Vagabonding: Lessons and Thank Yous from Traveling

A winter sky in Reykjavik, Iceland

First, a thank you to science. The researchers who have, by the scientific method, concluded that travel is indeed good for creativity. Pop the champagne! It’s not just the coincidence of people like Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and company who produced creative work while having well-stamped passports.

In 2009, William Maddux of the business school INSEAD and Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management, reported their results in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They subjected 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in the US to a creativity test called the Duncker candle problem. These students were given a candle, matches, and a box of drawing pins. They were then asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall such that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. Maddux and Galinsky found that 60% of students who had lived abroad solved the problem, while only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did so.

For the past eight years, I have lived abroad. I have moved countries and changed lives for a total of six times. It does not get any easier, for goodbyes are never something I look forward to. It does, however, get more routine. It is a cycle that I think will repeat itself ad nauseum for most of my adult life.

For me, it is important to use travel for creative purposes. It’s the only way I can justify the price of a plane ticket and rising rent; I must use that time to further my projects. And so I try to make each trip count, making sure I have more to show for my trip other than photos to be uploaded online. The professions I now claim are many—one can read scientist, journalist, editor, visual artist, poet, student, communications director, graphic and interaction designer in my increasingly eclectic resume. Perhaps because one word can mean a variety of things in different countries, I have long been wary of labels and instead choose to tell stories about the projects I have run. (An example of which is DrawHappy, which will be in the Learning section every Monday. Go draw!)

Naturally, a thank you to the cities. I can recall stories, experiences, mishaps, and projects in in every one of them. Manila, Barcelona, and New York—places I have lived long enough to call home—are all port cities. They have been among the intersections of migratory or trading routes of humanity. All have very diverse cultures and colorful histories. Each time I return, I find that many things have changed. The dissolving streets, weather, landmarks, and people have all, in their minuscule ways, contributed to my worldview and identity. Each city’s definition of beauty has given me the impetus to compare and contrast their sunsets, cloud formations, art, and architecture. It is difficult to be a traveler without reading and rereading Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities), Jorge Luis Borges (everything), and Sun Tzu (The Art of War) as though they would give me a refresher course on the world, as though they were operating manuals for a life on the road.

Third, thank you to the cities’ inhabitants, particularly those who have opened their hearts and homes to someone who occasionally did not speak their language or understand their ways. The first time I traveled, I was more acutely aware of how different they were from how I was raised, from the food to the accents, the government, and the customs. My notions of what was “right” and “acceptable” were gutted and destroyed. Each city and country has the same familiar struggles and questions about government, national identity, and race. The more I traveled, the more I realized that human beings are more similar than different. Today, some of my best friends include those whose communications with me have necessitated dictionaries and Google Translate. Language and culture stop becoming barriers and instead become bridges.

But thank you, too, to the ones who have made me feel like I was “The Other.” The ones who have made me feel ostracized and have made me uncomfortable. It has taught me endurance, humility, and patience. I think the best way to judge a person’s character is how he treats you when he underestimates you. It has taught me to be grateful for everything I have and accomplished, and to focus on the important things.

Thank you to the grants, schools, and organizations that have given me purpose. I always hit the ground running once the plane has landed in order to accomplish the things I promised the powers-that-be I would do. My most recent stint was to do my MFA in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts, which was made possible by a generous grant from Fulbright. I learned to work through bad weather, sickness, ungodly hours, and alternate time zones. To this day it’s difficult for me to be idle. Creative travel, especially those involving contracts, has taught me accountability, responsibility, and a heightened sense of time.

Thank you, too, for all the things that have gone wrong. When you are out of your comfort zone, the things you fear will go wrong often will. I have taken detours, lost friends, and given up significant things for the choices I have made. Everything becomes a tool for teaching me something, whether it’s something as small as an iffy Internet connection, or something more devastating as losing relationships. It has taught me to let go of material things, because many are just too darn hard to pack.

While I can’t say that traveling is constantly great and wonderful, I know that I have always been changed by it, and that I would never have reached this level of personal and professional growth had I chosen to be anchored in one place. Not all travelers are creative, and not all creative people are travelers. (And that’s ok.) But for me, traveling has taken me outside of myself and opened worlds I never knew existed. It has been kind so far; it has taught me that the world is my home.


Five Ways to be A Creative Traveler (Passport not always required)

1. Try something new everyday. It doesn’t need an expensive plane ticket to have the mindset of a traveler. Even the office that you have been walking into for the past ten years can be a venue for personal growth. Try a new spot to work in, a different flavor of cereal, or a new email password. The fact that your mind is jolted to the newness can trigger your creativity.

2. Learn a new language. Last March, the New York Times reported that people who know more than one language have been shown to be smarter. While I suppose multilingualism is inherent for most Filipinos, I guarantee your mind will be squeezed (in a good way) when you try a language that is far removed from what you usually know. Try Russian, Hebrew, German, Bisaya, or any language with an unfamiliar pattern. You will learn not just grammar and vocabulary, but also the culture of a people in that way.

3. Reserve at least 15 minutes of your day for a creative habit. I would strongly recommend using the same medium, such as writing, drawing, photography, etc. That way, if you look back at your work after a month, you would realize that these small multiples add up to an awesome project. Put them all on a blog and help inspire other people, too.

4. Read everything. Don’t limit yourself to a certain genre. If you like science fiction, read the occasional children’s book. If you read novels, make time for a biography. Books are the windows to the world—past, present, and future. The more possibilities you realize, the more you will break through creative blocks.

5. Have a conversation with a stranger. While you’re at it, don’t limit yourself to the same type of people you spend time with. Make friends with those whose daily routines are radically different from yours. If you are usually stuck in the office all day, have coffee with someone who is always on his feet and outdoors. If you have conservative beliefs, talk to someone whose worldview is the complete opposite. You will discover that there is so much more to life than the things you are accustomed to.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer Learning Section, page H4, on 6 August 2012, and on their online edition on 5 August 2012. 

  1. Hello fellow vagabonder. Wonderful post! I completely agree with your five ways. I try to do all of them – I just need to learn that second language now. – Rene

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