign travel, at least as funds allow.

A recent survey found that 11 percent of Americans have never been outside the state where they were born; 40 percent have never left the United States. On the bright side, 85 percent say they like to experience new things, about 60 percent have a list of places they’d like to see, and 76 percent would like to travel more. Certainly finances figure into that, but other reasons for not traveling include “feeling unprepared and ill-equipped to venture forth into unknown territory.”

If that describes you, think about finding someone who is comfortable with it and see if you can go on their next trip. More on that in a few minutes.

I’m not traveling just for fun: there are proven benefits to travelers that last far beyond the length of their trips. What got my attention recently was that business improves when the leaders of that business make time for foreign travel. And if you’re like me, about now you’re thinking, “Prove it.” Let’s get started.

A study published by the Academy of Management Journal led by Prof. Adam Galinsky of the Columbia Business School found that when a company’s “influential executives” personally engage in foreign travel, as opposed to sending underlings to do the firm’s business, there’s a direct correlation to the company’s “creative innovations,” which the study team defined as the extent to which their resulting products or services are novel and useful from the standpoint of their customers. To study this, they followed executives in the fashion industry corresponded to their companies’ output over a period of 11 years: no cherry-picking from one or two successful seasons.

Their findings showed benefits in multiple dimensions: breadth of travel experience was associated with the highest levels of creative innovations, but depth is also critical. So what’s the difference between breadth and depth? Breadth is travel to multiple countries or regions, while depth is getting deeper into the culture of a place — seeing the differences between the way you do things, and the way others do things. That gives better insight and understanding of different points of view. Reading an article about an issue, or even 20, isn’t the same as going to the place involved and talking with the people who live there.

The divided Irelands showing their capital cities, which we visited. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Case in point: we’ve all heard about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants, and may remember that the civil war conducted by terrorism cooled down after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. End of The Troubles, right? Not exactly: the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, but that’s not completely over, is it? Not when you see people on the news with Nazi armbands carrying Confederate flags screaming about how “oppressed” they think they are.

On our trip, we decided not to quickly skip from city to city, but rather stop and stay a few days in a much smaller number of cities. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, the center point of The Troubles, we took tours led by a Catholic gentleman one day, and a Protestant the next.

Taken from the Catholic side, a “peace wall” with murals painted on it (and note the barbed wire and spikes on the top), and the gates that can be — and are — closed every night. The building is a Presbyterian church. (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

It’s not really a surprise that The Troubles aren’t about religious freedom, they’re about culture and politics. What was a surprise to us is that there were walls built between the largely Protestant sections of Belfast and the largely Catholic sections, and the walls can be miles long. The surprise isn’t that they were built, but that they’re still there, and surveys of residents find the vast majority want them to stay there, at least for now. But what really raised our eyebrows is that the gates in the walls are still closed overnight — every night.

Crime is low, believe it or not, not because criminals are afraid of the police or retribution from gangs in the other religion, but rather they’re afraid of their own neighborhood bosses, one of the guides told us rather candidly, as our group was his only passengers that trip. Someone burgles your apartment? A police report might be great to file with your insurance company, but if you actually want your stuff back you get word to your neighborhood’s boss, who puts word on the street that he wants to know who the burglar is, right now. Once they recover your stuff for you, the burglar is summarily punished — probably by shooting him in the leg. Yes, really — at least according to the guide, and I’m pretty sure he was serious. And as far as we understand, the police stay out of it.

Could we have learned this from books or online searches? Almost certainly. Would I have known to look for such information? Nope: but by being there and hiring a local to show us the reality of Belfast, he was able to tell us first hand the things he thought were important for us to understand.

Also the Catholic side: note the house’s backyard is enclosed to keep children playing there safe from anything coming over from the other side (the guide pointed out). And I’m reminded that indeed there is a little graffiti on the wall, but I never saw any on a mural. (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

While we were on the Catholic side of the city, I remarked that I thought it was pretty amazing that there was no graffiti on the walls, defacing the murals painted to memorialize various figures involved not just in The Troubles, but in other social conflicts around the world; for instance, he specifically pointed out one honoring Nelson Mandella. The guide gave me an interesting smile in response to my observation, but I didn’t know what that meant until we crossed to the Protestant side.

There, the walls were covered with graffiti. One section in particular is traditionally where outsiders leave messages, and as we were standing and looking at it while he rattled off his information, he held up several markers in case we wanted to leave our own messages. I declined, telling him we don’t have standing to take sides in a fight we’re only barely starting to understand. In return, he gave me a huge grin: he doesn’t think outsiders should weigh in either, but he was open-minded enough to give us the option without expressing any bias either way, only revealing his thoughts after I made my choice.

