Oh, the Places I’ll Never Go!
How to break the ice faster than global warming
I find most icebreaker exercises excruciating. This is not a particularly hot take. Whether you are sharing a fun fact about yourself with your 50-person lecture hall or panicking on Zoom for three minutes while you scramble to think of a safe-for-work answer that is different than what your six coworkers said, forced bonding is frustrating at best and painful at worst.
The general disdain for icebreakers shared by most is a shame, as I do find it easier to collaborate with classmates or coworkers if I know more about them than merely the color of their lunchbox and preferred brand of pen. Familiarizing yourself with new groups of people is just one of those things that needs to occur naturally to be effective — kind of like how it’s funny to watch your brother stub his toe but terrifying to watch him kick the refrigerator.
Since most icebreaker questions or discussions take place in professional settings, they often fall back on banal, non-confrontational topics. Your boss is not going to ask your department to kick off your weekly call by sharing your thoughts on medically assisted suicide or if postmodern art has separated itself enough from the contemporary school to be considered its own movement. Instead, she is going to task you with talking about things like cooking and hiking, extremely inoffensive activities that nearly everyone can or has done.
Despite my best efforts, I have worked in the office world long enough to have been voluntold to lead icebreakers. I used to learn on pop culture, especially movies and television, for my questions, but as I am on my third full-time job and have yet to have any coworkers younger than I am, pop culture icebreakers typically ended with me being teased for being such a baby — easy and harmless teasing the first time, eye-roll-inducing by the tenth.
Your manager also “recommends” that you subscribe to I’ve Ben Thinking.
One of my favorite things to talk about, icebreaker discussion and otherwise, is travel. I am someone who genuinely loves to hear travel stories. Show me your 72-photo slideshow from Rome. Tell me in detail about the hassle of dealing with the customs authorities at the Shanghai airport at four in the morning. Regale me with the inner workings of bus travel in and around Phoenix. I do not care if we met yesterday or in kindergarten, I want to experience a journey through your eyes.
With questions about your favorite movie or cartoon series off the table, I typically lean on travel questions when conducting icebreakers. Asking people about the favorite trip they have taken or place they most want to visit allows me to daydream about life in some faraway land, free from Zoom chats and Slack messages for five minutes during the icebreaker portion of the agenda while simultaneously helping me refine my ever-changing travel bucket list.
I recently returned from a trip to Iceland with two long-time friends. On the last night of the trip, as we soaked up the 10:00 p.m. sunlight and postponed packing and checking Outlook for the first time in a week, the conversation inevitably turned to talking about where we should go next. As we bounced suggestions back and forth, I reflected on the glacier hike we completed and asked if either of them would ever attempt to climb Mount Everest.
Immediately, one of the guys said yes. Intrigued, I pushed him further. Would he go to space? What about the bottom of the ocean? Yes and yes. Inside a black hole? Yes. Even if he had no hope of survival? Still yes — for science.
Realigning our conversation a bit, I flipped my go-to icebreaker question on its head and asked my overzealous adventurer of a friend where is somewhere he would not want to go? I posited infamous “high risk travel” locations like Somalia and North Korea, countries our federal government implores you not to visit. I was relieved to hear a resounding rejection from my friend, but this line of questioning set me thinking: how do I define what travel I would not want to do?
For one thing, I am certain I will never attempt to summit Everest, or any of the other 8000-meter peaks. Reaching the top of the world requires spending at least 12 hours — and often far more — in the Death Zone, where the air is so thin that the human body eats itself to stay alive. The death rate for climbers is surging, while the ethical failures inherent to the climber-Sherpa dynamic only grow more fraught.
But that’s more of a philosophical take on the question of where I won’t travel. To me, attempting extreme adventure trips like climbing Everest serves no purpose beyond being able to tell others about your achievement. To risk your life and endanger the other people who would need to rescue you in a disaster all in the name of clout chasing feels deeply selfish.
Working backwards from my philosophical foundation, my next set of destination prohibitions is based in morality. When traveling — especially as a white man from a wealthy nation — I feel obligated to avoid contributing to human suffering as much as possible. Visiting nations with tyrannical governments and knowing the money you spend on food and souvenirs does not sit well with me.
I am hyper-aware that there is No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism. All travel creates negative externalities. But just as I choose to boycott Amazon while still purchasing clothes and groceries for myself, I choose to mitigate the downsides of my travel spending. Why visit China and contribute, even a little, to funding the Uyghur genocide, when I can visit Cambodia and contribute to zero genocides?
No nation is without flaw, but moral absolutism leads you to live as a hermit in the woods. Instead, I opt to avoid travel that will fund governments actively perpetrating crimes against humanity. Unless you are a journalist, diplomat, or aid worker, visiting a nation like North Korea feels selfish, the same as climbing Everest. You might not put Sherpas at risk on your trip to Pyongyang, but your family and friends are the ones who will suffer if you are detained, and the most you’ll gain is a story.
After establishing a philosophical framework and moral guidelines, I can move on to the least preachy category of anti-bucket list criteria: personal preference. Visiting Monaco, for example, is unlikely to require me to put my life on the line or pay sales tax to fund prison camps, but it has zero appeal to me whatsoever.
I have been to Las Vegas. It was cool. It also doesn’t change much, at least for tourists, and I feel no desire to go back any time soon. Therefore, a version of Las Vegas where everything costs twice as much and most people speak French is a coming right off the bucket list.
The fun part about personal preferences is that they change constantly. In college, I prioritized nightlife and party culture, leading me to visit Barcelona and Amsterdam. In the wake of the pandemic, I still find crowds somewhat off-putting, leading me to visit ecotourism locales like Costa Rica and Iceland where I can experience new cultures without being surrounded by sweaty people and bad techno.
However, since personal preferences are so fluid, I am hesitant to put destinations whose main attractions are counter to interest on the ban list the same as those that violate my philosophical and moral tenets. I’m not saying I’ll never visit Berlin just because I am out on clubbing as of late — it’s just of lesser interest.1
Next time you are tasked with leading an icebreaker discussion, consider asking people to share places they do not want to visit. You might learn something about how Josh from Accounting views the world and his place in it.
Things I Enjoyed This Week
Euphoria | Isaac Winter for Words & Sports | My friend and fellow Zenith mentee Isaac had his poem published 🥳
How a Big Mac Became a Historical Artifact in Iceland | Atlas Obscura
Disaster at Xichang | Air & Space/Smithsonian
This guy invented blog advertising. Here’s what he’s up to now | The Business of Content (Medium)
Wait! Before you go: take this 30 second survey to help me write a future edition of IBT. To motivate responses, I will choose a random survey respondent and mail them a mystery IBT sticker, free of charge.
This post marks my return after the longest IBT hiatus yet. Thanks for your patience. As always, I appreciate you taking the time to read my words. A confluence of travel and real-life responsibilities made it hard to write for a month or so, but I am back in a big way with this rambling brain dump. I’m working hard on a few other topics and aim to publish weekly for the next four weeks.
Lastly, I have an invite code to Bluesky, my preferred Twitter Replacement. I don’t believe in hoarding and no one I know IRL wanted it, so I’m posting the code publicly. First come, first serve!
I am, however, saying I will never visit Miami again. That city is cursed.