Travel + Continuous Learning + Flow Psychology

Here’s an edited excerpt from the Travel Whys podcast discussing the 3 big ideas we explore on the show – and why they go together. It’s a conversation originally recorded in June 2021 between host K. Joia Houheneka and Ash Ryan, who traveled to the Galapagos in 2021 and started a new local bookstore business in addition to conducting research for a forthcoming book of his own on evolutionary theory.


You can hear the full episode – and discover more related conversations – by subscribing to the podcast on your favorite player:


Joia: I wanted to start with a quote that I love, a quote that comes from Seth Godin where he says,


“Instead of wondering what your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.”


And to me, this even sums up what for myself, as an entrepreneur, a whole goal of entrepreneurship is: that sense of freedom and what that freedom is all about – to live a life that is full of engagement and happiness and working in your zone of genius and really feeling alive and in the moment and making an impact in the world. And I do believe that one of the ways that we can actually go about to achieve this is through combining travel with continuous learning and flow.


So, this episode is really even meant to be an introduction. We both have so much just to say about this topic, that it’s why we’re going to need a whole podcast to continue to explore these ideas. But at least we can start to put some of the big ideas on the table here and maybe give people an idea of what to expect in future episodes and get this conversation started with everyone here on the show. So why don’t we even start with a little bit about the current state of travel since you are in the midst of a grand travel expedition, do you have anything you wanted to say about the current shakeup in the travel industry and how we want to be part of changing travel to make travel experiences deeper and more meaningful


Ash: Well, this is a really interesting moment in time to be doing this kind of travel. We’re recording this in mid-June of 2021, so we’re almost a year and a half into the COVID pandemic, and the leisure travel industry kind of ground to a halt for much of the past year. You’ve mentioned to me before that it’s been this moment for people to reflect – it’s one of those things that you take something for granted until you don’t have access to it anymore. Another example that I give is it’s been a bit of a struggle finding good high-speed, high-bandwidth internet access here in Galapagos to do things like recording this podcast. But that makes me appreciate high-speed internet that much more. And I think a lot of people are experiencing that right now when it comes to travel. Like you said, it is an opportunity for people to reflect upon what the value of travel is and what they want to get out of travel once they’re able to start doing it again.


Joia: To me, it’s even an important moment within the whole travel industry where I think we can start to have an influence on what travel can be. One of the most interesting things to come out of the pandemic is a two-fold reflection: one, the pandemic made it obvious how we have these amazing technologies now that make it so that you don’t have to travel for all the reasons that perhaps we traveled in the past, that we can just have Zoom meetups and connect online. For example, even though I’m in the U S and you’re in the Galapagos, the technology makes it so that you don’t have to travel. And two, the fact that we haven’t been able to travel perhaps makes it more obvious to us the value of what we’ve been missing out, that there is something about that in-person human connection. There’s something about being there on the ground. I can only imagine….


I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about what it’s even been like to be there in the Galapagos. That’s a bucket list trip for me. I’ve read the Charles Darwin description of his experiences there, I’ve seen the photographs, I’ve heard people talk about it, but I can only just imagine what it must actually be like to be there in person physically, and to think about how we can have then these travel experiences that make sure to draw out all of the incredible richness of what that in-person experience can be.


Ash: It’s true that we don’t have to travel now with the technology available to get some of the same values that we got from travel, but I think there are still values that you get from travel that you can’t fully get in any other way. For example, I can watch documentaries about Galapagos or I can read about it. I can read The Voyage of the Beagle and that really adds to my understanding, but it’s not the same as being here myself and experiencing it myself and seeing the things that are described and depicted. Even in a documentary where you’re watching an actual visual footage it’s not the same


Going into the future maybe you’ll even have like the ability to do AI trips to remote locations like this, which will be amazing and will definitely add another dimension or layer to a remote travel-substitute experience. But those kinds of experiences are still curated. I’ve seen multiple documentaries about the Galapagos islands before, and within a couple of hours of getting here, realized that I still had no conception of what this place was actually like. It was just completely beyond anything that I had ever imagined based on having read and watch things. You just don’t get the full range of experience and the depth and breadth from reading a book or watching a video or whatever as you do from actually going to a new place and discovering it.


