Summer holidays enable a change of pace, a gentleness with ourselves, a time of rest and renewal, a time to encounter freedom from our own mind. But the benefits of a holiday in the minds of many founders are often dismissed, difficult to quantify, not always immediate, and thus easy to postpone.
This view is understandable given the challenges facing anyone starting a business, but it should be reconsidered as short-term and naïve thinking. However, 43% of founders are taking less breaks now than five years ago. But the benefits of taking a break far outweigh the seeming benefits of slogging it out. Renewal and refocus. You’ll become better at prioritizing and delegating as you step away.
I’ve just had a week away. The toughest decision was where to go? I fancied Mexico, simply from the colour of their shirts and the goalkeeper’s name from the last World Cup – Jose de Jesus Corona, why weren’t my parents more imaginative? The town of Oaxaca caught my attention, but it was out of season. Were we in Oaxaca on Christmas Eve, it would be the great Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes celebration. Got to be there one day.
But let’s be sensible, I’m not after a St Tropez tan. I like to go somewhere with time to sit and think and, occasionally, just to sit and not think at all. I’m easily pleased. What I wouldn’t give for a glass of rosé in Provence. Or a glass of rosé in Italy. Or a glass of anything anywhere on the Med.
We all have holiday memories. I’m also recalling the trouble in Marrakech as a nineteen-year-old student when the entire Medina bazaar was haggling en-masse to trade three camels for my then girlfriend (long blond hair). I affronted them by refusing to barter. With hindsight, I should have taken two camels, some nice leather slippers, and a decent rug.
Then there’s the food poisoning in Portugal (chicken), Athens (salad) and Paris (a seafood splatter). But to be fair, I’ve had fabulous local food in faraway, out-of-the-way villages in Egypt, New Zealand, Hungary, and the Isle of Wight, it’s part of the adventure to embrace authentic local cuisine.
I want to avoid the sun. For me, pale is interesting. I’m 100% Anglo Saxon as in Thomas Huxley’s division of humanity, although to be fair, I have a skin tone that could optimistically be called North-of-England olive after two weeks abroad but would more accurately be described as Lancashire white – not to be confused with the potato of the same name. After much debate we defaulted to one of our regular boltholes: the Isle of Skye.
Just 507 miles and nine hours plus up the road, several stops for the dog to stretch her legs. I love Skye. The seabirds call loudly in warm, friendly Scottish accents freewheeling overhead, the unmistakable scent of salty water in the air as the tide inches its way onto the shore. Skye has everything, ancient monuments, a lighthouse, heritage sites, spectacular views that inspire, a place that appeals to all the senses – to see, hear, taste, smell and feel.
You join Skye from the mainland via the bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh. The soaring Cuillin Hills dominate the landscape, brooding peaks divided into two separate ranges by the mighty Glen Sligachan, the rounded granite ‘red hills’ opposite the jagged volcanic ‘black spikes’. Then there’s the dramatic geology of the Old Man of Storr, Kilt rock and The Quiraing.
Fairy Glen waterfalls is a magical place where you can wander beneath the cascading water. The Talisker distillery beckons, then sites with links with clan battles, the Jacobite Rising and the Highland Clearances. The isle’s main town Portree is home to many fine fish restaurants.
Flora MacDonald’s monument in Kilmuir Cemetery is a must. Of the Clan Macdonald of Sleat, she’s best known for helping Bonnie Prince Charlie evade government troops after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Everyone knows the Skye Boat song, and the line Over the sea to Skye. The inscription on her memorial is by Samuel Johnson, who met her in 1773: a name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.
My favourite destination is Neist Point lighthouse found on the most westerly point near Glendale – latitude 57°25.390’N, longitude 006°47.330’W – with views over the Minch to the Western Isles. I’ve been fascinated by lighthouses since a child. Their isolation draws me; one place, one time, one rhythm – the turning of the light. You can find yourself alone by a lighthouse, no human voices just a solitary, stimulating experience.
The flashes themselves are the stories going out over the waves, as markers and guides, comfort, and warning. Lighthouses are signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other. Just the wind and the Fresnel lens – developed by French physicist Augustin-Jams Fresnel in 1823 – allowing the light from a single bulb to be visible over greater distances, the invention that saved a million ships. Today, many VR headsets use Fresnel lenses, like the Oculus Rift, to make it easier to focus on the displays.
