What a summer vacation can teach you about navigating your career

My husband and I recently took a road trip to the East Coast. Sadly, but like most people, it had been over two years since our last REAL vacation together (thanks, COVID). We had the luxury of nearly unplugging for 10 days and spending some quality time together. As we headed home and our adventurous trip faded into the rearview mirror — the Battlefields of Gettysburg, the wine country and hiking trails of the West Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the eclectic city of Asheville, North Carolina — it was then that my post-pandemic writer’s block and symptomatic burnout disappeared. I furiously started jotting down notes on scratch paper in the car and when my husband asked what I was writing, I said “all the ways a vacation parallels how we navigate our careers.”

1. Plan ahead, be resourceful, and have contingency plans.

While technology is a great tool and we all rely on it daily, sometimes technology doesn’t cooperate. Case in point — we lost our GPS signal frequently when driving through the Appalachian Mountains. Never wanting to be too reliant on technology, we had packed an atlas just for this emergency purpose. We were forced to get back to the basics with the atlas and watch for those good old fashioned road signs to help us navigate. We were glad to fall back on that contingency plan, even if it felt archaic, because it bailed us out in the end. My insight for professionals here is this: Have contingency plans because it’s a matter of when, not if, something goes sideways. 

2. Pushing comfort zones is where growth happens, so keep an open mind.

I hate crowds, I’m a picky eater, and I don’t like large cities. (The fact that I enjoy traveling at all is a miracle!) While all these things typically give me general anxiety the entire vacation, at the end of a trip, I’m always appreciative of the new adventures. In D.C., I tried duck-liver-mousse-deviled-eggs garnished with caviar and determined I’d never wish that on the plate of my worst enemy. Regardless of the result, I was proud of myself for stepping outside of my comfort zone. In addition, D.C. traffic was a nightmare and while it raised my blood pressure to an uncomfortable level, conquering those anxiety-inducing moments will give me confidence for the next time I find myself in a stressful situation. Whether it’s presenting to the board of directors or under the crunch of a deadline, stressful situations and discomfort are going to arise at some point in all our careers.

Bringing this concept full circle, I’ve ultimately concluded our need as professionals is to have company executives who embrace an environment that turns discomfort and stressful situations into opportunities for growth. While every project outcome won’t be a home run, if this culture is embraced, employees will thrive in the confidence that regardless of the end result, stepping outside of their comfort zone had a positive result. The lesson learned and progress made as a professional may be far more important than the actual result.

3. Know the boundaries of yourself and your team.

My husband learned a lot about my limits and boundaries as I coached him with some classic passenger-seat driving criticisms. Joking aside, my translation here is to know the limits and boundaries of your team and the people you work with. We all handle situations differently and it’s important to have the emotional intelligence to realize that couldn’t be more important in cultivating long-term relationships. Our first day in D.C., I paid no mind to the 97-degree temp and in my quest to see as much as possible, felt sick from the heat and ended up spending a portion of my 30th birthday cooling off in the hotel room. I disregarded my limits and ended up paying for it. As important as it is to know the limits of your team, be honest with yourself when it comes to boundaries like work-life balance and overall workload.

4. Diversity is our greatest strength.

Of all the places we visited, Asheville, North Carolina was the most unique and surprisingly diverse for a small mountain town. The food is excellent, there is a brewery on every corner, live music all hours of the day, and no lack of beautiful Blue Ridge scenery. My knee-jerk reaction was to feel uneasy in a place so different from what I’m used to. But once I began to embrace all the city had to offer, I truly enjoyed the time we spent there. Translation: In our teams, we all bring something unique to the table and I can never think of a time when diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and skill sets would be a bad thing on our teams and in our companies. Feeling uncomfortable is normal, but once we get past it, that’s where the real magic happens.

5. Remember the power of relationships in a small world.

Our opportunity to take this vacation and have welcoming homes to stay in along the route was based on relationships we have nourished for years. In addition, we have an inexplicable way of bumping into familiar faces on every vacation we take — from New Orleans to Maui, Nashville to Asheville. Every time this serendipitous experience occurs on a trip, it’s a great reminder that we live in a small world. As professionals we should never assume it’s safe to burn a bridge because above all else, people will remember how they were treated. You just never know who will come back around in your life or in the workplace — or who you’ll run into hundreds of miles from home.

6. The United States of America is the land of opportunity, especially the Midwest; let us never forget how fortunate we are.

Nothing quite gives you the feeling of humility like walking around the National Mall or Arlington National Cemetery. It is easy to forget in our day-to-day living that the freedoms, rights, and privileges we enjoy have come at a great cost. We should appreciate that and embrace it by living to our fullest potential — as spouses, friends, professionals, and more. The greatest thing for me about taking a trip is always comparing the places we go to my home state of Iowa and my adopted state of Wisconsin. I’m biased but convinced that our quality of life in the Midwest is greater than a lot of places in the U.S. and around the world. I have such an appreciation for the Midwest, and we should especially have an appreciation for all that the Madison area offers us in our professional and personal lives.

Vacation for me, like most people, means returning an inbox of hundreds of emails. But after I spent a day cleaning up that mess, I felt such a renewed focus and efficiency in my work. Next time you feel burnout approaching and are neck deep in work, it may seem counterintuitive, but consider working smarter, not harder. By work smarter, I mean unplug for a day, a weekend, a week — whatever it may be. You just might unlock greater focus, relieve some stress, and be a much more productive and happier employee moving forward. I think most of us tend to forget this is exactly why we have vacation time. So, before the summer ends, take a break, unplug, and go on that vacation!

Natalie Gregerson is director of marketing/officer for Capitol Bank.

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