I don’t know if we want to get into this yet, but there is another aspect of, of travel that I think you can’t fully replace. Even though you have the ability to connect with people from around the world through Zoom, Meetups, etc. now, which are wonderful, but you still get just a very narrow, limited experience relative to actually going somewhere and meeting new, different people and seeing their lifestyle and how it’s similar and different to yours. There’s another quote that I love from Mark Twain, which, believe it comes from Innocents Abroad:


“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.”


I think that’s very true. There’s a reason why we call somebody with that kind of narrow perspective “provincial.” I think travel really opens up your perspective. There have actually been studies done that confirm Twain’s view about that. There was a meta study that was published in the Social Psychology and Personality Science journal a few years back that examined five other studies about the effect of breadth and depth of foreign experiences on generalized trust. I could read the abstract of the study, but basically, they found that a breadth of travel highly correlated with generalized trust and openness to new people and experiences. It’s interesting that they really focused in this meta study on the breadth versus the depth of the travel experiences, as well as on focusing on differences rather than similarities among the countries visited. I think you actually really need both. I mean, you have to have the breadth, because that provides the material, the range of different experiences to really broaden your horizons. But if, if that breadth is at a very super superficial level, it’s only going to take you so far. You need to focus on and appreciate the differences in the places that you’re going, rather than just looking for the aspects of it, that confirm your existing perspectives and way of life, but I think it’s also important to recognize those similarities as well, so that you can relate. You really need both.


Joia: I totally agree. And when I hear you say this, it strikes me how much this goes against what is the status quo of travel right now. And maybe now is a good time to remind the audience that this podcast is sponsored by Delve Travel, which is a high-end boutique travel agency that serves entrepreneurs who have this Seth Godin vision of wanting travel to be more than just an escape. Delve Travel really focuses on luxury wellness experiences and also serving entrepreneurs with retreat planning and management. But what’s been interesting to me is how even this particular niche within the travel field goes against what really has been the status quo of travel. There’s a real way in which the industry has divided up travel between corporate travel and leisure travel, that you’re traveling either for business or for pleasure, but what about travel for growth and development? I think we know as entrepreneurs that growth and development is so important to how we succeed in business and how we succeed in life. And, as you know, I have this whole rant about why I hate the term leisure and maybe that’s a future episode. Also, I think we should do a whole future episode on why travel is and can be so valuable if not absolutely necessary for entrepreneurs, but maybe you even want to share some of your experience with this whole question of whether you’re traveling for business or for pleasure.


Ash: I do hope that we have future conversations about this, because I love the way that you get away from that false dichotomy between traveling for leisure versus having peak experiences or peak performance and work. For me, that’s kind of the way that I’ve always viewed travel. People talk about travel as it’s just something that you do periodically when you get a couple of weeks’ vacation and maybe you go somewhere and spend a week relaxing on a beach. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if that is the height of your conception of travel experiences, I think that’s very limiting.


Whenever I’m asked, “are you traveling for business or pleasure?” –  I never know how to respond. Because usually the answer is, “Yes.”


We’ve talked before about a trip that I took to Amsterdam, which was partly I was going for an AI conference that I really wanted to go to, but partly I just wanted to go to the Netherlands. So, it was never one or the other for me, I always try to combine the two. It goes back to the Seth Godin quote at the top that I approach it as trying to set up a life that I don’t need to escape from. That is, I’m doing this because that’s where I want to be and what I want to be doing.


You’ve also mentioned something related to this about when people are asked on their deathbed about their biggest regrets. One of the things that they often bring up at the top of the list is that they wish they had traveled more.


Joia: Definitely. And I’ll even add to that. I think we’re in a really exciting moment now coming out of the pandemic. As devastating as the pandemic has been, and I’m sure the reverberations will continue. one big positive. I see coming out of this is that people have discovered that they could work from home, and now this means that they will have the ability to work from wherever. I think we’re going to see a future where people have this hybrid lifestyle that is filled with both travel and work running simultaneously. So that if in the past, the status quo was always, you work your nine-to-five job commuting to the office, and that was 50 weeks during the year, and then you’d get two weeks off for vacation…. if that was all you got, then maybe there was even a valid reason to think that you were only going to spend those two weeks in idleness and leisure and relaxation, or even just drunken parties and the like. But with this new way of working, there’s a possibility for a new way to travel.


