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Don't Be an Idiot: Travel!

An idiot, traveling

I’m an idiot.

It’s true. We’re all idiots at one point or another in our lives. But it doesn’t have to always be that way. We each have a responsibility to defeat our inner idiots and travel can be an important tool in that fight.

It’s interesting to note that “idio,” the root of “idiot,” means personal or separateness. The original Greek use of idiot meant a commoner or layperson, not a stupid person as we tend to use it today. An idiot was focused inward on the self and was ignorant of things outside their immediate surroundings. This ignorance stemmed from a simple lack of experience in the wider world. So, an idiot is merely uninformed, not unintelligent. Understanding someone’s ignorance of the world as a simple lack of experience can make that ignorance more understandable, and generate a feeling of empathy rather than irritation.

Some very highly opinionated, intelligent people make judgments using what they will tell you is common sense. They’ve “thought things through” and “weighed the facts” before “coming to a conclusion.” Look closer, however, and you’ll see a mishmash of ideology, preconceived notions, and confirmation bias - all the necessary components of wishful thinking. People like this can come across as sincere and thoughtful, which they may actually be, but the thoughts they use to arrive at their conclusions are predetermined by their conscious and subconscious motivations, framing, and experience, so their conclusions are, many times, wrong.

The culprit here is not a lack of knowledge about the world, but a lack of curiosity about the world. A study led by David Kahan of Yale University testing people’s “science curiosity” and “science knowledge” found that highly curious people were more likely to seek out information contradicting their current understandings, regardless of how knowledgeable they were about science. This cut across politics - whether you considered yourself a conservative Republican or liberal Democrat, curiosity was a marker for a better understanding of the world (and even reduced political partisanship, which, while fascinating, is an issue for another day).

Kahan makes some good points, and the study fits nicely with other recent findings in neuroscience about the way we think. Curiosity may be an innate urge for young humans, but our society tends to discourage it as we get older. Peer pressure represses our eagerness to raise a hand in class and ask questions about something we’re keen to understand. We begin to perceive that exposing our ignorance to others makes us seem stupid instead of just “idiotic” in the less-derogatory sense I described above. We learn to worry about our personal status within our tribe and, in order to protect that status, we build hardened fortresses around our deepest-held beliefs. Neuroscience shows that neural pathways in the brain become rutted too. We think the same thoughts over and over, cementing them so that they become a subconscious, default way of thinking and reacting to the world.

All of this conspires to rob us of our inborn curiosity. As we get older, learning how to retain and enhance our natural curiosity becomes the antidote for idiocy. That’s easier said than done, but it helps to begin by simply trying to be curious. That is, seek out things that you’re either ignorant about or contradict what you think already and engage with them, even if you find them boring or offensive at first. Curiosity is loving to learn and cultivating a sense of wonder about the world, so just the act of stopping once in a while to seek out and appreciate new things is a good start.

Travel requires that we leave our comfortable mental and physical routines behind. As a tool, it’s good for placing new people, landscapes, experiences, and foods in our way. Once those new things are in front of us, we need to be prepared to learn from them. The first step in that process is to learn how to monitor and adjust our immediate reactions. In his book Thinking: Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychologist and writer, notes that “fast” thinking is the kind that helps us stay alive, reacting to potentially dangerous situations without slowing down to use reason. This is very important to keep us from being eaten by a lion or run over by a bus.

However, we are also primed to react to many new things and experiences with the same, fast thinking. This can result in feeling suspicious or wary and even make us turn away from them altogether. This is where “slow” thinking comes in. If we can learn to acknowledge our immediate reactions (fast thinking) to new things but then use reason (slow thinking) to get past our initial fear or suspicion, we can be open to those new experiences and maybe even learn something from them.

This is a first step, and I’ll admit that it’s a big one, but it’s well worth learning to think about how we think in order to get around our brain’s automatic habits of reaction. I’ve had some success through reading books like Kahneman’s to help make myself aware of what he calls our “heuristics and biases,” or the rules of thumb our brains use to navigate the world. I also use meditation to help ingrain observation of my own thoughts as a habit so that I am able to question why I feel the way I do when I encounter something or someone new. Cultivated habits like these can really help us to open our minds to travel’s new experiences.

