If you are a fan of late 19th century English literature, you may have realized that the title of my blog is a riff on the Oscar Wilde classic: “The Importance of Being Earnest”. It has been a long time since I read this play, but I found a summary on a website called Sparknotes.com. For purposes of the blog, here is the description of the plot that will help you understand why this classic occurred to me as I was creating this post:
I like Jack’s willingness to disappear periodically from his everyday life and do as he likes. Of course, I don’t expect readers to adopt the name Ernest, or even to take on another identity. In the hectic 21st century world where jobs and responsibilities rule our lives, there is a reason we have leave time. We need to cultivate the annual habit of getting away from the job - or what we in the United States call a vacation. Unfortunately, at the peak of my career, I was too responsible, accountable, and probably too stupid to leave my life behind for a few weeks to take a trip, learn about other locations and cultures, and round out my life.
If you are a workaholic like me, or if you have bought into the theory that anyone in the business world is indispensable, you probably think I am exaggerating. Believe me when I tell you that I don’t’ know if being a type A workaholic caused my heart failure, but I doubt it. But I know with a certainty that being joined at the hip with my career, to the point that I paid more attention to my work iPhone than to health, certainly exacerbated and probably masked my symptoms. By the time I realized something was really wrong with me, it was too late for an easy medical fix to my condition.
You want some evidence that I lacked the ability on my own to leave my life behind and learn new things? Okay, here it is. In the six years before I retired, I took one trip to London with my Mom and sister. This was not something I decided to do on my own. I did it because my Mom wanted to give a gift to my sister and I who had been so helpful in her life in general, and in her move to a retirement facility. If not for my Mom, I doubt that I would have taken this trip which turned out to be a very special time with our Mom. We have those good memories to share now that Mom is gone.
However, in the six years since I retired, I have been on 3 overseas trips. One was to Italy, one was a cruise to Baltic countries, and the third was a cruise to the through the European trade routes of the Middle Ages. The amount I paid for those monies was a bargain when you take into account the countries and culture that I learned about, and the friends I met.
The network of people that I met on our overseas travels is just as important, maybe even more so, than the network I met through work related events and happy hours. I mean, let’s face it, we all retire at some point. How many business cards do we need to cultivate contacts for work we at some point will no longer perform? But contacts who can help us enjoy our later years, and maybe commiserate with us on our health issues, loss of loved ones, etc. become more precious as we enter the winter of our lives.
It is important to learn about others and their customs and expanding your horizons before you reach the point where your health may get in the way. Taking an interest in others across this beautiful earth is part of achieving the balance – one goal that I failed to achieve until I left the career behind. I have found that a definite benefit of heart failure is that it made me go into enforced sentence and world discovery mode. Happily, I still have enough resources and energy to complete this sentence. How can that be a bad thing?
So, when a much younger colleague told me about a potential trip filled with adventure overseas that she was considering, my ears perked up. She had enough leave time to make this trip, and as in most jobs, there are restrictions on how much leave she could retain from year to year. She asked me if I had ever lost leave when I was employed.
The answer is that for a number of years I was the champion of losing unused leave. I mean, when you do not take annual trips of a week or two – but instead take a mental health day and extended holidays here and there, well you’re going to find yourself with a serious amount of leave left over at the end of the year. As for the leave loss, I told her that this problem was remedied when I entered the Senior Executive Service probably about 10 years before I retired. My leave ceiling was raised significantly. The upside was that if I didn’t use the leave, I was able to build it up quickly to where I was close to the new ceiling when I retired and got paid for it.
The downside was that the money that I received absolutely pales in comparison to the stress I put on my body and my mind by not getting away for sufficient periods of time. By this I mean get fully away – so that I could refresh my perspective and recharge my batteries. Again – this may not have caused the heart issue, but I might have had quite a bit less stress aggravating my heart by the time the diagnosis was made.
So, I was enthusiastic about my young colleague's plan to travel overseas and explore - and to go wherever the airlines could take her - assuming those locations were safe for travel. But I do have a few tips for those who want to pursue overseas exploration.
When you hop on that plane – make sure you don’t use the travel time to whip out your iPad and work on projects from your job. The point of the plane trip is not to find some down time to chip away at your workload. The point is to forget that you have a workload till you return. The vigor and enthusiasm you will accrue from interacting with interesting travelers and others you meet on the way will be invested into your assignments when you return. It will be like a blood transfusion – only in this case it isn’t blood you are injecting into your work but a renewed vigor.
I would note that sometimes I think people resort to working from the plane because the flight is long and they don't want to get anxious over how many hours they are on the plane. So they believe that resorting to work will relax them. Seriously? It is work that is causing the need for relaxation. So don't defeat your purpose before you even get overseas. I have some nuggets of wisdom for you - plane trips are ideal for reading kindles or hardcover books. This is also why God made in-flight movies and in-flight music to listen - just put on the headphones and chill!
Don’t take your work iPhone or work laptop to respond to e-mails. Trust me, my experience was that everyone in the world at work was copied on the e-mail. Those e-mail chains will last as long as your trip. When you get back to the office, don’t start reading each e-mail from day 1. Read the last day of each e-mail. I swear that in most cases, the issues will have been resolved and there is no need for you to even opine. If I am right, all you have to do is hit “delete”. That in itself should give you a good feeling. See – the world did not fall apart while you were away. People will figure out how to solve problems without you and even learn something. Yes, there will be a few things that are unresolved. But you will quickly see what these are and will now have the perspective and creativity to resolve them.
One way I have found to take my mind off work is to really listen to the tour guides when I am exploring a new city and asking a lot of questions. Learning something new puts my mind to good use and detours it from the inevitable descent into obsessing about what might be happening back at the office or at my condo while I was away. By asking questions I not only got to learn about a new site and its history, I learned about the people who lived in the countries I visited and what motivated or even troubled them.
When we were on the cruise, we talked a lot to the people who waited on us, whether it be in the dining room, the bars, our state rooms or the people who entertained us in the lounges at night. They became real people to us, not just the person who would bring our drinks to the table, or bring us towels, or entertain us in the many ship lounges. They had fascinating lives and we realized that living on a cruise ship when you’re sharing the small cabins must be a hardship. But they were always pleasant and fun to talk to and remembered our names.
So, I highly recommend for people in careers to take advantage of their leave to take some lengthy trips and explore the world. Do not forget to budget enough time to get into the airport and on your flight to your getaway from your workplace reality. You don’t want to stress yourself out by missing the plane.
You might consider getting the Clear card so that you can process through the TSA lines more quickly. Additionally, if you have a medical device for example, a pacemaker/defibrillator like I have, or an artificial hip, or any medical device that requires extra screening, budget in enough time. In my case with the pacemaker, the solution is usually a pat down search, or if it is available, one of the screening tubes that does not require magnetic wanding. However, if you are a female, you may have to wait for a few minutes so that TSA can make a female screener available to pat you down.
Also, once you return home, you will want to get through Customs as expeditiously as possible so that your transition back into the workplace is stress free. So, if you are going overseas I highly recommend getting a Global Entry or GOES card. This card helps you process through Customs in an expedited fashion. The GOES card usually gives you access to the Clear TSA lines in the United States. Trust me, it’s worth the filing fee and lasts for a number of years, so that you can travel overseas multiple times and get your money’s worth.
The bottom line is that to cut stress, you will do yourself a world of good by getting away from your reality for a while and seeing the world.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.