But I think it requires all of us as a society to start to develop this new mindset about what travel is. As I start to talk to people about, this, I’ve noticed so many people when they think of travel, they associate travel with vacation, they associate it with those two weeks off. So there is, I think. a mindset shift that we need as a culture to start to think about what are these deeper benefits of travel so that we can pursue travel in this way in combination and in integration with our work that leads to a really flourishing life.


Now, I know these are topics we can go on and on about, but maybe we should now start to shift gears and talk about the next big topic, which is continuous learning. And I’ll even throw it to you because I know you were the one who really took a stand and put a stake in the ground for that particular phrase, “continuous learning” and why you like that phrase even more than some of its seeming synonyms, such as “lifelong learning” or “adult education.” So maybe you want to say something about even the term “continuous learning,” what it is, why it’s a value, and then we can even start to connect it to travel and what we’ve been saying so far.


Ash: To tie it back into what we were just talking about, I think when people on their death bed talk about regretting that they didn’t travel more, they’re not talking about it in the sense of they wish they’d spent more of their time lying on different beaches somewhere. For me, flourishing is combining the work and the pleasure aspects of travel.


For example, I’m here in Galapagos working on a book on evolutionary theory, and that ties it into this whole concept of continuous learning, where part of being here is actually gathering material for my book and pulling from the resources that are available here, even just from the surroundings. The term “continuous learning,” I even prefer over things like “adult education” or “lifelong learning” because both of those, I mean, though they’re good as far as they go, they’re better than nothing, but there is still room in those to interpret them as merely maybe you’ll go back to school as an adult, and on evenings or weekends you’ll do some study and try to keep broadening your range of skills or something. But to me, this idea of continuous learning stresses more a focus on learning as a continual process. It’s a mindset and approach that you have that in any situation in life, not just as a part-time thing. It’s throughout the course of your life, in any situation, you’re always approaching it with the mindset of: “what can I learn from this?” It’s always being open to new information and actively looking for new information and new connections and sources of new ideas. And I definitely think travel is a very useful tool in regard to that purpose


Joia: As an entrepreneur, I’ll say one of the biggest lessons and perhaps one of the hardest lessons that I’ve learned so far in my journey was this lesson of always looking for the learnings. For example, to actively seek out opportunities where there’s a high probability that you could fail, but that failure is only failure if you don’t learn something. As long as you are learning, you are continuing to grow, and as an entrepreneur, it’s such a necessary part of how we achieve success, by continually problem solving. In the world that we’re living in where technology is accelerating and change is accelerating, it’s so important to be continuously learning.


Another aspect of that phrase that I particularly love is that it suggests the cumulative effect of all this learning, not just that you’re going to learn something here and learn something there, but that this learning is going to be building on top of each other. Life is a journey, and as you go through the journey, the learning continues to grow throughout. That’s an aspect of it that really excites me.


Another important aspect of this idea of continuous learning that I want to talk about and really stress is the virtue of curiosity and exploration, how this is so important to be a successful entrepreneur, and really, I think, to be a successful human being. And I think it’s perfect that you are in the Galapagos because to me, Charles Darwin is an emblematic figure of someone who embodied that virtue of curiosity and exploration. So maybe you’d have something along those lines you’d want to share and talk about.


Ash: Yeah, absolutely. Well, first of all, I love that you brought up that aspect about learning from, so-called failure, especially in an entrepreneurial context where being an entrepreneur is about experimentation. After all, the first thing you try is probably not going to be a massive success right away. It’s all about making experiments and seeing what works and what doesn’t and adjusting and adapting, to use the evolutionary term, and continually growing the learning from there. For example, there’s that famous story about Thomas Edison, where somebody asked him about trying to invent the light bulb and he tried all of these different things that didn’t work and he said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve succeeded in learning a hundred things that don’t work.”


Darwin is definitely another person that, to me, exemplifies that approach of relentless curiosity that I think that is exemplified during his Beagle voyage when he was here in the Galapagos and studying the natural history of all the places he was visiting, the geology and the different animals and their forms and their geographical distributions. All these facts that would eventually turn into lines of evidence that he would organize into the argument ended up for his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of Species. I think it’s great if people do think of the Beagle voyage when they have that association with Darwin as this person embodying the qualities of continuous learning and curiosity, because, I think too often people tend to think of him as just this armchair sage.


