I just returned from a trip of a lifetime — three months in Costa Rica with my wife and two young children. We experienced amazing wildlife just outside (and inside) our doors; embraced the culture of the small beach town we called home; and, came home with an untold number of vivid memories that will help shape us as individuals and as a family forever.
To make it happen, my wife quit her job as an up-and-coming executive in the financial industry, and I put my post-Twitter next steps on hold.
I can’t recommend a significant break like this enough.
But, I know what you are thinking. I can’t do that. My job/kid’s school/financial situation/home remodel won’t let me. And, it’s probably true. They won’t — because you have established one or more of these things as your priorities already.
My suggestion is to make taking a sabbatical a top priority and then have other things in your life work around it.
Once you do this, you need to look out for a sliver of an opportunity to pounce on to schedule a trip. This could be a change in jobs, for example. In this scenario, you could tell your new employer that you have planned a three-month break in June of 2014 and it’s a condition of your employment. Since 2014 seems so far away, the new boss could very well acquiesce. Or, do the same at your current job when you get a job offer somewhere else and have added leverage. And, so on.
Also, a trip to Costa Rica or another paradise is not required. Just a drastic change in routine. This could mean doing a apartment swap with someone in another city; a stint with the Peace Corp; or, simply staying at home and forcing yourself to get out of ruts. There are innumerable cheap options if you are determined to take the break.
My trip had nothing to do with making me better at my job. That was far from the purpose. But, in reality, it will.
I was able to think more deeply (and slowly) about communications and where the world is headed than in the previous couple years combined. I learned that this slow thinking is essential to being optimally strategic and creative in communications and won’t enter into a future situation where thoughts are only fast and ephemeral.
I spent enough time away to get excited again about digging into work after 20+ years of cumulative impact.
And, mostly, I was able to get perspective. One example: There are insects everywhere in Costa Rica and tons and tons of ants. When we first got to Costa Rica we freaked out at half-inch fire ants running around on our floors and also massive lines of smaller black ants in our kitchens and bedrooms. It was a constant fight for the first couple of weeks.
And, then, a swarm of army ants attacked the house. Army ants look like this or this. The move in swarms of hundreds of thousands to millions and eat pretty much every insect and small animal in their path. Here they come through one of our windows:
We moved our two little kids and fought a battle to keep them from getting too deep into the house. What we ended up with was many hundreds of dead ants all over our house and a deep stench of Raid.
The next day we learned that Costa Ricans welcome army ants into their home and appreciate the “cleaning” that they do in ridding their houses of dead and living insects. The army ants come in and leave after several hours. When they do, you leave your house and go to the beach or out to a meal.
After this incident, the little black ants that were ubiquitous on our kitchen walls seemed less of a bother. So did the random scurrying fire ant.
We also go mentally prepared in case we had another army ant attack and devised a plan. And, indeed, we did get one the day of youngest child turned two and hours before her party. This time, we quickly packed an overnight bag and monitored the ants as they entered a back room and feasted on whatever was in a dark closet. While the ants did this, we worked on making guacamole and getting the rest of the house ready. Luckily, the army ants didn’t find much inside our house this time and left to attack the inside of our gutters and the yard around us.
In communications, we always have ants there to distract us. They come in the form of tweets, random emails and news articles about your firm or client or competitors. You can spend all day battling ants and feel good about yourself when they’re dead.
But, you know, they’ll be back tomorrow. And you’ll go through the same routine.
I’ve come to think of this as the unbearable immediacy of now. It’s something tricks us into thinking we’re living in the moment but are really just reacting to small stuff that barely adds up to a hill of ants.
Instead, we’re better off ignoring the little ants and being prepared for the veritable army ant attack — but not even letting them knock us off our game.
Feel free to email me at my name (one word) at gmail if you want advice on checking out for a few months. My experience taught me a ton and so did researching how others did it (even with all the impediments listed above). I can also send you a link to our personal travel blog that covers the more profound impact of the trip.