9th January 2019

Not all those who wander are lost – how travel can give you a shot of inspiration

It’s a funny thing, travel – it can bring out the best and the worst in people. Mark Twain saw travel as “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” – all best avoided in business – but while it can broaden the mind, sometimes travel just broadens the mouth. For many, in the age of Instagram, it’s all about being seen, rather than about seeing.

Still, beyond the photo filters and bucket lists, there are valuable, eye-opening benefits to seeing the world. Whether you’re actively hunting inspiration, or you’re just trying to shift focus for a while, travel can do strange, wonderful and rewarding things.

There’s a world out there

First, travel provides perspectives other than your own. As obvious as that sounds, the entrepreneurial mind-set tends towards single-mindedness and perfectionism. But it’s important to remember that whatever product or service you provide, you’re selling it to someone else, not to yourself. Perfection is in the eye of the purchaser.

Spending time in other countries, among different cultures can remind you that people view conventions, behaviours and ambitions in very different ways. HSBC ran a television campaign that saw a businessman inadvertently questioning his Chinese host’s hospitality, and a traveller giving a friendly gesture in the one South American country where it’s an insult.

These culture shock examples are clearly played for laughs, but whether it’s avoiding an inappropriate product name or understanding that purple could mean either royalty or mourning, travel encourages us to see other points of view.

Reconnecting with people

It also reminds us how to be human. It puts us in situations that need real communication with real people. That’s something we can lose sight of in business, especially as our success grows and we’re able to delegate the legwork to others. If you’re in France, you may be able to bumble along happily. If you’re in Cambodia, maybe not so much.

But still, you need to eat, drink and get where you’re headed. The raw experience of engaging with new people, probably in another language and in their back yard instead of ours, reminds us of the human element of communication, without hiding behind a screen.

Getting things wrong

Travelling can be scary – at some point you’ll make mistakes. It could be a face-palm moment of bad etiquette, or a mistranslation that you’ll laugh about months later. Or it could be something more bruising, like working out the exchange rate after paying for a ride and finding you’ve been royally ripped off.

On the upside, mistakes teach us lessons that we’re likely to remember and often, they’ll directly translate back to business. Mistakes also teach us about ourselves. When you travel, you’re as close as you’ll ever be to glimpsing the real you, how you react to putting your foot in it and how you recover. You’ll make mistakes in business too – what’s important is learning to take things in your stride.

Getting things right

In 1984, US toy company Hasbro was looking for ideas. In Japan, they stumbled across some obscure die-cast toys with a twist that seemed to have the potential to work back home. They bought the import rights, changed the name and added a backstory. More than 30 years later, ‘Transformers’ is one of the most successful toy and entertainment franchises the world has ever seen.

Also taking inspiration from the Far East, this time Taiwan, former investment banker Assad Khan went to New York on holiday and came across a strange new beverage at a small out-of-the-way café. He liked the idea, saw its potential and opened his first bubble tea restaurant in 2011 in Soho. He now owns the Bubbleology chain serving the UK, Europe the Middle East and the USA.

In giving you new perspectives, travel can help you to uncover ideas, ways of working and even products or services that may otherwise have passed you by. Importantly, travelling can shift you into a more creative mind-set, one in which you’re more receptive to new ideas and better equipped to spot them.

Legroom and headspace

While your choice of airline may restrict you on these, in an allegorical sense both are very important. Taking a break from day-to-day business is just as important as being hands on. Travelling allows you to remove yourself, physically and mentally from your normal routine – as long as you can switch your phone off, or at least check it less frequently.

That doesn’t mean you have to stop thinking about your business – on the contrary, it invites you to allow thoughts to occur naturally, instead of chasing them down. To use a holiday snaps analogy, switching your focus from a permanent close-up to a panorama can help you recalibrate and allow ideas to seep in when you’re not looking for them.

Bringing it all back home

We’ve looked at what travel can do to inspire you, but what about your clients? What about the things you can take away that go above and beyond your own benefit? It’s worth thinking about the power of travel to give you experiences and insight that you can pass on to your audience, not just in the products or services you provide, but also in the way you connect with them.

Whether you’re pitching a product or building a blog, understanding how people think and what they want is essential. The more diverse the human contact you have, the more you’ll be creatively inspired. The more places and circumstances in which you find yourself communicating, the more well rounded your ability to engage will be. The more well travelled you are, the greater range of needs you’re likely to understand and be able to fix, because you’ve literally been there yourself.

Context – you are here

Ultimately what travel gives you is context – a sense of where you fit in the world. Gustav Flaubert said “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Tiny it may be, but we’re here nonetheless and we’re a part of the world’s successes as well as its problems.

As the world faces up to natural challenges that don’t respect borders, it’s never been more important to understand the bigger picture. This month the Ocean Cleanup project began trials in San Francisco Bay to develop a technology that could tackle the world’s plastic-filled oceans. An appreciation of the world’s challenges and opportunities can be good for business, good for understanding and good for the soul.

Leave only footprints, take only photos

And tips… it would seem odd to end a travel-themed blog without some top tips, so here are mine.

Do your research – yes, check Skyscanner and Airbnb, but do some deeper homework into destinations that fit with your ambitions or could open new opportunities.

Connect with people – discuss things. Ask questions. Make mistakes. Whenever you can, not just when you absolutely have to.

Look, listen, learn – then write it down – In another post I talked about journaling as part of a morning routine. It’s also a great way to record your travels.

Use your experience – build your new perspectives into business when you get home. “We’ve always done it that way” could be the most expensive words in business.

Make it fun – even if you’re travelling for business ideas, you’re still going abroad and it’s still an adventure. Getting excited about what you’re doing is the best way to get results.