Imagine the following: you are an employee who needs to improve communication and problem solving skills, as well as become more creative and organized in your job. Yet, instead of organizing training hours and educational materials for you, the employer books some plane tickets in your name and sends you away to travel…
That sounds like a surprising employee development initiative, right? Yet, it could indeed make sense, as the popular knowledge suggests that travel can make you better at work by developing your professional skills.
A recent Forbes article argues that traveling can make one a more successful entrepreneur. Drawing on data from The Brightspark Edu-Travel Report, the author highlights that business leaders view student travel experiences as a competitive advantage in the future workplace. A similar notion comes from a Huffington Post article that looks into the possible benefits of travel. So what can travel experiences teach?
Thinking about the possible travel stress associated with complex logistics, delays, time pressures, unknown situations, ambiguous environments, and interacting with different people, travel can truly become a great ‘real life’ simulator and training field. When going abroad you need to plan, organize, and adapt to different situations. Moreover, to get around, find what is needed and obtain what is desired, travelers have to effectively communicate with appropriate awareness and sensitivity towards cross-cultural differences. Finally, when traveling with others the experience might also call for teamwork and leadership skills. Just think about what it takes to organize a group of four to go for dinner, given multiple options and different tastes.
The notion of benefits from being abroad and multicultural learning has also received some scientific support, which I have looked into in one of my earlier posts. Specifically, research by Maddux and colleagues (2008, 2010) found that multicultural learning facilitates flexibility of thoughts and ideas, and thus improves problem solving, boosts creativity, and helps to overcome the limitations of one’s existing knowledge and experiences. As the researchers conclude, all this results from the process of adaptation while living abroad. Given that even short-term travel might require adaptation, we might assume that the same adaptation mechanisms may underlie learning from travel. Yet, can any travel contribute to the development of professional and people skills?
I highly doubt so. I would rather suggest that the developmental aspects of travel depend on the travel aims and style. For example, most probably the need for adaptation during travel arises most when the traveler experiences genuine contact with the country and culture of visit. As such, the groups of charter tourists who generally travel on a pre-specified agenda with pre-organized logistics and familiar amenities would less likely be exposed to situations that would require actions ‘outside their comfort zone’. Moreover, these tourists might lack contact with locals overall, as they travel within groups of their co-nationals and might communicate only with local staff in tourist places. Therefore, going on an ‘all-inclusive’ vacation to Spain for example is most certainly not going to contribute to any development of the traveler. According to the cross-cultural literature (e.g. Ward et al., 2001) so-called ‘backpackers’ would be the group of travelers who will most likely come into genuine cross-cultural contact, with its respective challenges and learning opportunities. Why? Because usually backpacking tends to be longer in duration, and it means travelling on a tighter budget, which in turn involves local transport, local food, local contacts, and lots of unexpected challenges to sort out on the way. In other words, this would be the type of travel that counts most as a cross-cultural experience, that puts you really out there and makes you learn and change.
Therefore, even though the advice to travel for personal and professional development purposes sounds simple, not every move across borders will be enough. I would put it like this: Travel, but not only out of your home place, but also out of your comfort zone. With this specification in mind, I think Mark Twain put it nicely when he said the following: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime” (from Innocents abroad).
Leung, K.Y., Maddux, W.W., Galinsky, A.D., and Chiu, C.Y.(2008). Multicultural experience enhances creativity: The when and how. American Psychologist, 63 (3), 169-181.
Maddux, W.W., Adam, H., & Galinsky, A.D. (2010). When in Rome…learn why the Romans do what they do: How multicultural learning experiences enhance creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (6), 731-741.
Ward, C. A., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock. England: Routledge.