The pictures of Darwin we usually see are of this old, long beard, white haired old man. But I think it’s important to remember that even after the Beagle voyage, even when he wasn’t able to travel as much for most of the rest of his life due to health reasons, he still did find ways to get as much of that value as he could through correspondence with people all over the world, asking them to send him samples of different things that he was interested in studying. His correspondence is just mind boggling. There are over 28 volumes of just his correspondence that have now been published in the last couple of decades.


Joia: One of the things I hear you saying is how we know that actual physical travel was clearly so important to Darwin – the voyage of the Beagle, actually going to the Galapagos, that if that had never happened, he would have never had the inspiration or the spark of the idea that turned into his incredible revolution of thought. And to me, what’s also fascinating is that we know that even once he got back to England, even though he wasn’t able to physically travel so much because of health reasons, he still had what I would call the traveler spirit. As you’re pointing out, he still had that spirit of exploration and curiosity, that he was in correspondence with people all over the world. He was the opposite of provincial to go back to your quote from Mark Twain there.

And even that aspect, I think, can be inspiring, especially to those of us right now who may be can’t travel for health reasons or physical reasons, the pandemic is still very much a reality for many people as we are recording this. While I know one of our big motivations in doing this podcast is to hopefully inspire people to actually travel more, get on the boat, get on the plane, get in their cars, get out on the street and go for a walk, get out there into the world, that even if you’re not able to do all of those things, that you can still maintain this traveler spirit through this practice of continuous learning. To me, it’s just again how these ideas of travel and learning really complement each other and go together


Ash: And I know that’s part of a larger vision for you about the future of education and the model that you want to develop regarding how education might look.


Joia: Yeah, it’s worthwhile throwing it out there, mentioning it to any entrepreneurs who may be listening, who have that sort of vision, I will share that this is my Big Why. In flow studies, we talk about having a massively transformative purpose, an MTP, and this is mine, that I really want to transform higher education. People who know me know my background that I started out in academia. I was on track to become a college professor. But through that process, even before I finished the PhD, I realized that the internet had this possibility to transform what education is. And I knew I wanted to be a part of building that future of higher education.


The vision I see is precisely this idea of not just a university where you go for four years and then suddenly everything you’ve learned is probably out of date in a couple years anyway, especially with the accelerating rate of change of technology that we’re experiencing, but instead a whole new vision of education where you would jumpstart with some important lessons and then have a whole life of continuous learning.


The big insight that I had was that definitely we want to incorporate all of the latest technologies I think everybody can now see just even from Zoom and what we’ve had to experience during the pandemic that online education is a possibility that makes it so that education can scale to so many people and that we want to dig in and exploit and get the most out of all of these technologies. However, I do believe there also has to be this in-person, on-the-ground, in-community with real other human beings, in-the-room experience that comes with travel. In a sense, travel will be the default because we’ll be putting together classrooms and groups of people from all over the world, so the only way that we will be able to come together in person is through travel. However, more than just the default, as we’ve been exploring here, that there’s something really special and unique about these travel experiences when they’re done right that just leads to well, both optimal performance and optimal experience. And that takes us right into our next big topic, which is flow, because that is what flow is.


Ash: I just want to comment on what you were just saying. I agree that with the internet we’ve started to see what that can make possible with education and some of these online learning platforms that have emerged over the last decade or so. In the same way that people are starting to see now the possibility of working remotely as a lifestyle, not having to be tied to a specific geographical location for their work-life, the same can be true for education. I definitely think that’s interesting when you combine those two ideas, how that model could end up looking like combining travel and education with the kind of tools that we have now.


Joia: Yeah. Let’s just put it out there though. Any entrepreneurs who are listening, who want to get involved in this big idea, it is a massively transformative purpose, and it’s going to require collaboration from lots of people. So if you want to get involved, reach out, let’s build this thing.


But now let’s talk about why flow is going to be such an important component of this vision as well. Let’s get into, “what is flow?” Ash, do you want to pick up with what is flow


Ash: It’s an idea that was developed largely by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He wrote a book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.


