The Zen Of Chaos: Traveling Alone

Whether at 36,000ft or surrounded by 36,000 people, this is how I carve out space to reflect and connect.

Ever since I started about five years ago, I’ve had a special fondness for solo travel. I enjoy traveling with companions, of course. And I absolutely love meeting up with people at my destination (which is why I attend so many WordCamps and other conferences). Many of my friends, colleagues, and clients live hundreds of miles away from home, so traveling to these events is often like homecoming for me, especially when I’m returning to the same event multiple years in a row. However, I’ve noticed that I thrive most at events where these moments of connection and networking are bookended by a space for solitude.

In case you don’t know it by now, I’m an introvert. If you’ve met me in passing and experienced… whatever strange “thing” makes up my personality, you might find that notion absurd, but I truly believe in the following definition::

Introversion and extroversion have little to do with how sociable, friendly, or personable you are. The simple distinction is that an extrovert rejuvenates their energy from being around other people, and an introvert rejuvenates their energy from being alone.

My social persona is one that is “on.” I crave a good conversation full of deep thoughts punctuated by quick wit and a crucial level of inappropriate commentary. Maybe it’s a group, maybe it’s a couple people, maybe it’s an intimate conversation where the rest of the world melts away as we realize we probably need to be BFFs. Maybe it’s fueled by several drinks, or a good meal, or just an awesome topic. The way I like to engage is far from “small talk” and as such, it’s emotional work. It’s wonderful, it’s exciting, it’s exhausting, and having the space to be “off” gives me balance. I’ll often take time during the day to leave the event and nap, catch up on some basic tasks, or (my favorite) take a walk down the streets near the venue and feel the air and sun on my face.

Finding Solitude In A Crowd

Travel often takes you through some of the most stressful and dehumanizing situations, usually at transportation hubs. The air is thick with stress, you’re often treated like cattle cramped into uncomfortable spaces, and if you’re in a hurry or focused on the urgency of the situation ahead the experience is often miserable.

This is not to say I love attempting to work while hunched over in an airport chair or squirming in a small seat, but I’ve started to make sure that I arrive at my travel destinations super early and give myself a lot of space in time as well as thought. Though I’m not a jet-setter, travel has become so routine that, with proper space, I can let the stressful parts melt into the background, on autopilot, and reach an interesting transcendent place inside my own head.

Fueled by a powerfully introspective playlist, I allow myself to retreat into my mind, and let my thoughts meld with the chaos around me. In an airport, walking down a busy street in a new city, eating food alone on a patio and watching the world pass by. Observing so many different people in so many different stages of life and mental states, wondering what their stories are, and occasionally connecting with a smile or friendly comment. In its own weird way, it’s relaxing and energizing, and it’s during these times that I can fully process the social parts of my trip. My mind is able to wander, and thus is able to wonder.

Making Small Connections

The upside of having a unique physical appearance – yes, thank you, my hair is pretty great, and it does match all my outfits – is that people remember me and want to engage with me. The downside is… people remember me and want to engage with me, and I don’t always remember them. I try, but I really don’t have a talent for names and faces. However, I noticed I do have a pretty good memory for conversations. Chances are, if we discussed something interesting, I may not remember your face or name, but I will remember our conversation. And after a few good conversations, I’ll definitely remember your name and face (and we’ll probably be friends and/or drinking buddies at that point).

As part of my desire to be deliberate and Live Life Thoughtfully, I’ve adopted some specific practices for meeting people at events. At first, I gravitated towards these actions without realizing it, but once I saw how successful they were, I made a point to seek them out. My rules for a successful event are as follows:

  1. Create new connections: Engage in passing, but interesting conversation with 3-4 new people and learn something new
  2. Make new friends: Engage in deep, meaningful conversation with 1-2 new people, possibly multiple times, and really get a sense of who people are
  3. Deepen existing relationships: Engage in deep, meaningful conversation with 1-2 people that I have had a passing conversation with before
  4. Reconnect with existing friends: Spend quality time with the people I already know and love

Networking is ultimately useless if your goal is to throw yourself in from of as many people as possible. I find this to be a much more manageable way to approach large group events, and if I can do all four of those over a 2-3 day event, I consider it a success.

How do you reflect and connect during your travels?

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2 responses to “The Zen Of Chaos: Traveling Alone”

  1. Hi Michelle, I saw you this weekend at Pressnomics and wish I’d said hello. I love this post — I too am an introvert and needed more time to regenerate my batteries, thus my tanks are empty after arriving home late last night. I too have little interest in small talk and like the way you describe your preferred conversations — going deep, always with quick wit and absolutely sprinkling with random, inappropriate comments are what make talking worth doing IMO. I only go to a couple of events a year but hope to catch around one of them in the future.

    1. I hope so too! I try to get out to a few WordCamps and such throughout the year, feel free to stalk my Upcoming Events page to see if we’ll be at the same event soon!