Of course there’s a cost. Travel is an education, but how and where you travel means you do have to make the time, you do have to have the means, and you must seize an opportunity to do it.
What do you get for that investment? The answer is both simple and complicated. Travel will change you, and it will do it for the better. Practically anyone who has done some travel will vouch for that, especially if they got off the beaten track. And so will the social scientists who study what those changes actually are, and what they help you to learn.
Time spent in a foreign country heightens the intensity of your sensory experience and it challenges you to adapt quickly to your surroundings, and this all drives more flexible thinking and the ability to connect different ideas together, and it makes you a more complex and creative thinker, say those who have actually looked at the way travel can literally rewire your brain.
Those are all critical skills for people who are managers and leaders, says Columbia School of Business professor Adam Galinsky who, with American researchers at other universities, has spent the last 15 years doing research into how travel — the kind that immerses you in other cultures — helps develop critical skills for self-improvement.
Galinsky got interested in the subject of travel’s effects several years ago, after being asked to give a lecture to Columbia business students who were headed offshore to look at various aspects of the economy or culture they were visiting. He wondered if the students’ travels might boost their business skills, and in particular how the experience might enhance their ability to think more creatively.
That led to a series of studies looking at how time spent abroad can literally change not just what you think about, but how you think.
To be clear, though, this is not about your routine winter trip to a hotspot.
“It’s about depth of learning and insights,” Galinsky says. “If you spend seven days in Hawaii and sit on the beach and drink Mai Tais, you’ll come back relaxed, but you’re not going to benefit that much.”
But spend those seven days off the beaten track somewhere in Hawaii, going where you can actually see how people go about their day-to-day lives there, and learning about Hawaiian culture, and you’re bound to bring back a bunch of new ideas and insights, he says.
It’s not necessarily the amount of time you’re away, but the deeper engagement and immersion in another culture that makes the difference.
One area his research has looked at is whether and how travel proves beneficial for those in positions of leadership and management. What those studies found was that team coaches and people managers with the most experience abroad tend to be rated higher by their employees, and there’s kind of an obvious reason for it, he says. When you spend time in a different culture, of necessity you learn to express yourself more clearly, and you learn how to engage with people of other cultures.
“We’ve shown that people who spent more time abroad and lived in more countries were better communicators,” he says. “This is particularly strong when the group that they’re leading is more diverse.”
Travel to a diversity of places in the world builds your understanding of cultural differences because you see and compare different norms, manners and behaviours. For instance, food left on a plate signals one thing to your hosts in one country and something entirely opposite in another, he says. He learned that years ago from his own travels.
“I lived with a family in Indonesia and there it was rude to leave any food on your plate. But in China it’s rude to finish it. Leaving a little means you have had enough to eat.”
Knowing more about food behaviour as well as what is actually consumed around the world, is obviously going to be interesting and valuable for farmers, he adds. You can learn a lot just by seeing what the consumer sees.
“My wife loves to visit supermarkets in countries we visit,” he says.
Through a farmer’s eyes
Red Deer County, Alta. farmer Matt Hamill had an entirely different experience with travel, but it’s had a lasting impact on him, too. Hamill was a 2017 Nuffield Scholar participating in the global learning program that stipulates all participants spend a large part of the experience travelling to other countries. He visited New Zealand, Australia and Brazil while pursuing his studies in best practices in the barley value chain. He describes it as a foray into a world of ideas, adding all his conversations with farmers and industry people he met ultimately helped when he returned home with the start-up of his family’s on-farm malt house Red Shed Malting they operate today. He received incredible advice and direction during his travels, he says.
“There are so many smart people out there,” says Hamill. “I did that Nuffield trip very early on in the life of Red Shed Malting. You realize how much you don’t know about everything. And you don’t know what you don’t know and it opens your eyes to it. Still, I only scratched the surface.”
He vows to make time to travel again someday — when he can.
Similarly, when he spent a couple of weeks in India early last spring, Will Bergmann kept off the tourist routes. Instead, the Glenlea, Man. farmer travelled with an educational tour group from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank into remote rural areas of eastern India. They were there to see agriculture projects and meet local farmers,
Bergmann vividly recalls those visits. They sat on sacks of rice in a tiny house, listening via translators to families talk about their farms and their lives, their struggles and aspirations. The conversations have replayed often in his mind, he says. So does the sight of their small children playing nearby and scrambling in and out of parents’ laps.
