I was about to apologize to you for not publishing a blog post in the past two months. But I won’t.
Passionate leaders often find it’s hard to slow down, disconnect, and separate from the work they love and from the team that depends on them. Occasionally, we snatch a few days in the woods or a week traveling to exotic places, but most often, even on “vacation” we’re texting colleagues or sneaking in a few hours on our computers before everyone else wakes up. I distinctly remember one summer on “vacation” in Hawaii where I coordinated the hiring of two new staff members in between trips to the beach with my kids.
Work hard. Play hard. Right?
WRONG. There’s a heavy price to be paid for not intentionally and completely switching off every once in a while.
You lose perspective.
You lose connection.
You lose creativity.
This summer, I spent several weeks traveling with my family in our tent trailer through seven amazing National Parks. We were showered by the cool mist of an erupting geyser in Yellowstone. We ate huckleberries on the trail in Glacier only to be chased out of “our” berry patch by a young grizzly. We climbed ropes, ladders, stairways, and switchbacks with views over the ocean in Olympic. We played games, told stories with our best friends late into the night, ate delicious food prepared by aunts and cousins, and made a million memories.
It sure would be nice if our brains were like a switch that could flip from work to vacation and back to work again at a moment’s notice. It’s not. It took a over a week before I actually depressurized. I was like a geyser preparing to erupt. Beneath the surface of Yellowstone is a series of interconnected, twisted, convoluted chambers and reservoirs filled with groundwater and heated by a huge magma chamber. Similarly, under my surface, the reservoirs of my mind were swirling with thoughts and emotions that were being gradually heated up by the stressful, frantic weeks of work-life juggling leading up to our departure.
In a geyser, as steam and water rise through cracks and fissures to the surface, the pressure drops, thereby lowering the boiling point of water, and quickly converting a bunch of pressurized water to steam. It took nearly a week of being on the road and on vacation before the pressure in me started to drop. And I didn’t depressurize gracefully. I sputtered and erupted in great geyser-like fashion. I couldn’t sleep. I had a stressed out crying jag. I argued with my spouse. But finally, the pressure released, and I could fully recharge my reservoir.
Only after I erupted and started to recharge could I recognize that I had lost some really important things.
It often takes stepping away from the everyday grind in order to gain the 30,000 foot view of one’s mind and see what’s really important. Right after I graduated with my PhD, I was offered a prestigious National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship in Cambridge, England doing hotshot research . When my boyfriend (now husband) was waitlisted at the business school he hoped to attend, we deferred my fellowship and took a year off. It was in stepping away from the academic track that I realized I loved teaching more than the research.
This summer, the mental perspective I gained was that the really important things -- awe, wonder, love, joy, belonging, making a difference -- happen when I (the consummate planner and controller) embrace spontaneity. All the best, most wonderful, soak-in-the-joy moments occured when an unexpected opportunity presented itself, we said “why not”, and just went for it, despite the uncertainty. Like coming across the perfect swimming hole complete with a natural flume ride. We dove in. Or a friend saying, “How about we get some charcuterie and hike it up to the top of the mountain for dinner tonight?” Sure!
As I depressurized, I realized that there were relationships in my life that had been neglected. It felt so good to nurture them with the full time and intention they deserve. I reconnected with cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends that I hadn’t seen in years. I deepened my friendships with my best friends. And I fell more in love with my husband and kids. Creating deeper connection doesn’t require stepping away from the everyday, but it sure helped!
Biologically, oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Thus, it’s no surprise that the social connection and love I experienced on vacation allowed the stress to fade away and made room for my heart and body to luxuriate in deep connection with others as if soaking in an oxytocin bath.
As a leader, most of the time, by necessity, the Executive Attention Network is dominant. This is a web of brain areas that help you stay on task and get sh*t done. In a wonderful review of the neuroscience of creativity, the authors explain “when you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it's good to reduce activation of the Executive Attention Network and increase activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks.” These other networks allow your mind to wander and monitor what’s going on around and inside you.
For leaders, taking a real break allows the Imagination and Salience Networks to come to the forefront, and thus, creates the space for creativity to shine through. I was so creative in the latter part of my vacation. New ideas for my women’s retreat kept popping up whether I wanted them to or not. The list of new blog posts that I want to write is now so long that it might take me all year to write them all. I’m so full of energy to do what I was meant to do on this earth I feel like I could burst. My spirit is recharged with creative energy.
The new perspective plugged my mind back in.
The new connection plugged my heart and body back in.
The new creative juices plugged my spirit back in.
Thanks to several weeks of completely and fully decompressing, my mind, body, and spirit are realigned once again.
One of the books we read as a family on our trip was From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsberg. There’s a part near the end that really struck me:
“The adventure is over. Everything gets over, and nothing is ever enough. Except the part you carry with you. It’s the same as going on a vacation. Some people spend all their time on vacation taking pictures so that when they get home they can show their friends evidence that they had a good time. They don’t pause to let the vacation enter inside of them and take that home.”
The struggle I encountered the moment I got home was figuring out how to keep the feeling of vacation inside of me. One alignment practice really helped, even through the busy madhouse of starting a new school year and the backlog of deferred stuff for both work and home. When I feel myself slipping into frantic, busy mode, I force myself to re-plug in my mind, body, and spirit. (Thanks Jay for teaching me this one!)
I take a step backwards. I literally stand up and step away from the pile of dishes or push my chair away from my desk.
I take a deep breath and stretch up to the ceiling. When I breathe out, I let my hands fall onto my forehead and plug my mind back in.
I breathe in and out again and let my hands fall onto my heart. I plug my body and heart back in again.
Finally, I breathe in and out, letting my hands fall onto my lower abdomen, just under my belly button. I plug my spirit back in again.
With mind, body, and spirit realigned, I can hold onto the vacation inside of me. I can keep the perspective, connection, and creativity I gained and not lose it.
Want to learn more about geysers? Check out this great diagram from USGS scientists or try this at home experiment from the Exploratorium!
And definitely read up on the neuroscience of creativity. It’ll change your thinking about how the brain works. Really!
I redid my website! Take a peek. https://www.irenesalter.com/
The next cohort of my six month mastermind group coaching program, Synergy, begins enrollment next week! I’m curating a team of passionate, visionary leaders in education, nonprofits, public service, or other helping professions. You are rising in your leadership but want a flock to soar with so you don’t have to fly solo. Your spark got lost amidst the high stress, constant changes, and daily struggles of 2020-21. Rekindle the flame with the support of a mastermind team. Apply for a powerful conversation today to begin. Psst… if you enroll early, then you’ll get access to hour-long group coaching calls every other week until we begin in late 2021!
My book club is picking a new book this Thursday. Help us decide what to read next and join a group of mid-career professionals who love books and discussing big ideas about leadership, personal development, and science.