One easy way to practice this new open-mindedness is with food. Since I was a youngster, I’ve hated runny and or separated eggs, so much so that I would only eat well-done, scrambled eggs. This preference lasted well into my forties, until, one day, I heard a story on the radio about how to make the perfect poached egg. The host of the cooking show tantalizingly described the runny, golden yolk dripping over a piece of Canadian bacon on a toasted English muffin. To me, it sounded disgusting. But this time, I stopped and wondered why I felt this way. After all, most of the world, especially highly regarded chefs and gourmands, cherish a runny yolk for its flavor, richness, and texture. All my life, I’d avoided tasty dishes like eggs benedict, pasta carbonara, and the best bowls of yolk-thickened ramen. How was it that I hadn’t considered this before? The answer was fast thinking.

The antidote was curiosity. I set about learning how to make poached eggs. Add a little vinegar to lower the pH of the water. Bring the water to a boil, take it off the heat, crack in the eggs, and remove them with a slotted spoon at 6-7 minutes. I’ll admit that I had to push past a lifetime of cultivated revulsion in order to simply experience those first runny-yolked eggs, but as I chewed and examined the flavors and textures, I began to understand the nearly universal love for them. Now, I look forward to Sunday morning huevos rancheros or avocado toast with a sunny-side-up egg or yolk-thickened ramen on a chilly evening. Curiosity helped me to change my mind. Heck, curiosity is delicious!

Tasting something entirely new on our travels may be challenging, but talking ourselves through the flavors and why the food is cherished in that culture in the first place may help us appreciate it more - and maybe even like it. From this standpoint, food is an easy way into a culture and can teach us a lot if we’re open to its lessons.

We can even take that food curiosity a step further. Coming across unique, taste-bud-stimulating flavors when I travel, I can be led by my tongue to ask the chef to reveal the ingredients that have inspired me. After I’m home, I’m keen to recreate them in my own kitchen. Once I got into the habit of flavor deconstruction and reconstruction, it opened a whole new world of meal plans at our house. I’ll get on kicks of learning how to prepare Indian, Vietnamese, or Korean dishes. Admittedly, that curiosity has underpinned some rather hare-brained, questionable pursuits. For example, learning to bake authentic, crusty European breads led me to build not one, but two different brick bread ovens, only to find the bakery that just opened in our neighborhood making much better loaves. However, all along the way, the road to satisfying that curiosity has resulted in expanding my horizons and improving the quality of my daily life.

Once you’ve applied this kind of critical thinking to food, try it with how you see things when you travel, from landscapes to weather to graffiti. We tend to treat destinations with a bucket list mentality, snapping a few pictures and checking them off our mental list of things to see. Landscapes that aren’t sweeping and grand or perfectly colored by a golden-hour sun can disappoint us. Finding beauty everywhere is a skill we can build by simply refusing to accept our initial, knee-jerk reactions or disappointment that things aren’t exactly what we expected. That can simply mean lingering in a place and looking closer, or it can go further, learning about the history and culture of a place. Either way, you’re building a deeper map of a place in your mind, satisfying and breeding curiosity.

By far the most important and difficult habit to change is the way we interact with people. My instinct with people is to listen for a moment, find something we have in common, and then eagerly relate my entire experience as a way to build camaraderie. It’s like saying, “Look! We’re similar, right? We should be friends!” While my intentions are good, they often get in the way of getting to know someone. I find that I have to resist the habitual urge to respond and instead pay more attention. I’m told by those with authority that this is more commonly known as “listening.”

I know, right? As I said, this is the most difficult habit to change, especially for an extrovert, but once we take the first steps of simply not talking and truly listening, a whole new world opens up, allowing us to employ our curiosity. I often interview people, on camera and off camera, in my role as a television host. One of the best directions I get from a director during an interview is to ask more questions. By asking questions and caring about the answers enough to listen and remember them, we open ourselves, if not to perfect agreement, at least to understanding, tolerance, and respect. If we can do that, we have a shot at making the world a better place.

How do you keep your inner, curious, child-like mind engaged? What epiphanies have you had while traveling? Let us know in the comments and subscribe so you don’t miss a thing!



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