“They just want a better life with their kids,” he says. “There’s so many things that connect us. Food connects us in so many ways.”
Bergmann had jumped at the chance to go. His family has long participated in growing projects that fundraise for the CFGB and this was a chance to see with his own eyes how those projects are making a difference.
But it’s not the first time he’s travelled to a far-off place, and as COVID-19 restrictions ease up and global restrictions on border crossings are lifted, he certainly hopes it won’t be his last.
He doesn’t call it wanderlust, but he’s a bit of an adventurer and has always preferred to go where the tourists don’t. His parents took him on overseas trips as a youngster and he knew from an early age how travel opened the mind to new things.
This most recent time in India, says Bergmann, was a way of experiencing food in different ways.
“Travelling mixed with eating and meeting other farmers using different food sources, you just start to appreciate things differently. How has it changed me on the farm? … I really truly think about things differently,” he says.
Saskatchewan agrologist Rick Block describes an even more intense experience spent outside Canada. Between 2010 and 2014 he and his wife Jacquie and their two children lived in Chiapas, Mexico, during a posting with Mennonite Central Committee. Their kids were young but they felt this was the right time in their lives to do this. The couple today are Canadian Foodgrains Bank regional representatives for Saskatchewan.
“We both felt, from the perspective of our own growth, whether that was spiritual, or awareness for the family of the larger world, a desire to do something that was international in nature, and to do something that would be at the heart level where we could serve,” he says of the decision to commit four years of their lives to living outside Canada.
Looking back at the experience, he recalls it as an extraordinary period of their lives. They worked and lived right beside Mexican farmers and their families, and by learning to speak Spanish were able to get to know people well. He saw firsthand how ingenious and resilient they were as farmers, and the depth and richness of their community life.
The time away deepened and enriched their own lives in countless ways, says Block who echoes the African proverb that “travel teaches you how to see” as he describes how the trip changed them.
“When we came back Jacquie and I felt like we had a new set of lenses with which we see our own culture and our own environment,” he says.
“Being there as a family, being there for an extended time period, and being vulnerable, for example, needing to ask for help, to borrow tools, asking about recipes and food prep and travel logistics… the whole gamut of daily living, those were probably the most important aspects that helped build trusted relationships and allowed for mutual learning, appreciation, personal growth,” he says. Those are also the positive contributions coming from the partnerships that exist between international development organizations like MCC and their local partners, he adds.
The bottom line is that being immersed more intimately in another culture awakens your sense of curiosity, Galinsky says. This is important because it is the curious among us who tend to ask more thoughtful questions and think more deeply.
As a result, they experiment more, and they also excel at looking at things from different angles, so they become better problem-solvers.
Travel can be pretty overwhelming at times but you learn to “see through someone else’s eyes,” says Galinsky. “It also just makes you become aware that there’s not just one way to think about things.”
Back on the farm
Bergmann says his brief but intense stint in India broadened his perspective appreciably — and most definitely reinforced what he and his wife Jen are doing as farmers. The couple have a grain and oilseed farm south of Winnipeg and are part-owners of two farm-to-table restaurants in downtown Winnipeg.
Bergmann also devotes considerable time to social media storytelling and agricultural advocacy. His travels help him to bring more balance to those online conversations, he says. This most recent trip most definitely renewed his sense of purpose as a farmer.
“It absolutely reinforced what we do. It can totally renew a passion for what you do here at home.”
He could tell you a whole lot more about his time away, and so could Block and Hamill. A few anecdotes shared in a brief article in no way do justice to what travel did for them.
Bergmann says he’d tell anyone they’ve got to go and experience some for yourself. But get off off the beaten path, he says.
He’s not knocking the “all-inclusive,” he says, but if you do something else besides the package holiday, you’ll get so much more out of it.
“I think lots of farmers go on trips but what I would say is get outside your comfort zone,” he says. “Get off the beaten track and experience not just what all the tourists experience, but the real life and real things happening in those countries.”