In an article for Forbes, contributor Brett Steenbarger wrote, "I’ve never achieved a creative insight in a routine setting.” As normal sounding as that sentence may be, it’s actually pretty profound. Fresh experiences cause us to create new thoughts, ideas and insights. I spent most of my time in college studying in the exact same position. The back corner table by the bookshelf in The Mudhouse in downtown Springfield, Missouri. It was my home away from home and made me feel comfortable, welcome and caffeinated.
The college period of my life was marked by a pretty heavy creative output. I wrote more words in that coffee shop than probably in all other coffee shops I’ve been to since. It was my routine spot for five years and to this day holds many fond memories. The problem is, the more I look back, the less creative that time seems.
Passport Stamps and Scrutiny
I received my first passport in 2007 and that little government issued booklet has been more of an idea creator than any amount of time I spent at The Mudhouse. The question is, why?
"While traveling, however, I’ve experienced many fresh perspectives and generated quite a few new ideas,” Steenbarger posits in the Forbes article. "The more unique the travel destination, such as the Alaska glacier, the more likely it’s been that I’ve arrived at important realizations."
The moment I stepped off my first trans-Atlantic flight in Birmingham, United Kingdom, every idea I had up until that point quickly faded. I was dutifully singled out for scrutiny by airport security. My ability to think on my feet was now imperative. This was post-9/11 England and forgetting to bring your destination address was obviously frowned upon. No phone, no address and pretty much no clue, I somehow talked myself out of a weird situation by claiming I was just a dumb American (at that point, true) who’d never been to England before.
Creativity as Necessity
I was traveling alone, having opted to book my own flight without the group I was meeting to save money. Growing up in Houston, now the most diverse US city, had given me a chance to experience lots of different cultures. This, however, was a whole new level. Steenberger writes that “creativity seems to be a function of fresh experiencing,” and that’s exactly what I had stumbled into. Next thing I know I was watching a new friend feed her child some type of lamb stew. Everything was different. It was raining outside, as usual, and my head needed rearranging.
Early on in my stay I found a tiny cafe at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham’s city centre. For the next month that little place became a haven of new ideas, conversations and thought. I had brought along a few books on philosophy and my mind was awash with new accents and world views. I visited a church for Iranian immigrants fleeing persecution in their home country. Every sinew inside me was pushed to its limit as a brand new reality unfolded in front of me.
At that little cafe, I wrote, read and believed in things that I never would have thought possible just one month earlier. My “fresh experiences” turned on sections of my brain that I didn’t even know existed. I was hopelessly addicted to travel and the world around me.
Finding Fresh Experiences
"We become better creative thinkers when we become more emotionally creative, and we become more emotionally creative when we actively engage the world in fresh ways,” writes Steenbarger. The problem that I have is finding fresh things in the city that I live in. Houston is the fourth largest city in America and has an overabundance of culture, arts and entertainment. It’s literally around every corner. But for me, I have trouble seeing any of it.
This city has been my home for a good number of years and each day it feels exactly the same. Kim and I take little trips and go out of our way to find adventure, but the city feels the same. I crave fresh experiences and for some reason, the only place I can find them is somewhere else.
That’s all well and good, but traveling can be pretty expensive and time-consuming when it isn’t your job. Just the other day I visited a piece of the Berlin Wall that is housed on the campus of Rice University. It’s been there since the 1990’s and yet I had never seen it. There’s a wide world right next to me and I can’t seem to stop looking up flights on Google Flights.
Wanderlust is a real thing, now I just need to learn how to translate that wanderlust closer to home for the in between times. After all, for the part-time traveler, the in between time is usually 90% of your life. For the sake of fresh experiences, creativity and happiness, I’ve got to open my eyes a little wider.
Those times at The Mudhouse really seemed creative at the moment, but now that I look back on it, all the end products looked the same. Angsty poetry, research papers and poorly structured song lyrics. The experience itself can't be discounted but the lack of exposure to the world left me a pretty shallow pool to fish from. The more I see the world, the more I am shaped and opened up to these fresh experiences. The creative output that comes from those times is definitely more interesting and inclusive. Steenbarger's right, "the ability to experience the world distinctively" will sharpen and enhance your worldview and your art.