You can’t open a magazine this summer without seeing stories about swarms of tourists crowding once-serene locales. During an age when everything is relentlessly mediated on social media, NPR’s Life Kit wanted to step back for a moment and ask: What is traveling away from home really for? How can it be more meaningful?
In a long-ranging conversation, artist Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing, reminds us why we wander — for perspective and surprise — and how the travel mindset can be practiced without leaving home at all. We talked with Odell for Life Kit’s episode on meaningful travel; here’s the full conversation, edited for clarity.
Why should we get away?
I think that it’s important to get away, to whatever degree you’re able to, just to get perspective and to be surprised. I guess those are two different things, but I think they’re related. If you live with a pretty solid schedule or routine, there are certain things that you start to take for granted. Simply removing yourself from those circumstances is helpful for getting new perspective on yourself and your life.
Tease apart the second part — you said perspective but also surprise.
The other thing that comes with routine is that you kind of expect things, or you don’t perceive things outside of what you’re expecting. Opening yourself up to being surprised, that’s a very different mentality than you have in your everyday life.
Why do you think these two objectives are important?
I equate them with feeling alive. If you take routine to its logical extreme, you’re just sort of an automaton, right? You’re just going through the motions. Being surprised and getting perspective, I think, are two different ways of shaking free of that framework and continuing to change as a person.
The way you talk about it makes travel sound exciting, which is the way it sounds in our daydreams, but then it rarely matches our expectations. We get to a place and feel disorientation or lethargy or midafternoon despair. What do we do?
I think that we are prone to be disappointed. The thing you get is never exactly like the photo of the shiny new thing that you saw on the website. I think that travel is sometimes advertised the same way. A lot of vacation ads show beaches with not that many people on them. And then you get there and there are tons of people. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you treat travel like a product that you are going to consume.
Give us some tips on how we can be more fulfilled when we go.
My most practical tip — and this reveals my bias toward the outdoor ecological side of things — is the iNaturalist app. It lets you take photos of plants and animals and fungus and gives you a pretty good guess of what it is. This kind of gives me traction: I start to learn the names of things or just get a little more detail about the ecological communities that are native to a place.
In order to be surprised, you’ve argued that you don’t even really have to go anywhere. Can you talk a little bit about that?
There’s probably an interesting experiment to be done where — apply [this thinking] to the regional park that’s 20 minutes from you, or to your local rose garden — I think very quickly you will be humbled by the things that you don’t know about that are right in your backyard.
What is it about our mindset that changes when we go far away, and how can we apply it in our own rose gardens and backyards?
If you’re on vacation, then you are setting out to experience leisure time. You’re also aware that you’re somewhere different, so you have this open space and time to look around for things that are different. If you take what you’re trying to do on vacation and you just do that at home, it will completely change the things that you notice and that you perceive that’s fantastic.
How do you do more than just see a place? How do you go somewhere and actually be there?
Some of it has to do with observation. For me, talking to strangers is a big part of it. Ask strangers for recommendations — it’s so different from having things recommended to you algorithmically, because people have personal reasons for enjoying things. Leave enough unplanned space to acknowledge that the meaning is going to come from the place, not from your planning. It takes humility, and if you’re a person who loves to plan everything in advance, it probably sounds a little bit scary.
You can’t be surprised if you’ve engineered every minute right.
That’s sort of my philosophy about life in general. People try to engineer their lives, and they engineer away all the surprising things and then they don’t understand why they’re bored.
For folks who want to hear this message and are inspired by what you’re saying, how do you recommend that we travel without going anywhere?
It sounds almost like annoyingly simple, but just to walk around. I’ve lived in Oakland for three years and every week I notice some strange thing that I was not aware of [before]. It happens more often when I am walking aimlessly, with no real destination. Those are always the days that I come across something strange that I end up telling everyone about for the rest of the day.
It just becomes very quickly evident that I will never really get to the bottom of things that I’m observing, and that is such a delightful feeling, a seemingly simple point that opens onto a kind of infinity.