Writers have long understood the benefit of travel to their creativity. Hemingway clearly drew inspiration for his work from travel to Spain and France. Mark Twain wrote in his travelogue Innocents Abroad that travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

So why does it help increase creativity? Back to Columbia Business School Prof. Adam Galinsky. “Foreign experiences,” he says, “increase both cognitive flexibility, and depth and
integrativeness of thought — the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.” Yeah, a lot of academic language, but you get the idea.

Dr. Galinsky has done multiple studies into this relationship, and makes it clear that just visiting and looking at the sights, and then going to a familiar hotel to eat familiar food isn’t enough: you have to engage in the local culture, interact with local people. “The key, critical process,” Galinsky says, “is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment.”

In fact that creative boost goes both ways. Researchers from Israel’s Tel Aviv University found that people who “believe that racial groups have fixed underlying essences” or “essentialist views” — did significantly worse on creative tests than people with more open minds. “This categorical mindset,” they concluded, “induces a habitual closed-mindedness that transcends the social domain and hampers creativity.”

Happily, I as an introvert have an extroverted wife who helps make social interaction on trips easier for me to accomplish: she quickly gains rapport with the locals and hauls me along in the conversation so I benefit from it all. You probably remember she’s a high performance coach. She argues that travel gets you out of your regular environment — it interrupts your regular routine and makes you more open to new ideas. Or, the way she puts it, opens you up to transformation, especially if you have an experienced coach with you to help leverage the experiences, and she’s all about facilitating transformation. The novelty of new situations, different sights and smells, even riding on a bus on the “wrong” side of the road is stimulating to your brain, and it focuses more. That, in turn, improves cognition and helps reactivate the pathways that provides feelings of reward and accomplishment, and reduces the tendency to take things for granted.

Having to deal with different money, hotels, duvets instead of sheets or vice versa, or keep up with different languages or even accents exercises your mind, keeping you on your toes to keep up — which benefits neuroplasticity that lasts long beyond your arrival back home. And just getting a break from your day-to-day work and chores reduces stress and increases relaxation, which is of obvious benefit.

So let me tie in my own experience with this. I graduated early from high school, and then went on a six-week trip with a large group of teens around my age. We started with two weeks of study at the University of St. Andrews — my first trip to Scotland — and then went on a wide-ranging tour of not just the usual suspects of London, Paris, and Rome, but also to Tunisia on the Mediterranean coast of Africa. So consider that I’m a white guy from a middle-class American family who hasn’t seen much of the world, and I was thrust into the most foreign environment possible: not just the desert but a place where I couldn’t even figure out the very basics of what the signs said. A large part of English comes from other languages, but not a lot from Arabic: even the shape of the letters was bizarre to me.

And dropping that pretty privileged white kid into a ghetto even for an hour was mind-blowing to me at that age: children begging in the street, and the only English they knew was to say, when they thrust out their hand hoping for a coin, “Rich American! Rich American!” It didn’t matter how much we had to save up to go on that trip, compared to them we certainly were rich: we sure didn’t have to beg in the streets for food. So you think maybe I came home from that trip with some new pathways in my brain, an ever-so-slightly widened view of the world? You bet I did.

But don’t get all worried that such experiences change you so much that your friends and family won’t know or understand you anymore. Just the opposite is true, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California. Cross-cultural immersion strengthens your sense of self. “What a lot of psychological research has shown,” she says, “is that the ability to engage with people from different backgrounds than yourself, and the ability to get out of your own social comfort zone, is helping you to build a strong and acculturated sense of your own self. Our ability to differentiate our own beliefs and values … is tied up in the richness of the cultural experiences that we have had.”

Dr. Galinsky discovered this too. “We found that when people had experiences traveling to other countries,” he says, “it increased what’s called generalized trust, or their general faith in humanity. When we engage in other cultures, we start to have experience with different people and recognize that most people treat you in similar ways. That produces an increase in trust.”

And isn’t getting an understanding of people and finding out they’re a lot like us a lot better than the abject fear that isolation and xenophobia engenders? It sure has helped my life! And yeah, I work hard for my money, and I get that not everyone can afford travel. When I was a kid, I learned my father had a “travel account” that when he had extra cash, he put some of it there because he wanted to travel. He took us kids on trips around the U.S.: you don’t have to go to a foreign country to hear different accents and eat different kinds of food! You can certainly start small. My wife lived in Oklahoma for awhile, and loves to tell the story of, as she put it, an Okie and a Bostonian trying to have a conversation, and they couldn’t understand each other! But then, the distance from Oklahoma City to Boston is about 1,600 miles, which is roughly the entire width of Europe, and they fit 44 countries into that.

So yes: all travel outside familiar areas helps expand your mind, and the benefits do accumulate. Consider this: assuming you’re not retired, would your boss be more likely to promote someone who is more creative, better at problem solving, more resilient, more open-minded — or a co-worker who has the same education and years of job experience you have, but none of the benefits of travel experience? The answer should be rather obvious to you. But even if you are retired (or self-employed like me), the professional benefits plus the personal advantages really should make the idea of travel a no-brainer.

