4 Ways to Cultivate Openness to Experience to Enhance Innovation and Leadership

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

I have recently returned from a nine-day trip to Turkey.  It’s been almost five years since I’ve traveled internationally, so I was excited that a trip that I thought would most likely not happen this year due to the COVID pandemic in fact did.  

I was able to travel with my dad through Educational Opportunities, which is a company he has been a host with for a few years.  The trip gave us the opportunity to be a part of a group that explored the country and learned about the history behind prominent places in the early Christian church. 

As excited as I was to get to take part in this opportunity, I was somewhat dreading it as well.  With three kids, two of which are in the throws of spring activities and one who is at the age where all you do is chase him, it makes leaving the country a logistical nightmare for my husband without help. In addition, having one work project that had gone haywire and two more that needed to be wrapped up, led me to be apprehensive about leaving for an extended period of time.  I was exhausted preparing to be gone by the time I got on the plane to exit the country. 

Nevertheless, travel is and most likely always will be an opportunity for me to grow and learn.  I need to set aside time to do it. The trip reiterated for me the importance of building the muscles of openness to experience and what benefits it can bring to our people interactions, work performance, and leadership skills. 

Psychology Today describes openness to experience in this way and articulates some of its benefits: 

In the field of psychology, openness to experience refers to our measurable individual interest in art and beauty, our attention to our sensations and feelings, our intellectual curiosity, our preference for variety, and our active imagination. Put simply, it is the drive to explore novel aspects of human experience and the willingness to consider perspectives different than your own.

Openness is also an essential trait of successful innovators and creatives throughout history. With an appreciation of diverse perspectives and a willingness to try new things, you can better navigate daily challenges and discover novel solutions. Studies even show that openness to experience positively correlates with increased job performance and more creativity.

Openness to experience is also positively correlated to leadership.

Travel is one of the best ways to cultivate “novel aspects of human experience and the willingness to consider perspectives different than your own.”  But you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to strengthen your openness to experience muscles.  Here are four steps to thinking about travel as a way to grow your openness experience and thus your ability to innovate, think creatively, and lead:

1. Travel the place you call home.  No matter how small the place you call home is, you most likely have not seen it all.  There are streets I’ve never driven down in the town I live in.  I drive the same routes seeing the same things every day, as most of us do.  Take a day to go a different way to work, or school or the store, paying close attention to the novel surroundings.  Pick a place that is close to home where you’ve never eaten, never shopped, or never explored and go there instead of where you always frequent.  What new thoughts do these new places bring to mind? 

2. Travel through a good book.  Opening your mind may just mean opening a new book as often as you can.  Choose books about places you’ve never been, people who are different than you are, and on topics, you’ve never explored.  What can the book teach you about something you’ve never experienced and where does it prompt you to explore further?

3. Travel through new relationships.  One of the most fulfilling things about our trip to Turkey was our local guide, “Art”.   Art’s knowledge of Turkish history, as well as current events, was unbelievable.  Raised in a conservative Muslim home where she often felt controlled and stifled, she was the first person in her family to receive a college education.  She spoke openly about her opinions about politics, religion, and the history that has impacted the country she calls home.  She referred to us all as “family” and was an open and active listener when it came to both the group’s questions and opinions that may or may not have mirrored her own.  Despite so many differences in my experiences and hers, I found so many parallels as well, and I will continue to reflect on her impact. 


Art in action in Ephesus.

New relationships could be with people that live in your neighborhood, or it could be with someone halfway around the world. Our relationships with the literal neighbors we have that are in different stages of life than we are have been invaluable.  Just as valuable has been the relationships I’ve cultivated with “neighbors” around the world; I had the privilege of attending graduate school with a diverse group of people. One individual was a Fulbright Scholar from Oman.  She now lives back in Oman and has three children.  My two oldest children are now pen pals with her oldest two.  The dialogue between children living a world away, with a different faith background, and in a very different culture has prompted wonderful questions from my children that I know will grow their openness to experience whether they ever get the chance to visit the Middle East in their lifetime or not. 

What “neighbor” across the street or around the world can you correspond with regularly?  What can you gain from their insights and experiences?

4. Travel to a faraway place.  What place(s) in the world would you suspect are the most different from your day-to-day world?  If time and resources allow, I’d encourage you to go there.  Whereas Turkey was more westernized than I had envisioned, there were so many unique aspects of the country that exposed me to new landscapes, people, food, architecture, and ways of operating.  The call to prayer five times a day regardless of whether we were in Istanbul, a city of 18 million people, or in a rural town where most people are farmers was an opportunity to reflect on a cultural norm in a country that is 99+% Muslim all while exploring the foundational places of the early Christian church.  It provided a very unique way to reflect on religion and faith and the way in which both have shaped history and current events. 

As travel opens back up across the globe, how can you set aside time and resources to make a trip full of learning and reflection happen for you? 

Novel experiences allow us to reflect on new norms and ways of being that could be relevant to our world and open us to broader possibilities. You don’t have to travel around the world to be open to and experience something new and for the journey to be fun. 

What new place will you visit soon? 


User Avatar
Mary Ila Ward