Some situations bring out our creativity more than others; it often takes more creativity to figure out what to make for dinner with a limited set of ingredients, for example, than it does to take out the trash. Travel seems to be something that nearly always challenges my ingenuity, and I have often wondered if that was true for other people.
I spoke with Andy Eklund about this, figuring that he would know. Andy has worked in public relations and communications for more than 25 years, in the United States, Australia, Asia and the Middle East. According to the bio on his website, he’s spent 35,000 hours facilitating 6,000 workshops for 10,000 participants in 19 countries on 4 continents. He recently settled in the United States again, after living abroad for a decade.
The exchange that follows showcases his ability to synthesize ideas from seemingly disparate corners of an experience as well as some very interesting tips for applying the creative spirit to your next out-of-town adventure.
Creative Liberty: Tell us about your development as a facilitator in creativity, with an emphasis on how moving around the world influenced that.
Eklund: Travel has been a huge influence on my career as a creative director. One moment in particular sticks about over the others, in 1998, just after I got my first full-time job as a creative director for a global PR agency. I was asked to visit all of our offices in Asia over the course of six weeks, to teach all staff about creativity. I thought it would be an easy trip because I already honed a good presentation for our American offices. But the moment I stood up at my first workshop, in Beijing, I realized I was woefully unprepared.
First, the words essential to talking about creativity had no equivalent words in the languages of the local offices — words like creativity, idea, brainstorming, AHA!, inspiration, insight. Imagine trying to explain to someone how to ride a bike, but you can’t use the words bike, pedal, handlebars or seat. Second, none of these words had a simple or understandable definition. How would you define “an AHA moment” in ten words or less, if you can’t use any other word that also needs a definition? Even for something as simple as “idea,” there are nearly 500 definitions.
Those 20+ workshops drilled home a number of key lessons for me as a facilitator and creative director, but none more so than the idea (excuse the pun) that travel is the ultimate way to stretch your knowledge and experience. To this day, those workshops remind me of the famous quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
Why do you think travel is conducive to creative insight?
Travel is much like the process of creativity. Both begin with a destination, or a goal. Travelers, like brainstormers, tend to fall into two groups: planners and flyers.
One friend of mine is a planner. She immerses herself totally in everything she can get her hands on before she leaves, almost to the point of obsession about the destination. This deep knowledge allows her the freedom to make new or different decisions once she arrived. A second friend – the flyer – simply takes off. He’s jetting to his destination with nothing more than a ticket and a smile. This immersion by visceral experiences is how he prefers to be creative. Is one way right or wrong? No, and very often, a combination of both styles improves the travel, or the creativity.
Also, both travel and creativity thrive on curiosity in the spirit of discovery: of people, stimuli, other ideas). Both rely upon being flexible: adapting and honing ideas until they improve vs. being resourceful when something in the journey goes wrong, from simply getting lost to fixing mistakes..
Finally, both travel and creativity take time. Good adventures, as much as good ideas, shouldn’t be rushed.
How can people leverage travel experiences to generate ideas?
A few things come to mind.
First, I try very hard NOT to go to the same place(s) when I travel for either work or pleasure. One of my favorite adages is “Never the same road twice.” I stay at different hotels. Even if I return to a favorite city, I try to find places or events that I haven’t seen or experienced, like a different route or subway line or restaurant. I’ll try to find something new when I return a specific place – like the Sydney Opera House – just so I can learn or feel something new.
Turn every travel problem into an opportunity. A missed flight meant I re-routed through a different country that wasn’t on my itinerary. If I hadn’t been searching for medicine in Amsterdam, I wouldn’t have stumbled across a book I’ve been searching for 20 years. A traveling companion who cancelled on me at the last minute was an expensive fiasco, but then again, if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have met someone who’s become a close friend. A drenching downpour and a city-wide blackout while searching for restaurant led to the single most romantic evening I’ve ever had in my life. In other words, creativity shouldn’t be killed by negativity any more than vacations shouldn’t be ruined by a twist of bad luck.
Last, experience something outside your comfort zone. Personally, I don’t understand the concept of traveling to a destination hoping that it’s like the place I left at home. I want to try something I haven’t done before, and if it’s something that challenges me, even better.
What did I learn drinking snake blood? Or crossing a rope bridge that I swore would fray the moment I was directly over the deepest part of the gorge? Or getting horribly lost in a city without a map or money? Most of the time, the only souvenir was a good story. But then again, life is nothing more than a long series of good stories involving interesting characters. And frankly, aren’t most good ideas based on the same thing?
You’re now settled in Chicago. How has moving back to the US influenced your creative thinking? Will you undertake journeys that relate to creativity in the future?
One of the nice things about living outside of the US after 10 years is that everything here is brand new again. I just got back from Washington DC for a business trip, and I used every free moment I could to see what’s changed. On the plane ride home, I started a short list of places I’d like to go see … and heck, why not tie those new places into prospects for new business?.
I can’t let go of international travel – it’s too addictive. Besides, I find my best ideas come when I give myself a significant challenge – mostly because I usually have to find creative ways to help me reach my impossible goal. I’ll turn 50 in a few months, and I’ve visited 61 countries so far. Before my body’s worn out (or my bank account depleted), I want to get to 100 countries. I’m excited about this goal I’ve set for myself – good travel always starts with a good idea.
Andy Eklund on the Web
All photos courtesy of Andy Eklund.