How Rural Retreats Cultivate Creativity

Originally published as part of graduate research at MSU-Mankato, 2019

Effects of Urbanization: How Rural Retreats Cultivate Creativity


Imagine for a moment the typical corporate boardroom. It is designed to be as efficient and functional as possible. Everything is identical in shape, size, color, and space; the cohesion is undeniably succinct from the mesh-backed black chairs to the monochrome telephone to the spacing of the matte silver door handles. It comes as no surprise, then, that consistent meetings within a room of this design are unlikely to be a breeding ground for “aha!” moments. This analysis will serve as an argument for the importance of routinely exposing professional groups to a natural environment in order to promote creative thinking.

            On the surface, living and working in a bustling urban city promotes attractive benefits of engaging its community members in advancements of arts, entertainment, business opportunities, etc. More and more people around the world are gravitating toward urban environments, creating an epidemic of smaller, more densely populated urban cities where open spaces once occupied. According to UN, an additional 2.5 billion people are predicted to live in urban areas by 2050 (UN News, 2014). As the growth of smaller urban cities continues to rise, so does the lack of access to green space. This is detrimental for a myriad of reasons, one vastly important issue being the constant exposure to stimuli with little to no reprieve. Additionally, in any given workplace environment within the confines of the urban landscape, one is unlikely to encounter a natural environment for days—or even weeks—at a time due to overwhelmingly rigid schedules and seemingly endless construction.

The traditional 9 to 5 lifestyle is quite simply not conducive to spending quality time outdoors. With the status quo being a house-to-work-and-back-again schedule, when do people have the opportunity to slow down? When do they find the time to let their brains take in an hour of solitude and quiet? Where do they go to escape the noise and lights of the city?

The notion that that the brain suffers dramatic neural effects due to over stimuli is nothing new, whereas according to psychologist Donald Hebb it is “reported that rats allowed to run free in his home performed better on problem-solving tasks than rats kept in standard laboratory cages” (Lambert, Nelson, Jovanovic, Cerdá, 2014). This coincides with Charles Darwin’s discovery that domesticated rabbit’s contained smaller brains than their wild counterparts (Lambert, et al., 2014). These findings suggest a strong link to the development and function of the brain when habitually exposed to natural elements. The importance of exposure to natural environments is clear – it cultivates clarity, decision-making, and the opportunity to think creatively.

In a world of increasing technology and distraction, businesses are starved for both employee retention and team development. Without proper time outside of office walls, teams are likely to fall into a pattern of what Josef Pieper, German philosopher, referred to as ‘total work.’ David Levy alludes to Pieper’s theories in his article No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship, 2007. In reference to Pieper’s theories, Levy recounts Pieper’s claim that “The world of work is becoming our entire world, it threatens to engulf us completely, and the demands of the world of work become greater and greater, till at last they a make a ‘total’ claim upon the whole of human nature” (Levy, 2007, p.240).

            This workplace-focused trajectory threatens our ability to utilize leisure to our creative advantage. Increasingly, one of the biggest obstacles of our generation is burnout. In an op-ed written by Huffington Post Founder and CEO, Arianna Huffington, burnout is referred to as the “disease of our civilization.” According to Huffington, the American workplace refuses to divert from its current path to destructive environmental qualities and instead “glorifies an approach to measuring success that leads to burnout and a culture enraptured with technology to the point that tools meant to give us greater control of our lives have, instead, taken control of our lives” (Huffington, 2013). Burnout displays itself in many different forms ranging from exhaustion to irritability to the inability to continue in your current role due to disinterest. Depriving teams the opportunity to disconnect and gain clarity in a significantly less frenetic environment is harmful to the mental and physical health of everyone involved in the business. As creativity dwindles and burnout grows, employers are likely to find they cannot keep their teams focused enough to thrive in competitive markets.

To put it simply, teams can benefit greatly from time away from their daily interactive environments. A rural retreat in an area like Northern Minnesota offers a company the ability to get employees out of the office and into a fresh environment, encouraging imaginative thinking and the opportunity to disconnect from their over-stimulated lifestyles. A meeting set in a Northwoods environment overlooking a quiet, crystal clear lake can transform the mind and body to slow down and think differently. Without the distraction of busy streets, bright lights, monochromatic office walls and stifling agendas, the mind is free to wander in new, imaginative directions.

