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Vagabonding lessons and thank-yous

/ 07:46 PM August 05, 2012

First, a thank you to science. The researchers who have, by scientific method, concluded that travel is indeed good for creativity. Pop the champagne! It’s not a coincidence that people like Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and company produced creative work while having well-stamped passports.

In 2009, William Maddux of the business school INSEAD and Adam Galinsky of Kellogg School of Management reported their results in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They subjected 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in the US to a creativity test called the Duncker candle problem.

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These students were given matches, a candle and a box of drawing pins. They were then asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall such that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. Maddux and Galinsky found that 60 percent of students who had lived abroad solved the problem, while only 42 percent of those who had not lived abroad did so.

Six moves

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For the past eight years, I have been living abroad. I have moved countries and changed lives for a total of six times. It is a cycle that I think will repeat itself ad nauseam for most of my adult life.

For me, it is important to use travel for creative purposes. It’s the only way I can justify the price of a plane ticket and rising rent; I must use that time to further my projects. And so I try to make each trip count, making sure I have more to show for my trip other than photos to be uploaded online.

Naturally, a thank you to the cities. I can recall stories, experiences, mishaps and projects in every one of them. Manila, Barcelona and New York—places I have lived long enough to call home—are all port cities. All have very diverse cultures and colorful histories.

Each time I return, I find that many things have changed. The dissolving streets, weather, landmarks and people have all, in their minuscule ways, contributed to my worldview and identity. Each city’s definition of beauty has given me the impetus to compare and contrast their sunsets, cloud formations, art and architecture.

It is difficult to be a traveler without reading and rereading Italo Calvino (“Invisible Cities”), Jorge Luis Borges (everything) and Sun Tzu (“The Art of War”) as though they would give me a refresher course on the world, as though they were operating manuals for a life on the road.

Third, thank you to the cities’ inhabitants, particularly those who have opened their hearts and homes to someone who occasionally did not speak their language or understand their ways.

Familiar problems

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The first time I traveled, I was more acutely aware of how different they were from how I was raised, from the food to the accents, the government and the customs. My notions of what was “right” and “acceptable” were gutted and destroyed. Each city and country has the same familiar problems about government, national identity and race.

The more I traveled, the more I realized that human beings are more similar than different. Today, some of my best friends include those whose communications with me have required dictionaries and Google Translate. Language and culture stop becoming barriers and instead become bridges.

But thank you, too, to those who made me feel like I was “The Other.” Those who made me feel ostracized and have made me uncomfortable. They have taught me endurance, humility and patience. I think the best way to judge a person’s character is how he treats you when he underestimates you.

Thank you to the grants, schools and organizations that have given me purpose. I always hit the ground running once the plane has landed in order to do the things I promised I would do. To this day it’s difficult for me to be idle. Creative travel (especially those involving contracts) has taught me accountability, responsibility and a heightened sense of time.

Thank you, too, for all the things that have gone wrong. When you are out of your comfort zone, the things you fear will go wrong often will. I have taken detours, lost friends and given up significant things for the choices I have made. Everything becomes a tool for teaching me something, whether it’s something as small as an iffy Internet connection, or something more devastating as losing relationships. I’ve learned to let go of material things because many are just too darn hard to pack.

While I can’t say that traveling is constantly great and wonderful, I know that I’ve always been changed by it, and that I would never have reached this level of personal and professional growth had I chosen to be anchored in one place.

Traveling has taken me outside of myself and opened worlds I never knew existed. It has been kind so far; it has taught me that the world is my home.

E-mail [email protected] or tweet @catherineyoung.

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