The more I've researched the category of vacations, sabbaticals, intentional work breaks, work-fasts, electronic fasts, time off, time out, or whatever else you want to throw into the category, the more I've come into contact with some philosophies that probably never would have made my radar screen. This has been very illuminating, but also a bit disheartening.
Why I Wrote the Book
I set out to write A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation because I felt so entirely blessed to be on my first real sabbatical that I wanted desperately to share what I had learned with others. I had gotten back in touch with a program of maintaining peak performance and razor sharp clarity of focus. In my own life, I had truly rediscovered the art of vacation. In fact, I came back from that original summer sabbatical so refreshed, so recharged, that within just one year I relocated my family to a different state (a decision with which I'd wrestled for almost a decade), wrote one best selling book (Rascal: Making a Difference by Becoming an Original Character), co-authored another with my good friend Orrin Woodward (LIFE), and launched a multimillion dollar company with seven of my best friends. Not bad for a mere four weeks off.
My Formula from College
As I explain in the Italy book, I had once possessed a formula that, for me, worked perfectly. It was while I was studying engineering at an intensive undergraduate institute that I had first stumbled across this arrangement. It came from being outgunned and outclassed in almost every way as I struggled with the workload of seven classes per semester and more math and science than I even care to remember. The students around me seemed so much more unconcerned and laid back about it than I did, and, quite frankly, I panicked. They went out to get drunk and I hit the books. I worked so hard I earned the nickname "Machine." My homework was always done on time, I posted very good grades, and I had not an ounce of fun. At least, from Sunday night at about 8:00 until Friday after lunch. In between those times I was a quintessential workaholic. However, (and this is the part where the formula comes in), I would leave campus like a clown shot out of a circus cannon on Friday afternoon and forget all about the place for the weekend. I'd hang out with my girlfriend, visit my parents' cottage in the "up north" of Michigan, and do just about anything except school work. This usually involved all my favorite activities, such as jet skiing, motorcycling in the dunes, playing football with my buddies, water skiing, reading, playing at the beach, and camping. By the time I returned to campus I was clear-headed, wide-eyed, and ready to go. My ambition had been refueled and my tanks refilled.
How Had I Lost It?
I have tried to go back and figure out exactly how or why I lost touch with something that had once been so powerful in my life. The only conclusion I can draw is that I didn't see it as such a stand-alone, creative program at the time. Let's face it, most of us grow up in a school system that sort of takes care of this for us. We are accustomed to summer breaks, holidays, weekends off, and time between level advancements to get mentally ready for the next step. Suddenly, though, we find ourselves out in the "real world" where no hours are off limits when it comes to working a job and vacations are scarce (especially for the new hire). A sort of sick ambition sets in as the aggressiveness of youth pairs itself with the resiliency of youth, blending to obscure the fact that we are not machines, and that we need regular "down times" to maximize the "up times." The older we get the less we can get away with recklessly abusing our schedule as though endless effort will somehow produce better results. It can't. In short, I had achieved a lot in my adult life, but I had gotten away from a formula of intentional rest and restoration which could have helped me accomplish so much more. Stephen Covey calls it sharpening the saw, and of all his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it has to be the most neglected. There are scores of books on goal setting, beginning with the end in mind, persevering, and game planning, but almost nobody talks about strategic breaks. It seems that rats in a race are not allowed a pit stop.
Is Vacation the End Goal?
This brings me to some philosophies of happiness which have gathered a following. Certain of these trains of thought suggest that time off is not merely an elixir to heal the wounds of stress and enable one to pursue his or her true calling in life, but rather that time off is the overall point. It's the old pursuit of happiness trap whereby pleasure is sold as fulfillment. "Just do what makes you happy and fill the space in between with enough work to pay for it." "The more you play the happier you'll be." To me, it's like the old bumper sticker that says, "He who dies with the most toys, wins!" except it's been modified for our twenty-first century sensibilities to nothing more than, "He who dies with the most adventures, wins!" The new version is just as much of a lie as the older.
Don't Get Me Wrong (Thanks, Chrissy Hines for an ever-quotable line, stuck in my head to the tune of your old song.)
On the other hand, however, I am not advocating the workaholism that several generations of Americans have thoroughly proven as the path to ruined health, ruined relationships, and yes, unhappiness. All I'm saying is that we can't swing the pendulum too far the other way. If we're not careful, being idle can easily become an idol in our lives. We slide down the slippery slope of wanting too much of a good thing.
Remember: It is not all that important that we succeed, but it IS supremely important that we matter! Wasting our gifts in the pursuit of pleasure is ultimately not fulfilling, and tragically, it keeps us from impacting the lives of others and the world at large. I recently stumbled across this line written by Napoleon Hill toward the end of the Great Depression: "There is something infinitely worse than being forced to work. It is being forced not to work." When we are deprived of meaningful work, either by outside economics (as in Hill's time), or by internalizing incorrect philosophies of "happiness through self indulgence" (as in our time), we become sick with a sense of emptiness no amount of entertainment can disguise. Deep down, we know we were built for something greater than ourselves.
We must work in a useful service to truly be fulfilled.True happiness comes from being in line with our God-given calling in life, living consistently with that calling every day, and serving others with every fiber of our being. As I've said elsewhere, the only way to BE happy is to GIVE happy.
Sabbatical vs. Self Indulgence
So there is a significant difference between a strategic sabbatical and self indulgence. It is this distinction that I strove to demonstrate in the book. Some things are better "caught than taught," and therefore the book attempts to demonstrate what I mean without the specific pronouncements I've made in this article (for that, I imagine, the reader is elated). However, through some of the tools and other materials soon to be available on this website, I will give you specific step-by-step instructions how to craft an effective strategic sabbatical plan for yourself, consisting of micro, mini, and macro breaks scheduled into your life with the express purpose of maximizing your contribution, and thereby (as a by-product) your happiness. This is not double talk, it's doubling down on your effectiveness. Oh yeah, and it will be a total blast! Whoever said purpose wasn't fun couldn't have said that on purpose!
So, you probably need a break. But you need it at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons.
Stay tuned for more!