To experience a rural retreat, contact me or check out The Leadership Center at Sugar Lake Lodge for more information.


More than half of world's population now living in urban areas, UN survey finds | UN News. (2014, July 10). Retrieved from


Brains in the city: Neurobiological effects of urbanization | Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews. (2014, October 8). Kelly G Lambert, Randy J Nelson, Tanja Jovanovic, Magdalena Cerdá. Retrieved from d2l.


No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship | Ethics and Information Technology. (2007). David M Levy. Retrieved from d2l.


Burnout: The Disease of Our Civilization | (2013, October 21). Huffington, A. Retrieved from

Dealing with Change

Somewhere between St. Jean Pied de Port, France & Roncesvalles, Spain

Somewhere between St. Jean Pied de Port, France & Roncesvalles, Spain


If you had told me…

How many times have you heard someone start a sentence like that? “If you had told me two years ago that I would be making a billion dollars per minute just for eating cheese with a wooden spoon, I would’ve laughed in your face!”

You’re right, Karen, two-years-ago-you definitely could not have predicted that outcome. Despite our desire to believe that someone can predict the future, lifestyle changes and career 180s are inevitable. We can’t always plan for the exact future we want, but we can at least mitigate the stigma around changing your mind.

Why is it often considered a bad thing to change your mind? Change your career? Change your plans? Change your life?

To put it simply, change is a form of uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds fear. When things are not constant, we find ourselves becoming wary and suspicious of its merit. As someone who has willingly changed their life in a myriad of ways, I am of the belief that change is an opportunity for growth and discovery.

Of course, I didn’t wake up with this mentality; I had to learn it. And, because I’m a human person, I still struggle with it.

About two years ago, I set out on a month-long trek across Northern Spain with my mom. We were following the Francés route of El Camino de Santiago - an infamous pilgrimage from the border of France heading west to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. When you start the 500 mile trek along El Camino de Santiago, it is tradition to set an intention for the journey. Along the way, you ask/answer others about “the call to walk.” Everyone’s reasoning is different and a large part of the intrigue of this trek is being exposed to their unique purpose. I found this part of the journey the most satisfying - the instant camaraderie and unwavering support of everyone’s personal goals made walking in blisters much more tolerable. Also, wine.

My intention for the Camino - along with spending time with my soulmate mother - was to find meaning in something I’m very good at but often unsure of how to manage properly: listening

I have the tendency to use my skills as a “good listener” to better myself and the situations I’m in. I listened to myself when I wanted to work for a magazine. I listened when I felt unappreciated as a young entry-level employee at a startup company. I listened when I felt burnt out, overworked, underpaid, and unhappy. I did all of this “listening” to make a change for the better, but I still felt empty. My listening skills were useful but seemingly unfulfilling.

On the Camino, we found ourselves constantly walking through different types of weather and terrain, and every time something would change, we would adapt. We circumnavigated parts of the trail that were too muddy to trek; we put up and took down umbrellas; we rushed to escape wind at the peak of a mountain and slowed down on the steady inclines. The most daunting, however, was the fog. The thick, daunting fog engulfed us in the early mornings making it impossible to see even 5-10 feet ahead. We were blindly following a trail with no real idea of what was ahead of us.

Do you see where I’m going with this?!

The Camino forced us to listen - to ourselves, our surroundings, and to each other. We relied on our most basic senses to stay safe, motivated, and on track. Despite the fog clouding our vision of the impending destination, we found clarity in listening to our instincts.

I LOVE this metaphor because I have not always been a catalyst for change. I didn’t always treat “change” with the appreciation that I do today. This came as a life lesson after traveling for a living and being forced to adapt to unfamiliar scenarios. The ways in which I came to accept this detour-filled lifestyle are best represented in these four categories: understanding, acceptance, planning, and opportunity. Also, wine.


There is nothing worse than someone telling you to calm down in a stressful situation. I often refer to my time as a Marketing Coordinator at a law firm as The Wildfire Years. Things were constantly changing for no comprehensible reason. Lawyers like to change their mind…and those of us on the receiving end are forced to adapt quickly. This made for a very toxic work environment at times - because opinions and capabilities differ greatly across a department and not everything is as easy as a “can you do this yesterday?” email. Communication, as usual, is key. Gaining a solid understanding of the what, who, when, where, why, and how massively decreases the possibility of confusion, frustration, and the tendency to react instead of respond.