My wife is going to continue to take trips to other countries with clients who want to have these kinds of experiences and creativity boosts, and especially if they want her help in leveraging that into life transformation, such as switching careers or moving into retirement, so get in touch if that’s something you want in on. Because of my own love-hate relationship with travel, I won’t always be going with her, so she’ll have room. You could say she has a love-love relationship with travel!

Anyway, it’s all something to think about.

You can comment on this episode on its Show Page, thisistrue.com/podcast31.

I’m Randy Cassingham …and I’ll talk at you later.

3 Comments on “031: Boosting Creativity the Easy Way

  1. I couldn’t agree more with all the points made in this blog. As a child living in Minnesota, I felt deprived at not being able to travel outside the state, as some of my friends did (to Florida in the winter), though I have a vivid recollection of getting out of Minneapolis and spending a week on the shores of Lake Superior, which at the time seemed incredibly different.

    Later we moved to Tucson, which in itself was very different from Minnesota (from the Land of 10,000 Lakes to that of 10 million cactus!). And for the first time we could briefly visit another country, Sonora Mexico. To be sure, only as day-tripping tourists to go shopping and get the feel of Nogales, Mexico, but it was fun and different.

    In high school I studied German, and my senior year we hosted a visiting foreign student from Munich for a year, which set up a number of things in the future. In college and grad school I became a historian of music and finally managed my first trip to Europe — happily for an entire year of dissertation research — with my travel-experienced wife and a year old son. We spent most of the year in Italy (I’d studied both Italian and French by then, though I was reasonably fluent only in German; my Italian improved massively during the year as I made friends with local university students — we took coffee breaks and lunch together and arranged to meet daily for the train ride from our home towns to the archive where we were doing our research. That was where I especially realized and appreciated the similarities of people who at first seemed culturally very different. Our language and religion and background was very different, yet we all took pleasure in mutual friendship, learning many things about one another (they asked me if the Sheriff of Tucson still rode down the streets on horseback with a 10-gallon hat brandishing a six-shooter!).

    During that year we visited friends in England, a cousin in Holland, sites in France, and (several times) my German exchange-student “sister” in Munich. The taste for travel was definitely established.

    That was 50 years ago. Since then we returned to Europe many times, for research, conferences, and pleasure travel. Later on we expanded our horizons. During these years we have visited every continent, including a very powerful visit to a college classmate in Malawi who had founded an organization to support the education of AIDS orphans in Malawi, and visits to our son (who was with us in Italy as a one-year-old and who now lives in Singapore with a Chinese-Singaporean wife and works on education projects in Singapore, Malaysia, and China. For our 50th anniversary we made 4 trips to places in the world we had never visited before — and had the experience of losing my passport in Athens, only to learn, just as I was about to pay for an emergency replacement at the American embassy, that someone had turned it in at the main Metro station! (Talk about a good feeling concerning complete strangers!)

    Last December, we took our most exotic trip yet, a cruise to the Antarctic peninsula. Like most of the other people on the cruise, we were experienced travelers visiting our “final” continent, eager to experience the place and a wonderful series of specialists’ lecture about the geography, climate, ocean water (temperature and changing acidity), different penguins species, elephant seals, whales, krill, icebergs and much, much more.

    We are now in our mid-70s, but we continue to plan more trips both to learn about the earth itself and especially about the people and their cultures. Clearly we have organized our lives (and our income) largely to make this kind of life possible, but we don’t regret a minute of it.

  2. Fabulous episode!

    I was very young when I joined IBM, but I soon learned that vacations were often deferred by, “could you please delay your vacation until this problem gets solved.” (In reality, it meant, “until you solve this problem.” Which I was, apparently, the only one in the company who could do that. There may have been times when that was actually true.)

    The best way to respond was, “but I have already bought my airplane tickets.”

    So I DID get to go to the Mexican Grand Prix, which was right in Mexico City at that time. (I took public transit to the race!) My favorite moment from the trip was when an American tourist approached me and asked if I spoke English. OK, I hadn’t shaved since the start of the trip, and I was wearing a poncho, so he was forgiven.

    Since then I have travelled to England, Vienna, The Bahamas and several trips to China. Also most Canadian provinces and many American states.

  3. There are some excellent thoughts and observations here, but travel is not necessarily the only way. As an avid reader, I feel compelled to point out that we can get some of the same benefits by reading, especially various forms of fiction. I’m sure experiencing a different setting or culture in person will do a better job of engaging you and make the impact that much greater. If, however, you don’t have the time or money to travel then try a library book, especially one you would not normally choose. Reading about a different culture may have less effect than experiencing it first hand but it is much better than staying stuck in the same rut.

    Totally agree, even though that’s beyond the scope of the content here, which was to look specifically at the benefits of travel, not to suggest that’s the only way to get benefit. -rc

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