Why You Need A Vacation to Realize It’s Not A Vacation That You Need

Imagine you’re riding in an elevator with one other person, a complete stranger you don’t know.  It’s gotta be the single most ordinary-yet-awkward part of modern life.  Do you talk? Or just take an unnatural interest in the fireman’s inspection notice?  That brings me to a few words on the dying art of “small talk.”

Other than talking about the weather, sports, and hating terrorists, I’m saying right now that bitching about needing a vacation is the #4 most safe topic for small talk in otherwise awkward situations.  Why?  Because everyone agrees on it.  You can share this distaste for the stress and busyness of modern worklife with anyone — friends, coworkers, complete strangers — and you’ll find some kind of sympathy or commiseration (except with your boss).

Everyone says:  “I need a vacation.”

Everyone replies: —”I hear that!”

Take a minute to think seriously about what that means.  It means just about everyone around you is in some way sick and tired, stressed out, or bored, and agrees with you about wanting to unplug from their everyday routine and occupations.

The Tropical Island MYTH

That universal feeling of “needing a vacation” that we all share has for some reason been channeled into what I’m going to call the “Tropical Island Myth,” or the completely widespread assumption that what everyone wants to do with their free time is sit their lazy ass on a beach somewhere and drink fruity cocktails and read trashy magazines until the money runs out.

Four hour workweek cover

See? Tim Ferriss knows about the Tropical Island Myth

If that sounds even remotely appealing to you while reading it, you’ve proved my point.  (And in a minute, I’ll say go for it.) That’s what a vacation is supposed to look like, and that’s what you really want, right? Right??

Don’t believe me that this the tropical island myth is a real thing?  Check out the cover of Tim Ferriss’ insanely popular book, The Four-Hour Workweek, which is pushing 2 million copies sold worldwide in over 35 languages.  It’s a book about Lifestyle Design, or escaping ’9  to 5′ and living life on your own terms.  Now see what’s on the cover there. —->

That’s right, it’s a tropical island scene, complete with hammock and the aforementioned lazy-ass lounging away the other 164 hours left in his/her week.

But Tim Ferriss doesn’t work just 4 hours a week.  He’d be the first to tell you that he’d be more miserable freeloading most of his days away on a hammock in the Caribbean than being stuck back in the high-pressure, 14-hour workday gig at his pharmaceutical company that he left in the first place.  But he’s a sly marketing genius, and he knows that the tropical island myth sells, because that’s what most people think they want.  Hell, I did.

I “needed” a vacation, so I took one.  A BIG One.

Feeling hopeless in an unfulling job and stressed out about never having enough time, I convinced myself  that what I REALLY needed was 3 months in Costa Rica doing nothing but surfing, reading, and relaxing on the beach.  Sounds nice, right?  It sounds nice to countless Americans.

And it was, for about 2 weeks.  By the end of the 3rd week, I felt like I was wasting my life away in a worse way than when I was trapped in a cubilce, mostly because I was didn’t have anybody else to blame for why I didn’t feel fulfilled and purposeful in life.  The surf and sun were great at first, but after about the second week, a pit in my stomach began to set in, and I began realizing that despite what I told myself while I was daydreaming in my cubicle and cursing my lack of free time, 100% free time and zero work was NOT making me happy.

How could “Paradise” make you feel empty? The MORAL of the story

I know it sounds really selfish and maybe infuriating to hear me say that, “I had 3 months’ vacation and I was still bitching about something.”  Especially if you’re stuck in a worse situation than I was in with far more responsibility (family matters, financial matters, health matters, etc) that I may have had at that point in my life (25 years old).

But my point, and my grand hope for anyone who spends much of the workday quietly wishing they were somewhere else, is this:

I would never have arrived at the conclusion that my life’s purpose should be more than just having an unlimited amount of money to support an unlimited amount of “free time” if I hadn’t FIRST experienced the emptiness that kind of all-play-and-no-work lifestyle brings.

I’ve always had to learn things the hard way.  I could never take leaps of faith.  So I couldn’t be told what I just said to you and actually believe it.  I had to see it and feel it myself.  Sometimes you have to give yourself what you think you want to find out what you really want.

Take a Vacation of 3 weeks or more.  Or don’t and act like you did.

Marketing guru Seth Godin is always talking about “permission,” and how people never act on their dreams because they feel like they need permission to go forward with something out extraordinary.

I don’t have the authority to give you that permission, but I do have your attention long enough to say this:  Give yourself permission to take at least 3 weeks fulfilling whatever vacation dream you have.

Even if it seems irresponsible, you might learn what I learned — that the thing you really want the most has nothing to do with the selfish pursuit of comfort and leisure.  It has everything to do with purpose and helping others.

It’s an odd paradox.  So pampering myself will make me want to live a life that helps others? Yeah, kinda.

Now, I still don’t know what’s going to make me happy all the time, and in practice, I’ve been learning that a balance of many different kinds of activities (work, service, play, and leisure) is becoming my prescription for happiness.  But my vacation helped me to quickly learn that the hammock-between-two-palm-trees idyll is a MYTH, a lie that had been distracting me from pursuing my real passions.  And that my real passions are a lot less selfish than they were before I traveled.

I simply hope that your big vacation will do the same for you.

~Jeff

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