Why Celeste Headlee Loves to Travel by Train

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" On the train, I don’t hate people. I feel more human and less monster. The train allows me to slow down and be aware of what’s happening. The train is about mindfulness." Celeste Headlee

One of my big goals for 2019 is to host a series of interviews with thought leading storytellers from beyond the active mobility world of biking walking and public transit. People who are asking important questions about how we live today and whether it’s really serving us. And, just as importantly, I’m interested in those who are artfully succeeding at growing an avid, engaged following.

My intention is to help us understand how to improve our storytelling and communications skills so that we can learn to far better connect with the broadest audiences possible.

I’m delighted that Celeste Headlee is the first in this series. I’ve been a fan of hers from her NPR hosting days, and appreciate her wise commentary on Twitter. Which is where I found out last week that she was heading out this week on a two-week cross-country road trip via train, and would be looking to connect with her fellow passengers via conversation.

Melissa Balmer: Celeste you' re about to embark on a two-week cross-country journey by train that ties together two of your big passions - the art of conversation and seeing America from the window of a train. Your trip is both a continuation of your first book "We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter" and a bridge to your next book focusing in part on the unsustainable pace of work today. 

How did the idea of tying the two together via train journey come together?

Celeste Headlee: After my first book, I was left with a big question: if face-to-face conversation is so good for us emotionally, physically, and cognitively, why do we avoid it? I had to peel back the layers of research to find my answer (and it's the subject of my next book): we think we don't have time. Most people feel overwhelmed and exhausted and they get impatient when someone starts telling them a story, even if listening to that story makes them healthier and happier, which it does. I started looking for this impatience in other areas and found it everywhere. As I looked for ways to change my own habits and learn to be more aware of what's happening, to enjoy being as much as becoming, I decided to take this trip. The train is a perfect way to combine both of these ideas: a pace that is slow enough to encourage reflection and a captive audience where I might be able to talk with people from all over the country, to literally get out of my bubble and hear perspectives that I don't normally hear.

MB: We live in an era where speed is the Holy Grail. I liken it to an addiction. And it seems the faster things go, the more quickly we get angry and frustrated they're not moving even faster. 

You, instead, see great value is slowing down. What are you finding is the best way to speak to family, friends, colleagues and Americans in general about why slowing down is worth considering? 

CH: I try to open up to them about my own challenges in this area. I'm not trying to give anyone unsolicited advice, but to start a conversation about the pace of life. So many of us seem to be running as fast as we can, but we're on a treadmill and we're not making any actual progress. We are constantly looking for ways to do things faster, rarely asking if we're doing them better. What's more, our brains are not designed to be in productive mode all the time. The mind needs regular periods of rest and idleness in order to function best. I am trying to build those opportunities for rest into my life.

MB: I was enchanted by your recent Medium blog piece "Why Ride the Train?" including your quote:

" On the train, I don’t hate people. I feel more human and less monster. The train allows me to slow down and be aware of what’s happening. The train is about mindfulness."

Mindfulness is both a type of meditation practice and a much broader philosophy for how one approaches living. You, I believe, are referring to the second one, but perhaps both. Am I correct?
I correct? Why has mindfulness become important to you?

CH: I am a practicing Buddhist, so I'm talking about both. Mindfulness has been proven, time and again, to be incredibly beneficial to the human psyche and physiology. To achieve mindfulness, you have to slow down, breathe, become aware of your surroundings, and focus on being present in that moment. Our modern habits, with constant interruptions from our smartphones and tablets and home electronics, can prevent us from being mindful. But clinical study shows that practicing mindfulness makes you less prone to depression and less likely to dwell on negative thoughts. It also boosts your memory and focus, leads to increased satisfaction in your relationships, and makes you more likely to consider other opinions and views. Currently, we live like sharks, believing that we'll die if we're not constantly in motion. We all need to slow down and take a breath.

MB: During your two-week trip, you're looking to actively have conversations with a broad array of fellow travelers. Is there an age group, or section of the population you haven't been able to connect with as much as you'd like to that you're hoping your trip will make possible.

CH: I created a sign that says "I'll trade a Lindt truffle for a story." I don't care who comes to chat with me; I'm open to all of the conversations. However, it would be great to hear from people whose experience is wildly different from my own. 

MB: You already travel regularly as an author, speaker, and musician. Your preferred method of travel are trains, and I know that your original fascination with them comes from your late grandfather (the composer William Grant Still).

As an adult when did you realize you really wanted to make them your preferred method of travel whenever possible?

CH: When I lived in Atlanta and traveling by train was not a viable option, I realized quickly how important trains were to me. What's more, as I spent more time in Europe, where trains are everywhere, I longed to live in a place where airplanes weren't my only option. Trains are the perfect combination of comfort, sustainability, and convenience, and they move across the country at a human pace. I can see the landscape change outside the window as we pass from coastal towns to urban areas to the trees of a national park. So many modern social problems are caused by our isolation and our collective retreat to insulated bubbles. Planes force us to gather together, but in a way that's stressful and often brings out the worst in us. Trains, on the other hand, force us into contact with one another in a quiet, more relaxed environment in which human interaction is more possible and more welcome. 

Read more about Celeste’s train trip across America adventure here:


More About Celeste Headlee

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Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker, human nature expert and author of Heard Mentality and We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter. In her 20-year career in public radio, she has been the Executive Producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as co-host of the national morning news show, The Takeaway, from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Celeste’s TEDx Talk sharing “10 ways to have a better conversation” has over 19 million total views to date and is one of the 10 most popular TEDx talks to date.