Thankfully, the world is open for travel once again. Traveling can broaden our horizons and make space for people to become more open-minded. How can travel give us the opportunity for personal growth? What are some ways that travel can help us become better human beings? As a part of our series about “How Traveling Can Help Us Become Better Human Beings”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bridget Hilton and Joe Huff.
Bridget and Joe are experts in the art, science, and path to building a life rich in experiences. Their new book Experiential Billionaire: Build a Life Rich in Experiences and Die With No Regrets is out now. Experiential Billionaire provides real tools for building experiential wealth in a guidebook backed by compelling research, told through gripping real-life stories, and filled with actionable takeaways.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
As a kid in a small, blue-collar town in Michigan full of hardworking people, grappling with its fair share of addictions, crime, and harsh economic realities, I fell in love with music and a dream of Hollywood, hoping it would be my ticket to a different future. Music was more than background noise to me. It felt like a safe space, a friend, a home where feelings were in the open, where the artists were able to discuss their personal struggles and chase their dreams. Long story short, I ended up taking this love of music and parlaying it into a career in the music industry, and ended up moving to LA at 21. This led to Joe and I meeting and starting our social enterprise, LSTN, that traveled the world and gave 50,000 people the gift of hearing for the first time, and eventually writing our new book!
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
At age 18, I watched my father’s life come to what looked to be a sudden and very early end one morning when I came downstairs to discover him slumped at the kitchen table, white as a sheet and drenched in sweat. I called 911 and sat there waiting, helpless, until the paramedics showed up. He was rushed to the hospital to begin what would become a living nightmare that lasted over two months.
My dad had a dire case of undiagnosed cardiomyopathy, or swelling and scarring of the heart. His condition was so grave that he was immediately added to the top of the heart transplant list where they gave his odds of survival at less than 10 percent.
Time seemed to stop while we waited for a miracle. As we paced the halls, it felt horrible to think this was how so many people lived, eking out vacations and waiting on a retirement they might never see. Postponing life now for a future that might not exist.
My dad was lucky though. He eventually got the lifesaving transplant. But my dad’s ordeal gave me a great gift: urgency. I was suddenly very aware that there wasn’t a guarantee on how much time I had to experience my dreams and fulfill my goals. That mentality is what drove me to try and start businesses that mattered and do things that would create fulfilling experiences while simultaneously trying to make the world a better place. That was really the catalyst moment for me that enabled me to start building rich experiences that I may have never had without that sense of urgency and intentionality.
It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
At age 27, I filed for personal bankruptcy. My dad’s health scare had armed me with the urgency to make the most of my life. But I still made mistakes, and at age 27, a few too many of them combined to spark financial disaster.
For work, I drove around doing quality control inspections of giant bales of recyclable materials bound for over- seas. It was exactly as glamorous as it sounds. I had decent pay and flexible hours, but I was a contractor, which meant I had to pay my own taxes. I neglected to do this for three years before I realized that was a bad long-term strategy and decided to clean it up.
Not wanting to break my streak of good decisions, I hired a guy named Tattoo Tony to do my taxes (yes, he had a lot of tattoos). I signed off on all the returns, sent them to the IRS, and promptly forgot all about it. Looking back, I’m think- ing the IRS probably flags people filing back taxes as good candidates for an audit. Or people who use Tattoo Tony. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
It was about a year after filing all those tax forms that I received an audit notice. I wasn’t thrilled with the hassle, but I figured I was fine. After all, Tattoo Tony had done my taxes. What could go wrong? The red flags had been due to some clerical mistakes Tattoo Tony had made in the filing, but once the IRS was in the door, they wanted to go back further than the past three years. I couldn’t come up with the documentation they wanted. For the IRS, no documentation means it didn’t happen, which meant I had a huge tax bill and penalties, too.
I might have been able to pay that bill, but around the same time, I went on a 24-hour snowboarding trip to the local mountains. That turned out to be just enough time to lose control on some black ice and total my car…two days after I had accidentally let my car insurance lapse. That was the final Jenga block on top of my teetering finances, and everything came crashing down.
I suddenly found myself considering a desperate course of action: bankruptcy. Once filed, it would take about 10 years to fully recover my financial status and creditworthi- ness. Ten years of hustling and scrimping to erase debts and rebuild my credit score. I visited a bankruptcy attor- ney, who calmly explained that the fee for filing bankruptcy was $2,500. It was like getting kicked when I was already down, but it did have one benefit. It gave me a great line for my stand-up comedy routine: “So now I’ve gotta go around telling people I’d like to be bankrupt, but I just can’t afford it.”
