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Nine Profound and Not-So-Profound Things I've Learned While on the Road

Seven months ago, I had never traveled for work. Not really, anyways. In a previous life as a journalist, I’d stayed in boutique hotels and tourist towns for travel assignments. But as I’ve learned, working while traveling is an entirely different beast than traveling as work.

Since mid-May 2016, I’ve flown over 23,500 miles and driven nearly 2,000 miles. That includes a week in southern California, and most recently, 15 consecutive days on the road that took me from Phoenix to Salt Lake City to St. George to Las Vegas.

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There are folks who travel more frequently—here’s lookin’ at you, Geno—but what I do on the road looks a little different. (Of course, I’m basing my idea of business travel entirely upon that George Clooney movie Up in the Air, so I’ve no guarantee of accuracy.)

When I’m on the road, I’m basically a photojournalist. I interview people. I go to events. I take photos—everything from landscapes, to lit portraits, to action shots, to candid snaps. This hybrid community manager/journalist/ photographer role means there are some unique challenges that I’ve had to face. Here are nine things—profound and not-so profound—that I’ve learned in the past seven months.

1. There’s going to be chaos. Embrace it.

I almost never know what I’m walking into. I never have time to scout locations, I’m interviewing total strangers, and time constraints and weather conditions are always factors. I have to orient myself, develop a rapport with people, and then get something dope—a story, a portrait, something. I won’t pretend like I’m proud of every photograph I’ve taken or interview I’ve recorded. But working within that chaos has made me better. I can see the rapid progress I’ve made in my creative output. In this type of pressure cooker environment, there’s only time to execute. Critically evaluating my own work is important, but at the end of the day, doing it is more important than thinking about how to do it.

2. It’s important to stay grounded.

It was weird to not see friends, family, and coworkers in person. Especially on extended trips, I found myself feeling adrift and disconnected. Time zone differentials don’t help, either. I found it immensely reassuring to Facetime, talk on the phone, or even send Giphys on Slack—anything to remind me that I do have a support network.

3. But it’s also nice to cut the strings.

Our beautiful office in Greenville is a huge, open space, which makes it a great environment in which to collaborate. But I didn’t realize how much energy I spend being “available” for impromptu conversations and meetings. I’ve found the solitude of being on the road—working amongst strangers in coffee shops, spending hours in a car—to be a restorative experience, one that helped me focus on the tasks at hand, instead of always being ready to pivot to a new conversation or project.

4. Braided wires are super clutch.

Between all the plugging in, unplugging, and wrapping I put my headphones and charging cables through, it’s a miracle they don’t come apart more often. And there’s nothing that’ll ruin my day faster than discovering my phone charger has turned into a fire hazard. Which is why I love textile braided cables. They tend to be more durable, plus they don’t develop crazy kinks as easily.

5. It’s impossible to overestimate the value of face-to-face time.

While in Phoenix a few weeks ago, I got to spend half a day with a couple of our client’s ambassadors. I spent a few hours hanging out at their house, asking questions, shooting the breeze, and taking a few portraits. We ended up having dinner together, which is when they told me this: “We’re just happy you’re trying to understand us.” I was stunned because that seemed like such a low bar to surpass. But I suppose that’s the trick: you can’t fake genuine interest, and there’s no substitute for time. People can tell when you view them only as means to an end. They can also tell when you give a damn.

6. Balance is important.

When I first started traveling, I tried to maximize the expense and time involved in sending me somewhere, even if that was to my own detriment. I packed my days as full of interview and portrait sessions as I could. On one day, I somehow managed to schedule five interviews and five photoshoots all over southern California because my interview subjects had limited availability. It turned into a 16-hour marathon that pushed me to my limit. I grew creatively, but I also learned it was unsustainable. I’d rather operate at 85% consistently than go 120% one day and fall flat on my face the next. Now, I consciously build in downtime into my travel schedule to rest and recharge.

7. Choose your rental car wisely.

Apple Carplay or Android Auto, comfy seats, and plenty of passing power. Those are my preferences because driving on unfamiliar roads is stressful enough, and it’s worth finding a rental car that won’t add to that stress. Trying to merge onto a highway in an underpowered Toyota Corolla while juggling Google Maps on my phone was plenty awful the one time I did it. I hope to never repeat that experience.

8. Your perspective will shift.

I mean this in a very literal sense in that you’ll end up seeing a lot of new things. But simply being around a different landscape can do things to your mental state. I tried to articulate this while I was out in Utah: “When you’re out here, you end up losing your sense of scale. The land is so flat and open, you can see forever. You may see a mountain range spring up from within that forever, but because you cannot judge its distance from you, you also cannot judge its height. Everything is near-far, short-tall, small-massive. In that living contradiction, you may find paralysis—the result of a logically inconsistent reality. Or you may find freedom—the ability to dream big things out of little things, or the courage to conceive of the impossible as little more than de rigeur.” Maybe that sentiment is a bit overwrought, but the core is true: simply being in a new place can be enough to trigger new and exciting possibilities.

9. Get a bunch of bottled water.

It’s cheap, and staying hydrated is a well-established requirement for being alive. I’ve also found that drinking water is usually a quick fix if I’m sick or sluggish or just plain “off.” Plus, as a tap water snob, I have to say that Greenville’s water is still the best I’ve had.


Originally published on the [Brains on Fire blog] on December 13, 2016.