This summer I took my first vacation in over two years. It was not easy. Taking a vacation is a very specific conundrum for the impassioned small businessman. There is no good time to do it. There is no time when it seems there is not a Sword of Damocles looming over our high-risk, very personal business creations. There is no time when we do not need four times as many hours as there are in the work week. It seems unimaginable to take a prolonged work intermission. A true existential furlough from our labor.
Workaholism is a habit. It is an addiction. It needs to be fought each day with tools like meditation, prayer, yoga, and exercise. But it also needs the occasional Big Break.
My friend Helanie Scott, CEO of Align4Profit in Dallas, writes an excellent newsletter on business leadership each week. She points out that brain researchers have proven that habits create neural pathways in our brain and these paths are like ruts in the road that send you in a predetermined direction before you even have time to consider where you are going. We need to break up these preordained ruts periodically. She says, “That’s scary enough but it gets worse. The longer you indulge in a bad habit, the stronger grows the pull of your neural pathways.”
Not taking a vacation is a bad habit. It’s easy to get off—to get high—on the everyday frisson of business drama. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Cristensen, in his bestseller How Will You Measure Your Life (Harper Collins, 5/15/12, with co-authors Karen Dillon and James Allworth), points out that the ROI of work is immediately apparent. It offers instant gratification and feedback in the form of general approbation, ego inflation, contracts, and money. Entrepreneurship can be a habit not too different from the high of cocaine, heroin, or sex.
Bart Lorang, CEO of FullContact, a contact management firm in Denver, warns of what he calls “misguided hero syndrome.” (Stuart Varney, Fox News, 8/14/14) Misguided hero syndrome is the belief that the world might stop spinning without our wonderful selves. He actually pays his associates $7500 to take their vacations. He only asks three simple things of them in exchange.:
1. They actually go on vacation.
2. They must disconnect from all technology.
3. They can’t do any work on the vacation.
Personally, I was stopped in my tracks this year when I realized my recent divorce was partially caused by my bad work addiction. I think I actually never wanted a real vacation, though I denied that to my wife. My relationship with my daughter was also in danger. She incessantly asked me to “take off my business face” and be with her. (I noted that uber-entrepreneur Tesla’s Elon Musk is a twice divorced father of five, who has acknowledged taking only one vacation in four years. Hmm.)
Well, I took eight days out west with my daughter this summer. I committed to only checking my email every other day during that time. And no Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, et. al. That’s as close to going “cold turkey” as I can for now. All was fine when I got home.
It’s ego-gratifying to believe our companies would collapse without us. L’etat c’st moi! The fear of vacation is partly that we might discover we are less important than we thought. A vacation allows one to self-humblify.
In her novel Bel Canto (Perrenial Publishing, 2002), Ann Patchett intones through one of her characters. “I don’t have any talent for vacations.” Me either, Ann. But I intend to practice more.