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“You cannot stop the waves but you can learn to surf” — Jon Kabat-Zinn
I love this because it’s simple, but can be applied to so many problems in life. Plus I love to surf ☺
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
We just launched our book, Experiential Billionaire, in addition to our very first card deck, Treasure Maps: Exercises to find and rediscover your dreams. We also do keynote speaking to communities and corporations around the country. All were written with the intention of helping people break through the barriers they encounter when trying to accomplish personal (and professional) goals.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about travel and personal growth. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or personal experience, why do you think travel can lead to personal growth? Can you share a story?
One of the most impactful travel experiences happened right here in the US. I have traveled to all 50 of the United States. It was a project I started taking seriously in 2016, after the presidential election left the country feeling more divided than ever. By then, I’d had a pretty solid head start, between childhood road trips and being on tour in the music industry. I decided to make an effort to get at least a taste of all the rest — maybe that way I would have a better idea of what “land of the free” really meant.
Traveling the US feels like you’re visiting a bunch of different countries wrapped into one. Downtown Seattle has little in common with a cornfield town in Kansas. When someone from a different country thinks of the US, they likely think of NYC or Hollywood or Silicon Valley. The reality is that the country is classified as 95 percent rural — there’s a ton of wide open space. And in all that space is an incredible diversity of landscapes, lifestyles, ethnicities, languages, and beliefs. Sadly, it’s estimated that half of Americans see fewer than 10 states in their lifetimes.
In every state, I made an effort to experience its unique culture — its traditional foods, special places in nature, and signature activities. I ate hatch chiles and went hot air ballooning over the Rio Grande in New Mexico, worked on a lobster boat in Massachusetts, ate reindeer and went on a midnight glacier hike in Alaska, visited Native American reservations in the Dakotas, rolled down sand dunes in Indiana, ate beignets and watched jazz in New Orleans, roped steers in Wyoming, and ended my quest by eating Spam musubi and learning beekeeping in Hawaii.
In each place, I made an effort to speak to people who seemed to be on opposite sides of the spectrum than me in many ways. I saw more truckstops, tumbleweeds, and roadside dive bars than I ever thought possible. It was a far cry from what the news would have you believe. I found that if you watch the news, it’s easy to hate this country… but there are some things that can’t be learned through a screen. They must be seen, heard, and felt in person. If you drive through the States, there’s beauty to be found in each place — both in the landscapes and the people.
After all those experiences, it’s much easier to see that everyone has their reasons for thinking and living the way they do. Most people aren’t crazy or evil — they’ve just arrived at a particular set of conclusions based on the experiences they’ve had and the information they’ve been given. I’m now a firm believer that most people are just friends we haven’t met yet, as the vast majority of people across the United States (and the world, for that matter) were fundamentally friendly and helpful. When you recognize that, you can do away with the labels and fear and just listen to each other with empathy and open minds.
A recent survey from Psychology Today showed that over 80% of participants found that travel helped them with problem-solving or decision-making. Why do you think this is true for so many people?
Travel helps with problems and decision making because it puts you in a different zone — unfamiliar surroundings that make you think differently.
Do you think travel enhances our mindfulness, optimism, or sense of gratitude? How? Can you please explain with an example or story?
One of my favorite parts of travel is the level of optimism and gratitude I feel in the moment and more importantly afterward. I saw this clearly on a recent trip to India. After battling cows on Delhi freeways, waking up at 4 a.m. to be alone at the Taj Mahal, and meditating at Gandhi’s ashram, I headed to Mumbai to meet with local education and water filtration nonprofits. There I learned that the massive city was roughly 60 percent slums — millions of people living in makeshift houses of corrugated metal sheets, tarpaulin, and scrap materials. Despite the efforts of government agencies and NGOs, access to basic amenities like clean water and sanitation remained limited. Residents faced many challenges, including inadequate infrastructure, high rates of crime and drug abuse, and limited healthcare and education. The area was also prone to flooding during the monsoon season, which made life even harder.