He developed this idea as part of positive psychology. He was working with Marty Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, and together they’re considered the fathers of positive psychology. Martin Seligman was focused a lot on happiness or what they call in psychology, subjective wellbeing, and how to measure that and how to make psychology, the study of psychology, more interested in people’s positive experiences and traits rather than just trying to diagnose psychological illness and treat it. So, how do we actually define what a healthy psychology would be and how do we help people aim for and achieve that. For Csikszentmihalyi, one of the biggest aspects that he noticed of that was this experience that he called flow. It’s an experience that a lot of people are familiar with in a lot of different domains, and there’ve been a lot of different names for it. Athletes tend to call it “being in the zone” or “runners high.” You have peak performance where you having these peak experiences and you’re performing at your best and it’s characterized by several different things that Csikszentmihalyi distinguished. Do you want to go into some of those a little bit?


Joia: Sure. So I’ll just state again that the definition of flow is that it is the optimal state of human consciousness when you feel your best and perform your best. And, this is a whole other episode that I definitely want to do exploring this concept of both feeling your best and performing your best.


Ash: Yeah.


Joia: We’ll definitely do a whole episode, I believe, just all about that. But as you said, I think most human beings have had experiences of flow, even if they didn’t use this technical term that Csikszentmihalyi eventually came up with. My understanding is his research involved talking with people all around the world about the moments when they felt their best and were performing their best, and that the word “flow” just came up over and over again in the way that people described what it was like to be in this state.


Now, let’s even talk about the main characteristics of what is now called a flow state. One huge aspect of it is about focus and being completely absorbed in a task. You get so focused on the task that everything else disappears, your action and awareness seem to merge, your sense of self vanishes, time distorts (it can appear to either speed up or slow down). Then during this total absorption, your mental and physical performance both go through the roof and you feel happiness. you feel fulfilled. A flow state is associated with a healthy sense of wellbeing and increased happiness.


Ash: In recent decades, since Csikszentmihalyi’s book came out, there have been a lot of studies about the biological, physiological, and neurological underpinnings of these states. I want to distinguish one thing, because you mentioned flow has to do with this heightened state of focus and complete absorption in the task at hand, there are a couple of different ways to be completely absorbed by something and highly focused on it. And the one that we’re talking about is the positive side, where your value achievement system is activated, not the fight or flight response mechanism where you’re trying to escape from a threat. Flow is where you’re actually trying to achieve a positive value, but you’re in a similar state of heightened focus and awareness, and it’s a state where you have like these positive neurotransmitters, and it’s this peak experience as well as peak performance.


Joia: Yeah. And we’ll definitely, I think, get to explore this more, but to me, one of the fascinating components of this experience is that it’s simultaneously heightened arousal and also calm composure. That when those things come together, that’s part of what flow is all about. But you’re absolutely right that since Csikszentmihalyi first started working on this, I believe, way back in the seventies (and then that Flow book, that seminal book came out in the early nineties). Since then, there have been so many other developments, other people coming into the field that it’s really now even gone beyond just the psychology of flow into the neuroscience of flow. Hopefully on this podcast, we’ll even be able to bring in a whole bunch of different experts to talk with us about flow and connect it to both of these topics of learning and travel.


For example, we know through many of these studies that flow increases learning. And there is really even that virtuous cycle spiral experience that learning is necessary to get you into flow and that once you’re in flow, you learn better. So that’s something to explore more.


And then we also want to talk about flow and travel. Interestingly, no one, I believe, has really gone into doing some of the deep work here, connecting flow and travel. So, we’re definitely becoming the pioneers in this, but it’s a field that is, I think, ripe for exploration because as I see it, when people do describe what they love about travel experiences, as you were pointing out, all those people that on their deathbeds regret and wish they had done more travel, what they were wishing for wasn’t just “leisure” It was that experience of a liveliness that I think is a flow state.


We’re going to talk about triggers to flow, and how one of the big triggers is novel, rich environments, which is what travel gives you. My sense is that even if we can prevent what are often called the flow blockers and incorporate even more of the flow triggers, that part of what makes travel such a positive experience for people is precisely because it’s getting us into a state of flow.


…… and for the rest, be sure to check out the podcast!

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