I hear a lot of people talk about the value of travel. They make it sound like a bunch of new perspectives are right outside your door. All you have to do is go outside and find them.
I’ve always thought this was kind of silly. Traveling somewhere doesn’t automatically mean that I'll meet interesting people or see the right places, let alone find new ideas. To believe otherwise would be naïve at best!
But for some reason, my brain goes into overdrive every time I hit the road. I get my best writing ideas. I make breakthroughs on creative projects where I was previously stalled for months.
I’ve recently been traveling a lot more for my modeling. I’m still new to it, but I noticed having a surplus of ideas during my San Francisco trip. And it also happened just a few weeks before when I was in New York City. Even though I was working up to twelve hour days back to back, I kept coming up with tons of interesting ideas. No matter how silly I thought the link between traveling and new ideas was, there had to be something to it.
Traveling changes everything. When I’m traveling for work, being on the road interrupts all of my routines. It changes where I sleep and when I brush my teeth. It changes what I eat and who I meet. And it changes what I do for work, and how I get there.
That’s where I think all of the new ideas stem from: not from seeing new places or meeting new people, but from changing my routines.
With that theory in mind, I started looking at my calendars and to do lists when I got home. Sure enough, I noticed a pattern. Whenever I do something novel, even when it makes me busier in the short term, I end up making mental breakthroughs. Every time I disrupted my routine, I started having new thoughts.
But I also noticed it only worked in very specific ways. “Novel” doesn’t mean “frivolous” or “fun.” Oftentimes, it’s the opposite of those things. A novel experience is something new and often uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve never felt, seen, or done before—good or bad. It takes me outside of my normal comfort zone. It’s only when something’s truly new and out of the ordinary that it forces my brain to think in different patterns.
Novel things can look surprising, too. They don’t have to be big or exotic. They just have to be new. For example, my most recent novel experience has been bench press. Everyone in my household has started weight lifting together twice a week.
Bench press is hard. More often than not, we fail during one of our sets. It happens so frequently, we’ve started joking that bench press is teaching us to embrace failure…if we could lift our arms afterwards to embrace anything.
But it’s true. I’ve learned more about coming to terms with failure in the past few days of lifting heavy objects than I have in years. And it’s only because I tried something novel.
So if you’re really stuck on a hard problem, try something new and see if it unsticks. Try anything. Lift weights for the first time. Travel. Start a new hobby. Something novel just might give you the breakthrough you’re looking for.