A little over two years ago I started dreaming about taking some time off to learn something completely different. Life was good, but slightly predictable. Work challenges repeated themselves with little variety and I began to wonder about stretching my day-to-day framework into a more open, dynamic environment. It seemed we were encouraging the benefits of play for children, so why couldn’t we take the time to focus on exploration in our own way? Thoughts of jungles, beaches, and travel took hold. I asked myself, if I could dedicate one year to doing anything I wanted, what would that be? This wasn’t a daydream about taking an extended vacation. It was a matter of doing something different, learning something entirely new, and finding a meaningful challenge. Thankfully the answer to my question came easily. To sail.
Walking away from a stable career trajectory can be a challenge in of itself. But I decided to take the risk and invest one year to sail from New York to the Caribbean while learning how to do it along the way. It was quite a goal. To say I was unprepared for the journey was a huge understatement. But is there anything truly worthwhile that doesn’t take our greatest efforts to achieve? The challenges that push us beyond our comfort zones always turn out to be the most rewarding. A year on the water reinforced that belief, and surprisingly, taught me a few valuable lessons that have translated to a more enriching and productive life back on land. So what does living and traveling on a tiny sailboat have to do with leading a team or exceeding your next quarterly benchmarks? Quite a lot, actually.
Problem solving is a muscle. When we face the same kinds of issues we tend to come up with the same solutions. It’s hard to break out of a mold that works, but after a while of using the same problem solving approaches we get lethargic. We tend to go on repeat mode and tire of boredom in the process. When we face completely new challenges we’re forced to get creative and exercise different parts of our thinking. Building up our problem solving strength requires working on a variety of challenges. Sometimes we need to seek out those challenges ourselves. By doing so, we expand our abilities to analyze, assess risk, and make smarter decisions.
It’s important to step outside of your bubble. Getting lost in the day-to-day details is easy, but a change in perspective can be revolutionary. We often have a million and one things to do and as soon as one item gets checked off the list, ten more appear. Choosing to look at the bigger picture and asking yourself why you’re doing something can reframe your perspective. Stepping outside your daily bubble also gives you the chance to interact with people who can share a completely different experience. It’s easy to forget to look up and out, but when we take on a different perspective we can find eye opening opportunities. A year traveling on water provided an entirely new point of view and I’m extremely grateful for that.
We need to embrace the uncomfortable. I’ve faced some of my biggest fears while sailing with no land in sight. It’s not always a comfortable journey but you know you must confront fear or whatever roadblock appears head on. Dealing with the uncomfortable, whatever that may be, builds a quiet confidence in yourself and enables you to take on bigger, more complex issues.
You’re capable of so much more than you think. Doubt and hesitation make us risk averse, but sometimes we just need to dive right in and take a chance. When it really counts, you will surprise yourself, and that’s an incredible feeling. Things don’t always go smoothly, but learning to live with the element of uncertainty can teach us to adapt quickly and make smart decisions when they’re needed most.
If you fail hard you learn fast. I’ve made a lot of mistakes while learning to navigate life over the course of 2,000 nautical miles. Thankfully, none of them have been life-threatening. And even though I’ve failed many times, failure is not a dirty word in my sphere. In fact, I think it’s a beautiful thing. Because when you fail, you learn fast. And when you fail continuously, it takes determination to keep bringing yourself back up. It may be the hard way to learn, but it builds your endurance and focus, and I wouldn’t trade that for any other way.
The year “off” was one of the hardest things I ever chose to do. Yet, it was so much more rewarding than I ever anticipated. I wanted a different kind of challenge and that’s exactly what I got. By embracing a new perspective and failing miserably along the way, the journey was the most valuable endeavor I never expected to take. As Amos Tversky wisely pointed out, “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” We should allow ourselves to make time for exploration and dive into the unknown. Taking a year to embrace a completely different life and challenge has enforced critical lessons in a way that I never would have experienced sitting behind a desk. Our biggest growth can stem from the most unexpected adventures. So if you’re considering to take a year off, or even just a few months, know it will be a worthwhile investment.