I like writing and I like to travel; the length of time it took me to work out that travel writing was quite a good way of combining the two is therefore somewhat embarrassing. There’s also a certain inner conflict about the activity; travelling to special places and then telling the readers of a national newspaper or an international glossy magazine about it is bound, eventually, to make it a bit less special. It doesn’t make you popular, either; it’s generally seen as a way of getting free jollies in return for banging out a thousand words or so. Which is, to some extent, fair enough – it’s not what you’d call a difficult job.
But, thanks to an article in The Atlantic by Brent Crane which revealed an indisputable link between travel and creativity, it looks like what I thought of as my guilty secret has been part of the day job all along. The article quotes research by Columbia University’s Adam Galinsky (see Management Journal) in which he rated the work of leading fashion houses over eleven years of new collections (Adam Galinsky’s day job sounds quite fun, too). He then compared their ratings to the number of travel experiences noted by the same fashion houses’ creative directors. There was a clear correlation between their foreign travel and creative innovation; whether they are aware of it or not, the fashion designers’ exotic adventures have a more serious benefit than finding a darling new fabric pattern worn by the tribespeople of Sulawesi.
I’d urge you to read the article for yourself (see The Atlantic), but the argument goes that our neural pathways can be physically changed by new experiences; immersion in different cultures can significantly increase cognitive flexibility. Put simply, travel measurably boosts the ease and speed with which we can make new mental connections. It can change the way we see things. Which is quite handy, if your day job is thinking of ideas. (A week on a sunbed in Benidorm or even a catamaran in the Caribbean doesn’t count, by the way. That’s just a holiday.)
Travel writing doesn’t always pay well, but I’d probably do it for nothing and occasionally have. I’ve ridden over mountains, explored exotic islands and knocked back silly cocktails in ludicrously expensive hotels. I’ve flown to the Antarctic in a C130 and jumped into the Arctic Ocean from an icebreaker. My most-shared article is about an odd island in the Arabian Gulf that resembles an asteroid, with trees. (You can read a random selection of travel stuff at The Sponge Bag.)
Our agency has got bigger recently and sadly, the time I spend travelling has shrunk as the day job has grown. But now thanks to Adam Galinsky, Brent Crane and the fashion designers, there’s scientific proof that my secret indulgence has actually been making the ideas come a little more easily. So don’t tell the creative teams, but I’m booking a month away in a yurt. In Tadjikistan.