10 business lessons we learned travelling around the world

That’s such a North American way of thinking! — Arturo

Rarely are we verbally berated about our shortcomings — and appreciate it.

Here he was — shirtless, slurping gazpacho in his tiny apartment in a land covered by more sheep than anything else. Unquestionably enjoying his role as Chief Critic Officer, the former banker and caviar pirate had a way of making us feel as lost as though we’ve left home for the first time ever. Half way into a seven-month trip around-the-world, how was this possible?

Audacious Arturo of Andalucía believes that: we (North Americans) overvalue other’s opinions; undervalue our own ability to create memorable experiences anywhere we are; and get too caught up seeking the best that we do not treat every moment with the respect and potential it has.

Sulking aside, he was right about much of it, and our countless hours spent reading reviews on TripAdvisor and AirBnB proved it. I won’t even mention the days obsessing over finding the cheapest flights only to see prices go up.

In honour of Arturo, here is what we learned from our travels since that fateful evening.

How our trip around the world changed how we look at work, life, and wasting time

April 2015

Living in Vancouver with a mid-level job, mid-level salary, mid-level enjoyment, mid-quality condo.

September 2015 (one week prior to the ‘Arturo Incident’)

Over-planning, over-researching, overwhelmed by what we’re missing out on, and supposed to fly back to Canada September 21st.

December 2015

Twenty countries, 3 missed flights, 4 changed flights, and one Nazi rally protested against later, we are on a flight from China back to Vancouver to the comforts of temporary homelessness and an empty bank account.

All I need to say is that it was all worth it and it changed how we look at everything. It has given us the focus and confidence to launch a digital experience agency, facilitate workshops, and attempt to prototype two startup products.

Lesson 1: the best way to spring forward is to leave something behind.

There’s nothing like dragging around the same twenty kilos of luggage to forty different guesthouses, AirBnB homes, hotels, and hostels to feel the weight of that thing that keeps slowing you down. We hold on to choices from months, years, and lifetimes ago. It keeps us closed to new opportunities and increased efficiency. It’s when we can make smart sacrifices that we propel innovation and evolution.

Forget the sunk costs of a product feature you felt strongly about a year ago and cut loose the relationship that was already fraying — you’re being held back from the new possibilities and freedoms it gives until you do.

A big cheers to Arturo for proving this true through his sacrifice of wealth, foie gras, possessions, and a bad heart, in favour of a simple and healthy life where he’s regained control of how he’ll live his next thirty-to-forty years.

Lesson 2: The sooner you realize that the world is much flatter and safer than you imagine, the sooner you’ll be prepared for a truly global economy.

“Japan is going to be such culture shock, and like being on another planet” — not really.
“Is Colombia even safe?” — safer than Mexico and Brazil!
“The quality of tech employees in Asia aren’t any risk to our jobs” — beware because you should be getting worried
“Muslim countries aren’t friendly or kind” — Many people there went more out of their way to help us than in North America.
“An undergraduate degree from a good university will set you up for success” — you’re also competing against people who hold Master’s degrees and no debt, and not just for specialized positions anymore.

Access to knowledge is power. My mother’s house barely has a 3G cellular connection, yet almost everywhere we travelled to now has LTE and 4G, not to mention strong English language education, and improving post-secondary options. Between those improvements, the increased movement of expats as digital nomads, and remote working policies lightening up at most major corporations, expect to be facing strong competition globally at a much lower rate. This applies to workers, startups, students.

Become familiar with each culture’s nuances, their personalities, their potentially off-putting quirks, and learn to think of them as your peers and partners. The playing field has been levelled.

Lesson 3: North America, you’re boring — please learn from the storytelling in other cultures.

Robots, Alice in Wonderland, ninjas, owls, aliens, tank girls — these are just a few of the ridiculous types of immersive hospitality experience themes you can find in Tokyo. It’s without a doubt an extreme example, because anything goes there, however it’s part of a trend to connect through fun and imagination that stretches far beyond gimmicky venues and into cellular, travel, and consumer product advertising.

Once you unshackle imaginations from the modesty and norms of Western culture, opportunities to connect, amaze, and sell skyrocket. Coca-Cola, Nike, and Lululemon’s brands have largely been built upon powerful storytelling, yet most tech companies and SME organizations go for safe, utilitarian brands that think yet another cutesy video with happy-ish music is enough to convince anyone you’re special. Let’s end the parade of Apple wannabes and remember you need to draw people in with some sort of storytelling that they can connect to.

Even in non-technologically savvy parts of the world like Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and Logrono, Spain, storytelling and experience define what makes them so special. Much of the world is founded upon cultures heavily steeped in storytelling. It’s what created the mythology of places like Machu Picchu, Kronborg Castle (Elsinor), Dubrovnik, Borobudur — adding an entire visceral language that local merchants and visionaries can use.

Lesson 4: No amount of research can ever make up for just asking.

I would probably gain back a full week (month) to this trip with the amount of time wasted researching our next place, flight, meal, or activity, when we could have just as easily asked someone. Each time we didn’t was another lost opportunity to make a real connection with someone and get insights that go much deeper than any blog or review ever could.

Research is amazing and powerful in every situation. I’ve managed research campaigns many times and this realization floors me in so many ways. How many cycles and hours do we waste in our careers doing things we could have done better by just asking customers, engaging with them, and creating real connection?

Next time consider speaking to them directly and experiencing their challenges, their emotions, and what direction your company needs to go in together.

Lesson 5: Leaving things to the last minute is a ridiculously expensive mistake, yet over-planning makes it impossible to learn and grow.