The understanding of possibility makes a huge difference as well. Sometimes things just can’t be done, but perhaps there is another way. A previous manager I had was amazing at seeing the possibilities - nothing was impossible, we just had to change course.

When a major shift presents itself, ask questions. Ask all the questions. Pepper the room with questions - I guarantee there’s a new hire sitting near to you just dying to hear the answer.


Change is inevitable. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you are able to control your reaction to it. In the many times I’ve had to switch to plan B after a flight has been cancelled or an apartment stay didn’t pan out properly, I found that accepting the situation as it was in that moment helped me calmly make other plans. Quitting my job and moving to Thailand was a giant “wtf” in every capacity, but I made the decision and the only way for me to thrive was to accept the change and get started.

Acceptance is a fickle thing due to our minds being able to rapid-fire panic in the form of “easy ways out.” You know how it is - your heart is beating fast, you feel hot and sweaty, and all of a sudden you realize you’re on WebMD and positive you’re having a heart attack. You’re probably not (fingers crossed?) but your brain has the ability to lead you straight into Panic City. I’m not lying when I say I’ve found myself sitting on a metal folding chair at 3am in the Riyadh airport audibly coaching myself into accepting the rerouted flight plan that turned a 12 hour travel day into a 36 hour travel day. Acceptance goes a long way in calming you down and preparing you for action.


Here is something I am not an absolute expert in…planning. I have a need to have a plan, but I am often overwhelmed when it comes to details and itineraries and logistics and on and on and on. To me, this can feel suffocating. But one thing that stands out in my first few weeks of the Experiential Education program at MSU Mankato is the theory behind Project Based Learning (PBL). Essentially, PBL demonstrates the benefits of enabling students to observe, interact, experiment and discover solutions through critical thinking. Learning to utilize resources (or thinking creatively with what you have available) is invaluable knowledge that comes from experience and exposure to unique problems.

Kaija the Kangaroo

Kaija the Kangaroo

My niece, who is five years old, couldn’t understand a small 3D puzzle she received recently. There were a few parts that she just couldn’t fit together to create this multi-colored foam kangaroo she so desperately wanted to build before her dad got home (she wanted to give it to him). When you’re five, trying to sequence things to complete a finished project is a new adventure in itself, so I helped her (sparingly) by sorting the pieces and giving her the opportunity to envision the end result. After multiple tries, failing, a little bit of crying and possibly a swear word, she made a plan to build it multiple ways until it made sense. Trial and error? At five? Let’s send her Harvard.

Planning is essential in easing your mind of being overwhelmed with thoughts and endless possibilities. Planning, in the face of a problem, controls your chaos.


Halfway through our trek along El Camino de Santiago, my mom started to experience debilitating pain in her left heel. We made our way into Burgos and took a few days to let her rest up and (hopefully) heal. After a lot of downtime and pain meds, it was clear that walking another 250 miles was, quite simply, out. We had spent three days honing in on the past few steps - understanding the issue, accepting our fate, planning an alternate route. Now came time for opportunity, whether we were ready or not.

We made it to Santiago de Compostela (in a very roundabout way) and while we didn’t think we would be there for another two weeks, we found that the timing was impeccable. Up until this point, the entire trail was overcrowded and we never had a chance to slow down and take in the experience, even though we were walking 8-10 hours per day. Once we arrived in Santiago, time seemed to stop. We ate paella, mingled with locals, stumbled upon a classically-trained opera singer in an underpass after a soul-reviving mass at the cathedral. I suppose you could say we made lemonade out of lemons but, most importantly, we took what we had available and really listened to what it was we hoped to accomplish.

Creating opportunity isn’t always going to be as easy as taking a quick detour, and while each circumstance is different, acknowledging the process of dealing with change will at least make things a little easier on you and those around you.

In the words of Peter Bailey, President of The Prouty Project, “It’s not that people don’t like change, they don’t want to be changed.” It’s all about the value of that change.

So, if you had told me two years ago that I would be sitting in a coffee shop reading Ex Ed textbooks and writing about ways to best deal with change, I like to think I would’ve said “Honestly, I believe it.”


Photos from El Camino de Santiago, 2017