A case for getting lost: strategies for exploration

In a technology driven world we’ve lost the ability to wander and get lost. We’re focused on productivity and finding the quickest path to our destination. But sometimes there is value in getting lost. It makes us pause, reflect, and appreciate the destination. Often it makes for a good or entertaining story too. Sometimes I fear we’ve lost the ability to truly explore. This post is a reminder to slow down, open your eyes, and explore.

A case for getting lost.

Every time I visit a new city, particularly one where I don’t understand a word of the language, it gives me a fresh perspective on travel, and the importance of exploration.

The way we travel has changed. We no longer have guide books glued to our hands. The reality is most people have smart phones, and we’re connected. But there’s SO much information out there, how do we take advantage of it without feeling overwhelmed?

I will preface that my planning is minimal usually do to enough other things going on in life. These are my strategies for exploring a new city.

Underplan, not overplan. Under-planning allows for adventure, spontaneity, and discovery. When there are too many things on your plate, you don’t have time to fully enjoy each one as you’re constantly thinking about the next one. I like to come up with 1-2 things I’d like to do each day. These are the “must dos”, and the rest are “nice to do, if I get to it.”

Travel like a local. This means leisurely meals, sitting at a coffee shop, trying a local snack. When you’re in a different country, it means being surrounded by a different language, that may put you out of your comfort zone. But it also means you’re with the local crowd. Turn away from the familiar, and turn towards the unknown.

Mark a map. The year is 2019, the reality is that we’re going to use digital maps to guide our way (as much as I love paper ones). As soon as I hear of an interesting place, I star it on my google map. Sure, you can do this for your next trip, or you can do it for one day. Recently I was in The Hague. I didn’t know I’d be going, but when I’d discovered an interesting museum on Instagram, I went ahead and added a pin to my Google Map. Then when my trip happened, I magically knew the first place I wanted to go because it was already on the map. Conversely, when I give tours of Paris I always show clients how to use a Plan de Paris (the same map book I learned how to get around Paris with—it doesn’t run out of battery and won’t be pick pocketed!) and leave them with a paper map from the metro that we mark up. Artist Austin Kleon prints out Google Maps and draws on top of them where he went. Not all maps have to be precious.

Draw your own map. Always having a soft spot for hand drawn maps I still love the idea of drawing your own map, or following a map someone else has made for you. I also teach this in my Skillshare Map Making class where one of the students even drew his commute on a banana while on his way to work! No matter where you’re going you can have a bit of fun with it.

Go on a hunt. The French street artist Invader has had me open my eyes since 2001 looking for his tile installations around the city. (He’s French so there are more in Paris, but they are worldwide.). Then several years ago he launched the FlashInvaders app where he made it a game with points (inspired by the maps in his books). Think of it as the original Pokemon Go but less digital dependent, except for GPS. My invader hunts have taken me to parts of cities I otherwise would have ignored.

Find your thing. So maybe it’s not Invaders for you, but what is that thing you get excited about. Is it ribbons? Comic books? Interiors stores? Photography? How can you uncover your own passions or hobbies in a new place. Go seek it out, whatever it is. Dig into the thing that makes you feel alive.

Scout on social media. The best tips aren’t always in print. They may come from locals, or others who have traveled to a location before you. Blogs can be great, but more recently I’ve had even greater success using Instagram. You can check the official Instagram accounts, but also dig into location tags or hashtags to get a quick impression whether you want to check somewhere out or not. I’m not a huge Pinterest user myself, but on a recent trip to Antwerp my friend I was traveling with did a quick search and the next day we were at the outdoor sculpture park pictured in the photo. The irony was that the website was only in Flemish, but we decided to make it an adventure and we did not regret it.

Always check opening hours. This rule is mainly for Europe where most places aren’t open 7 days a week. It can be annoying to trek far away only to be disappointed that it was for nothing. I like Google Maps because the opening hours of the business are typically listed as well. I always recommend cross checking with an official website or account of the business or museum if it’s a place you really want to go. Minimize any chance of error. Keep in mind there are a lot of holidays in Europe, and long holidays/vacation are more common so hours are subject to chance.

Roll with the punches. Sure you can get annoyed when something doesn’t work out, but we also tend to come into a new place with our own lens of how things should work. In Antwerp we failed on the dinner front. Despite it being a Saturday night and a main drag, so many places were closed. We could have gotten annoyed, but instead we got… Pizza Hut! The restaurant had already closed, so we had to get “to go” (and still they were closing in 30 minutes—at 10pm—so we had to decide quickly). Is Pizza Hut what I expected to be having for dinner on a Saturday night on a weekend trip to Belgium with a friend? No. But was it funny? Yes. And it actually hit the spot, and transported us back to childhood. Don’t get pissed when something is out of your control.

Look for themes. This started back when I studied abroad. I’d have days where I’d keep seeing the same thing. This could be anything from the fact that people didn’t pick up after their dog, to motos on the sidewalk, to women wearing red shoes. Open your eyes and take note of the world around you, no matter how strange or random it may be.

Walk. Every corner is “name your own adventure”. Choose your path. See something new. Go inside. Notice something even a local will miss. I first got a FitBit (and later an AppleWatch) out of curiosity for how many steps I would walk in a day. In Europe it’s easily 10-20k steps a day. Early on it was a game to see how many steps I could take. I saw a lot more those days too. Even if you walk the same route every day notice how time of day, day of the week, or weather can change what you see. What stays the same and what changes?

Take public transportation. Yes, Uber and car share is everywhere these days, and it takes you exactly where you need to go. But it also takes the fun out of possibly getting lost. On our adventure to the sculpture park we ended up taking the public bus. We’d learned at the hotel it was 3€ and they only took cash. Even finding the stop wasn’t completely clear as they were doing construction. Regardless, we got there, and we saw different sides of the city on the way. In figuring out how transportation systems work, you unlock a level of culture where you experience how a local would get around. (The first time is the hardest.) We “cheated” with the help of Google Maps telling us the times and showing us the route so we knew when to get off, but we couldn’t help but think back to when we first studied abroad, and those tools didn’t exist. Somehow we managed to get around, and where we needed to be. There’s a sense of accomplishment when you do. Public transportation comes with higher intrinsic rewards, and a lower price point than Uber. There’s less traffic on a tram than in a car too.

Be a flanêur. Yes, walking is great, but so is sitting at a café and people watching. Speed is not a requirement; you need not do it all. Sometimes you need not go far to take it all it. Be an observer. It’s often a bigger challenge to do nothing, rather than trying to do everything.

Ok, your turn! What are your strategies for exploration?! Share them in the comments below!

One of my favorite ways to explore these days is through my weekly ‘Connect the Dots’ newsletter. I also work with people as they explore possibilities personally and professionally through 1:1 sessions and coaching and if you’re coming to Paris, consider booking a Deep Dive Exploration Day.


Photo credit: Meg Gagnard


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