I first met Alison Gresik at the first World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon in 2011. At the time, she was preparing to start Operation Hejira, a year-long trip around the world with her husband and two children.
This by itself is pretty remarkable, but what I found most fascinating was her work as a creativity coach. More specifically, I wanted to learn about any insights she developed during her time abroad. She must have done something right because she is currently working on a book about her travels: Pilgrimage of Desire.
This interview will help you understand the principles of creativity enhancement, especially while you travel.
Travel as a Labyrinth
“One of the approaches I’ve taken to the creative process in life design is trying to put structures in place so that things happen automatically. So that you don’t have to remember or make yourself do something or exert effort or willpower. You let things happen naturally because of the way you’ve set up your life.”
Alison’s approach is backed by solid scientific research. If you understand the principles of habit formation and ego depletion, you’ll realize that using willpower to get things done is not always the correct way to do things.
I asked Alison how travel affected the type of labyrinth she created while living overseas.
“Travel can definitely be a kind of labyrinth because it shapes your experience and your days.
For example this past year we sold our house and most of our things and got on a plane to live in a different place. There is a built-in material simplicity. We didn’t do a lot of shopping because we couldn’t carry much with us. It’s easier to keep the house clean because we don’t have a lot of things. We’re constantly running into new people and places. It has meant that I’ve had a lot more time with my husband and my kids…everything from travel days to school holidays. When we were in Europe the kids weren’t in childcare so we had a lot of time to spend together.
There’s also that sort of mindfulness and cherishing each moment because you have the sense that you’re passing through the place. It really encourages me to pay attention and savor what’s going on.”
When you travel, you are creating a new set of structures that will change your habits and routines. In Alison’s case, the new travel-defined labyrinth allowed her to spend more time with her family and live more in the present.
But is all travel conducive to creative productivity?
Will travel always create a labyrinth that is productive and leads to the desired results? I don’t think so. “Travel made me more productive” is not a sufficient answer. We have to examine what exactly travel changes and what types of travel are conducive towards achieving your goals. Here’s what Alison had to say on the subject:
“If you travel slowly and spend a lot of time in one place and plan ahead…it can be more productive. We spent 8 months in Malaysia. We very quickly found a furnished apartment and we got the kids in school 5 mornings a week. It was beautiful and tropical. That’s what I envisioned. We ate out a lot because it was cheap and we had someone clean our apartment twice a week. That was the most relaxed and restful period of my life, certainly with kids. It really did feel productive.”
Based on Alison’s response, it’s pretty clear that the productivity did not come from travel. Travel just means moving from one place to another. Her productivity came from a) taking advantage of the lower cost of living, b) immersing herself in a beautiful environment, and c) freeing up her time. Other than physically moving her family to Malaysia, there was little travel involved during her time there. The travel that was there was the “slow” kind, the kind that looks very much like permanently moving to a place. A lot of this is taken away if you’re constantly traveling.
“When we were in Malaysia I was doing yoga everyday and writing my 750 words. I had built up these supportive rituals and the longer we were away from a stable place to stay I would say ‘Oh I don’t have time to do that.’ It really erodes my ability to focus and stay calm and be creative.”
That’s not to say there is zero advantage to traveling more quickly and moving from place to place. There’s something to be learned from the chaos of travel.
“Chaos is hard to navigate but it teaches you a lot about the routines you need to ground yourself. Chaos is also helpful for keeping you from getting into a rut but I also like to keep my chaos to a minimum level.”
I wrote before that travel is an excellent way to practice stoicism. The idea is that you can learn and grow from even the most frustrating situations you’ll encounter as a vagabond. In Alison’s case, she was able to use the chaos of travel to analyze which habits were essential to her wellbeing and her art. While she may not have gotten a ton of work done during the chaotic parts of travel, she learned what she needed to do great work.
Stimulation and Contrast
One of the primary attractions of travel is the novelty; weird foods, weird behaviors, beautiful scenery, and new relationships are what make travel so attractive for so many people.
All this novelty has a positive effect on your level of creativity. For artists, it is indispensable:
“The essence of art is taking raw materials like images, ideas, experiences, places, voices…and remixing them and connecting them in a way that says what you want to say about the world. Travel really increases the intake and variety of that raw material.”
Agreed. I asked Alison if she could give a specific example of some “raw material” she took in during her year abroad.
“Malaysia is a really interesting study in contrast. It’s a very multicultural country. There are Malaysian people and Chinese-Malay and Indian-Malay and lots of expats. So they celebrate just about every religious festival imaginable. There are these ancient temples and really modern urban build-ups.
I remember on a visa run to Thailand there was a McDonalds restaurant with a statue of Ronald McDonald and it was right next to a shrine; it was a juxtaposition of capitalism and religion.
It’s those images that really make you reconsider both elements [stimulation and contrast].”
While I’m not convinced Ronald McDonald isn’t a religious figure, it’s easy to see how these types of images can stimulate your mind. You have ideas and schemas about how the world works and your place in it, but when those become inconsistent with your environment, you start questioning a lot of things. Stimulation and Contrast + Questions = Creativity.
“When you leave, you start thinking about all these questions that you ignore when you’re home because you’re immersed in a life where everyone is doing the same thing. All of a sudden those questions become really highlighted. What is home? What does that mean? What kinds of relationships are important and how do I sustain those while I’m traveling. What’s the right mix of tranquility and disruption?
I think that’s where a lot of the book that I’m writing, Pilgrimage of Desire, came out because those questions were at the front of my mind and I needed some way to work through them and communicate what I found.”
The stimulation and contrast that travel brings inspired the memoir Alison is currently working on. I expect she’ll have as much success as Eat, Pray, Love.
- Travel has the potential to become a productive labyrinth, but it depends on the type of travel you do.
- Travel may not always be productive, but you can learn from the unproductive moments as well. Use chaos to discover what habits and routines are essential to you.
- Stimulation and contrast are innate qualities of travel. This will bring up questions that can enhance your creativity.
Thanks goes to Alison for the wonderful interview. If you’re an artist in a creative rut, make sure to check out her website!