National Geographic and the Pleasure of Low-Tech Escape

My goal as a marketing researcher and strategist is always to tell my clients something they don’t already know. The insight, for example, that a key benefit of business software is reduced workload as a result of automation isn’t exactly groundbreaking.

But now I am purposefully going to tell you something that you already know, something so obvious that you wouldn’t think that you would need to read another blog about it. But you do. It’s a simple story but a good one. The outcome might be kind of obvious, but hey, you sat through A Star is Born and Black Panther. You knew all along how those would end, right?

I had lined up a podcast with Jill Cress, Chief Marketing Officer of National Geographic, and I had work to do. Other than watching the Albert Einstein miniseries on their cable channel, I had not interacted with the brand in many years.

Growing up, the latest issues of the iconic yellow-framed magazine were always on the coffee table in our family room. Dozens of past issues, shelved in chronological order, formed an impressive yellow block on the bookshelves. While I did receive a comp subscription of the magazine when I was in the ad business, it fell by the wayside when I went out on my own and had to fork over my own money for the dozen or so magazines I had been getting for free.

Tasked with playing catch up, I set aside time to explore the NatGeo website and online edition to absorb the full breadth of the company’s activity. Something wonderful happened in the process. My nuts and bolts research transformed into an exploration of other worlds, an escape from the day-to-day grind to an experience full of discovery and joy. For a few brief, glorious hours, I didn’t think of Donald Trump even once.

This is no joke and no small thing in our stress-filled world of political dysfunction, corruption and alternative facts where black is white, up is down.

I subscribed immediately. Not just to the online version, but to the print edition as well. I desperately needed to recapture that feeling of healthy escape and mind-expanding journey.

Two weeks ago was one of the best Sundays I had spent in quite some time. First, I decided that I deserved – or desperately needed – a day off. No doubt many business owners will agree that it’s hard to stop working. It’s the rare weekend day that I sleep late, laze about, read a book, take a leisurely drive to nowhere, go shopping, watch sports on TV or do anything that normal people do. Not me. Get up, meditate, read, work, work out, work some more, dinner, read some more, Seinfeld re-run, bed. Fun guy, right?

A lot of people I know in corporate jobs aren’t much better. I’ve been emailing back and forth with an ad agency colleague of mine all week. In the latest of the exchange, he apologized for not being able to set up a call this week. Seems he’s on vacation but still working and allowing himself to be overwhelmed.

That’s the other problem. When we’re not working, we’re still connected, addicted to checking our messages. I know for a fact that the first time I don’t check my email for a few hours that the CEO of Proctor & Gamble will email me about a million dollar plus project. And if I don’t respond immediately, they’ll give that project to another company. Yes, that’s a fact.

I was especially fried and brain-dead that Sunday, mentally exhausted from stress and physically exhausted from doing big workouts every day that week, peaking with Saturday when I did a long yoga class, lifted weights and put in an hour on the elliptical machine. The strategic brilliance, report writing, content machine would have to be put on hold. I’d have to miss a day of workouts. Mind and body were in need of replenishment.

I do go out on my porch some late afternoons and evenings to kick back and read, almost always on my Kindle or iPad. My phone – which I’m checking 24/7 for that big P&G project – is always next to me. This Sunday was different. The devices came out with me but weren’t touched. I dove into the latest print edition of National Geographic – a real magazine that I could hold in my hands.

Just as when I was poking around the website to do my podcast research, the time flew by. A few hours later, having explored vast underground caves in Borneo, searched for extraterrestrial and other adventures, a strange feeling overtook me. I was relaxed. My mind was at ease. I felt satisfied, focused and in the moment. My mind was not doing its usual dance, darting from thought to thought and obligation to obligation with the overwhelming sense that I’d never be able to get on top of it all.

I was felt inspired, and by the time I got back to work early on Monday morning, my mind was fresh. The mystery and vastness of underground cave systems and the possibility – the certainty, really – of life on other planets provided a different perspective on my usual work.

The nature of the subject matter made me feel humbled. Not unlike the purpose of religion or any spiritual endeavor, contemplating something “bigger” than one’s self keeps things in perspective. My latest work on a toothpaste line extension can’t really compare to discovering life in the universe.

The practical aspects of this “time away” are equally important. Exploring new and different worlds brings a different point of view and fresh perspective to your work. In fact, I have always used this type of exercise in creative brainstorming sessions. For example, thinking about the world of sharks led to a whole new category of products at Taco Bell like the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, featuring a hard taco wrapped in a soft tortilla. The observation that sharks eat other fish led to the idea of a tortilla “eating” a taco.

You knew how this story would go. Busy person takes time off and feels refreshed. You’ve heard it before. But are you listening?

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