In the Great Basin of northern Nevada – a vast desert of scratchy sagebrush and bleached white, dried out salt beds – there are cowboys who recite poetry. Earlier this year I visited Elko, the town where they gather each January, and found it extraordinary that men who ride bulls and wrestle steers for fun, men whose macho swagger could run John Wayne out of town, would be inspired to get in touch with their feelings. But perhaps it shouldn’t have. Artistic inspiration can strike any of us, at any time, and recent scientific evidence suggests its blast is most potent when, like cowboys, we’re riding off into the sunset.
Well, almost. In truth, it doesn’t matter where we wander, as long as it’s somewhere new. Travel, as it turns out, is the freshly squeezed fruit for our creative juices. Hemmingway did much of his work while living (and drinking) in the Florida Keys, Gauguin created masterpieces in Tahiti and Stravinsky composed in four different countries throughout his career. But taking a break doesn’t just expand our artistic prospects, new psychological research shows that it enhances our creative problem solving too. Far from just daiquiris and deck chairs, your next holiday may actually be the key to jumping up the career ladder, figuring out a relationship issue or even unlocking latent elements of your personal potential.
The reason has to do, in large part, with the amount of colours we have in our mental palette. Creativity has long been thought of as flash of inspiration. But modern views on the subject see it as a means of synthesising different ideas – like creating a neural connect-the-dots picture in our brain. The more dots – the more ideas and experiences we are subjected to – the broader the range of pictures we are able, and inspired, to create.
New experiences also expand our consciousness. The old saying that travel broadens the mind is true, but the reverse is also correct – staying still can be a recipe for dogmatism and narrow thinking. By opening ourselves to new ways of being we rock the foundations of our normality and widen the parameters of who we are. Psychologists believe this ability to break mental habits and think in novel and unexpected ways is the basis of all creative thinking. When we stretch our mental muscles, we come back more flexible, and happier, for it.
And happiness is important because it kills that behemoth of creative block, negativity. When we are preoccupied with the stresses, and demands, of everyday life our thinking becomes more regimented, and convergent, to established patterns. When we loosen those chains – and travel is the ultimate jailbreak – our minds naturally soar. It’s about stopping trying and just having fun instead. As my friend, the 1 Giant Leap and Faithless musician, Jamie Catto says in his workshops – “creativity is about listening and letting go.” Or as one rock star put it – “we don’t work music, man, we play it.”
So it’s really not surprising that cowboys write poetry, but we needn’t saddle up and join them just yet. When we take on the mindset of the explorer, new and unexpected experiences can be found on our doorstep, as much as the far reaches of the Earth. Creativity, too, is not just the reserve of artists, it’s an essential component of being human and a vital skill in navigating life’s course. So whether you’re a painter, composer, dancer or juggler, philosopher, scientist, or just someone trying to get in touch with a deeper part of themselves. Explore, create and make the world a more beautiful place. If a cowboy can do it, so can you.
This article originally appeared in Positive News, the constructive journalism magazine. They’re one of my favourite publications to write for, please check them out if you can.