I had already seen extreme poverty in other parts of the world, and I admit I expected these slums to resemble some scenes of desperation and hopelessness I had witnessed before. Instead, I encountered the opposite — everyone around me seemed remarkably cheerful. Everywhere we walked, people smiled, waved, and said hello to us. Children giggled and played in the streets, and every corner was full of vibrant activity and community. I found the residents displayed incredible resilience, adaptability, and a very positive attitude toward life. It blew my mind how full of pure joy they were.
I asked my local friends how this could be true in the midst of such challenging circumstances, and the answer was simple: karma. Of course, everyone has heard of karma, but I had never actually seen it at the forefront of a culture like this. Nearly 80 percent of India is Hindu, and according to Hindu belief, every individual has an eternal soul that is reborn over and over. The nature of the body and the conditions of one’s life in each reincarnation are determined by one’s karma, which is the sum total of all one’s actions, thoughts, and intentions in previous lives. Good actions lead to good karma, while bad actions lead to bad karma. Intention matters, too; good deeds only create good karma when performed with genuine good intentions, not selfish or deceitful ones.
The happiness I saw didn’t justify or romanticize the challenges these people faced. But my takeaway from this experience is that even in these difficult living conditions, there was a palpable sense of generosity, kindness, and hope. They did the most with the least, not the least with the most like many of us do. They focused on what they could give, not what they lacked, and their quality of life was better for it — we can all learn from that.
Surely not everyone who travels automatically becomes an exemplar of human decency. What are a few reasons why some people completely miss out on the growth opportunities that travel can offer?
I understand why people want to turn off their brain and just relax by going to all-inclusive type resorts, however I think this is one area where they’re missing out on growth opportunities. There is so much to see outside resort towns in many of the countries that Americans like to travel to.
Thank you for that. Now for our main question; What are your “5 Habits You Should Develop In Order Make Travel Into An Opportunity For Personal Growth?”
That’s such a great question, because travel can be difficult and intimidating at times but once you embrace all the growth potential opportunities it can unleash it’s easy to see why it’s so frequently at the top of the list for people’s life goals and bucket lists.
The 5 habits we think everyone should try and consciously and intentionally focus on when traveling are:
- Learn something new — wherever you are/whatever you’re doing — this one is so easy but it’s surprising how often people pass through a new place and don’t bother to even find out any of the rich history and meaning behind the place and its people.
- Give back — by finding ways to enrich the experiences of others or making someone’s life or even just their day better,
- Build new and stronger relationships — The science is so clear that we build the strongest bonds by experiencing new and novel places and things together. That’s why we are so close with those people we spent a few days at a festival with or went on that camping trip with. And this isn’t limited to your travel companions. You can make new friends on the go that can become lifelong friends. Even just asking polite questions or sharing our own wisdom, insights, and experiences with strangers (waiters, bartenders, tour guides, store clerks, etc…), is powerful and often leads to new friendships and opportunities for new experiences that would have otherwise never have been possible.
- Find the positive value in difficult situations — Travel can be difficult at times but it’s almost always worth it — whether it’s the travel day to get to somewhere amazing that you fall in love with, or whether the difficult situation later becomes a great and funny story. I remember so many times that something went horribly wrong that is now the funniest and best memory of a trip. So remember that when you’re in the middle of a situation and think about what you’ll draw from that experience later when you remember or retell the story. This is a good way to approach most of life, not just travel.
- Find and nourish your inner child — traveling can be intimidating but one easy way to overcome that is to find something fun to do that is just about fun and then leaning into it. Essentially, find some way to play just for the sake of play. It could be playing a local sport, learning to tell jokes in another language, or playing road trip games.
Travel is rich in opportunities for building experiential wealth. You just have to pay attention and make sure you don’t get caught up focusing on the wrong things. If you keep a positive attitude and growth mindset, your travel adventures are sure to enrich your life in many ways.
From your experience, does travel have a negative impact on personal growth too? Is there a downside to travel?
The downside to travel for us is that being on different schedules makes it hard to maintain certain parts of wellness such as getting enough sleep at the right times, or eating healthy when you’re in a random airport in the middle of nowhere. However, over time we’ve developed habits like going in the sun/outside if we have jetlag and bringing healthy snacks we like with us that have helped.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
Definitely Tony Robbins or Jesse Itzler. The goal of Experiential Billionaire is to help as many people as possible transform their lives so that when the end of their life arrives, they can look back at an incredible life story, knowing that they lived their one existence to the fullest. I would love to learn from the best people out there and see if there’s a way to reach more people and change more lives.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success.