Why am I preaching less planning after missed flights alone unexpectedly cost us more than $1,250? Because the opposite — over-planning and living on a tight schedule — is life sucking and soul limiting. If you do either you might miss out on once-in-a-lifetime very surprising opportunities like seeing the Symphony perform a very rare show at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (one of the most beautiful buildings in the world).

Don’t be the tourist who planned each day of his vacation six months in advance and never left learned to scuba dive with the awesome instructors you met at a bar. Please don’t be the young employee who has planned his career path to the point where he/she misses the opportunity to help a cross-departmental team on a fantastic learning project or applying to the job that may have been your actual dream job.

Growth and evolution happens when you fall between the crack of over and under-planning into the land where you have the choice to be taken away by a trade wind or continue straight ahead.

Lesson 6: You have the choice to either turn failures, mistakes, and shames into shackles, or into rebirth.

This trip could have easily been renamed the ‘Places that have been Terribly Messed by War Tour’ because of the full gambit of horrible atrocities that have happened at so many.

From Berlin, to Dresden, to Tokyo, to Hiroshima, to Phu Quoc, to Indonesia’s temples, to the Slovenian Alps — war and racism has struck them all terribly. However, each of them turned failure, mistakes, and shames into a rebirth and their people are moving ahead because of it. Others like my father’s homeland of Budapest face an uphill battle from a successive list of historical blows to regain the cultural presence and swagger it had many generations ago.

Please don’t let your bad days, weeks, months keep you from who you should be. If Germany can come back from the flames twice, then every failure is one step closer to your potential. It’s through acknowledging and learning from failure, that you’re able to be open to learning and innovation. Hiroshima is such a mind-opening place thanks to it’s dark history and the utterly amazing stories from their atomic bomb survivors, like the two we met.

Lesson 7: People will judge you based on your best or worst moment, but nothing is worse than just fitting in.

Memories fail most of us. We have difficulty connecting the actual facts to the mythology we create about moments and people. It might be about how much sake we drank in Taipei, who was the worst host, or why Osaka should be the new Sushi capitol. We remember it however we want to (or can’t piece together in the case of Taipei).

Neuroscientists call it cognitive dissonance. As far as I know, they don’t have a term to describe it when nothing is memorable. I’m going to call it my ‘Takamatsu Effect’: when you just blend in and have nothing good or bad, it might as well not have existed.

Socially or professionally we have to avoid this at all costs. As one great entrepreneur said “it has to be worth getting embarrassed for.” And life has to always be worth it.

Lesson 8: Nothing is more globally desired than respect.

You might not speak the same language, pray (or not pray) to the same deities, or hate different boy bands, yet the best way to communicate without knowing how is to exchange respect.

Learning local customs goes a long way in life, love, business, and not getting killed. More importantly, it will help you work with remote teams and to understand how to deal with communication breakdowns when they eventually happen. Also, you’d be amazed at how sometimes a single action can be construed as a cultural faux paux under the wrong conditions. It may be using your left hand to exchange money, leaving your chopsticks in your soup, or just to ask someone what they did that day.

Good communication is the key to any good work relationship and it all starts by understanding who they are, what motivates them, and what their values are based upon.

Lesson 9: Wealth and educational disparities are undermining any chance of addressing climate change, and are fundamental reasons the planet is covered in garbage.

North America, and Vancouver in particular, are beautiful bubbles where the scourges of climate change and littering mean half a ski hill’s runs being closed or cause for an angry strata notice to neighbours who don’t pick up after their dogs’ business.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen the dead coral reefs, the burnt forests, smoke from Borneo, and the one-year droughts that make climate change look very real and dangerous. Sadly many of these same places are home to people who take abandoned houses and fill them to the roof with garbage and consider it their right to throw anything anywhere.

Poverty and poor education are at the core of this issue and if any of us want to make any true impact, we’ll need to take an extra step beyond recycling and start impacting the systematic global problem causing islands of garbage to float in the Pacific and kill our fish stock.

It’s something I feel very strongly about and if you work at or can recommend an NGO, non-profit, or charity where I can donate my time and services, I want to find a way to tackle this together.

Lesson 10: I’d rather be working in a studio for twelve hours straight with complete strangers than sitting on a beach for four days

Funny fact:

This trip originally was supposed to be a month long, to take an intensive Interaction Design course in Copenhagen — and it ballooned into much more. Largely because of how inspiring it was to passionately work in the trenches with complete strangers.

Call it a personal insight, or perhaps a commentary on what we’ve been taught ‘vacations’ are supposed to be, but I’m done with doing nothing and sitting on a beach. Travelling for the sake of education is something I highly encourage, particularly when it’s for a longer period — so you can become embedded with a culture instead of simply dipping your toe in it.

We ended this odyssey with four days on the beach of Phu Quoc, with perfect weather and 27 degree ocean. Honestly though, right now I’m craving being in the trenches learning and growing with new passionate people, working together to create something special.

It has been a transformative year for us and one that confirmed our plans to continue growing PH1 Media as an international digital experience agency based upon these core principles. Our goal is to create exceptional experiences across content, marketing, email, product for clients and to offer a significant amount of our services to organizations taking on climate change and causes like environment protection. We also are starting a series of workshops to help tomorrow’s digital leaders.

This post originally appeared on the PH1 Strategy blog.

If you’d like to chat please contact me at arpy@ph1.ca and feel to free to ask anything about our travels to these countries:

  • Peru, Colombia, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Czech Rep, Belgium, England, Spain, Italy, Vatican City, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, or Vietnam.
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