Traveling is as important to a person’s intellectual growth as it ever has been. The best way to become “smarter” is not to memorize facts or do repetitive processes like our school systems teach. Machines will replace us in repetitive processes eventually anyway. The best way to grow wiser is to broaden our knowledge of the world in settings that challenge preconceived notions and encourage us to think and act. Few things provide that type of setting better than traveling.
In our society, the internet and social media offer an extremely false sense of experience and exposure. We face mental distractions and pressures that prior generations could not imagine, making experiential and active learning all the more important. Individual learning is useful, but it cannot approach the value gained while physically and mentally traveling “out there.”
By “travel,” I mean the process of moving one’s body and mind to explore locations where we have never been before. My definition of traveling necessitates moving our gluteus maxima from one physical location to another and involves active observation and thinking about the environment (eyes glued to a smartphone doesn’t count).
Travel makes us smarter for several reasons.
Exposure to new ways of thinking: No two cultures are the same (though all cultures seem to share the trait that their culture is superior to others). Traveling involves interacting with people who think differently from us and broadens our understanding of what is possible. When we soak in different cultures while traveling, we open mental pathways to new options and ideas. This is at the heart of intelligent creativity and innovation. There are few better ways to pollinate our minds with new ideas than to travel to places where we’ve never been.
Mental flexibility: Also at the center of creativity and innovation is mental flexibility. In order to leverage new ways of thinking, we must have the flexibility to bring together seemingly different things and to apply different approaches in established settings. Traveling always brings the unexpected. From logistical bumps and cultural mishaps, to surprising opportunities and sudden deviations; traveling forces us to adjust to circumstances outside of our control. This is great practice for the same skills required for working creatively with others: a balance of good planning and “seat-of-the-pant” adjustments and decision-making.
Communication: Countless good ideas have died because they were not communicated or shared effectively. By improving our communication, we improve our ability to share (and sell) those brilliant ideas brimming in our heads. Traveling requires us to communicate with people from different languages and cultures. This is excellent preparation for conveying our goals and vision to other people who haven’t spent countless hours inside our thinking. We become smarter when we practice communicating to others in ways that relate.
Now here’s an important distinction: travel definitely does not have to be international.
Want to know what two different worlds feel like? Go from Williamsburg to downtown Manhattan. Or from downtown Manhattan to the Bronx. Or from New York City to rural Appalachia. Or from rural Appalachia to Silicon Valley…
Travel requires walking and exploring new places. But the walking part is critical. Walking is really, really, really healthy, and allows you to become immersed in a place in a way that nothing else can. Walking gives you a chance to observe the daily lives of individuals and – if your eyes are open – to learn about the diverse ways human beings perceive every situation.
Not everyone has the same budget, support, or opportunities to travel abroad or to far-flung places. But you can still “travel” to the other side of town, the other corner of the county, or to the next city over. Whatever works for your circumstances. As long as you’re physically moving to places that broaden your view of the world and challenge your ways of thinking, you are traveling. And travel makes us smarter. So travel…however you can.
Brad currently lives in New York city, but he's a country boy at heart. He's been lucky enough to do a ton of traveling in college at the University of North Carolina, and never shook the bug. He grew up in North Carolina and has slowly moved his way north: Chapel Hill, DC area for work in consulting and software product management, Baltimore for grad school, and now NYC for work in a healthcare rotational program with Siemens focused on strategy, product development, and organizational culture change. His current work with Siemens involves extensive international travel and he continues to travel in his personal time as much as he can. Read more about his experiences here.