Taking time-out in Skye gave me a physical and mental checkout, a clearer perspective on life and business, disconnecting from the usual routine, an opportunity to focus on the right stuff and considering the wrong stuff too. I’ve always iterated that self-reflection helps you clear out the unnecessary from your mind and look beyond the horizon.
So having unpacked my flip flops and wellies – always need both options – and decluttered my mind, here are my reflections from my break, musings that I hope give you some insight on how a break will help your own entrepreneurial journey.
1. The greatest reflection of yourself is how you use your time Whatever you say about what really matters to you, the true test is how you spend your time. If you say your priorities are your partner, kids and your health or learning, that statement will only be true if your actions reflect it. Time means everything doesn’t happen at once, but don’t wait, the time will never be right.
2. To know what you really want, deal with ambivalence Ambivalence comes up a lot in my thoughts because so much of being a human being is dealing with our mixed feelings. How can we both want and not want something simultaneously? These are the kind of mental and emotional complexities we encounter and yet sometimes I feel that I’m becoming less and less equipped to deal with these complexities.
I write things in a notebook when I can’t work it out. Writing is the painting of the voice said Voltaire. I realised years ago that writing was the best way to talk to myself without being interrupted, so I scribbled a lot of things down to bring back home with me.
3. Replace fear of not knowing with curiosity I uncoupled from Slack, Gmail and Evernote for a digital detox and only dipped in for fifteen minutes each day to catch important stuff and avoid a backlog. I find this easy to do now, it doesn’t crate anxiety of FOMO like it used too. Having a radio and iPod for entertainment and iPhone just for checking the weather) made me think more, rekindled my curiosity. You can’t generate curiosity, so you have to follow where you lead yourself.
Curiosity ends up being the driving force behind learning and the thirst for knowledge for most entrepreneurs. Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why said Bernard Baruch. Curiosity did not kill the cat, conventionality did.
4. Get outside Sometimes you need to step outside, get some fresh air, and remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be. What you think of yourself is much more important than what other people think of you. Be yourself, give yourself some space to set your direction.
There is something about the word ‘sea’ that allows an immediate sense of calm to wash over me. I love simply staring out to the horizon and smelling the salty sea breeze, rich with the deep aroma of seaweed in my face. The sea is a wilderness of water, it hypnotises me. Time on Skye doesn’t move hour to hour but mood to moment.
5. Pay close attention to what you do when you’re alone When no-one else is around, when the moment is yours alone, what you choose to do says a lot about you. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders. I’m frequently a balance of optimism, enthusiasm, and paranoia about what I could do but worry I’m not doing it now! I have to be productive even with my downtime. Your natural wanderings are your compass to what’s truly interesting to you. Equally, it’s bad enough wasting time without killing time.
6. Solitude has boundaries I’m good company for me, solitude doesn’t affect me providing I can decide when to stop being alone and content with myself. But I do fear loneliness, the pain of being alone, although I’ve never been lonely. I imagine it to be an exposed position. However, you can only ask so much of yourself each day. The tranquillity on Skye was amazing, but it also told me there are boundaries to being independent.
7. Listen to your own pulse I picked up Laura Vanderkam’s book, 168 hours: you have more time than you think from a charity shop. She talks about thinking of your week in terms of 168 hours, instead of seven 24-hour chunks. When you look at your week from that perspective, you have more time than you think. This book is a reality check that says I do have time for what is important to me.
8. You never know where you are on the big wheel You never know what’s coming, but you don’t need to be Speedy Gonzalez all the time. Live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work. Skye gave me more awareness and clarity. I’m 61 in three weeks, I now work a part-time week. I have a health condition which is unhelpful. Time to slow down.
9. Sitting idle and doing nothing Research shows that there are benefits of ‘doing nothing’, offering your brain a reprieve without completely surrendering cognisance. Taking a break from daily business routines allows you to clear your head, reflect upon what’s happening. This will provide new perspectives and contexts by simply mulling over issues that have been intriguing you. Think How might we? and What if? Don’t default to deep dive on complex stuff and seek solutions, simply think outloud and be thoughtful.
10. The magic happens in the silence A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures, seaweed, wood, and other incongruous objects washed up. For me, trudging slowly over wet sand is just perfect! It isn’t as if you are alone, it’s that you find yourself thinking alone. A holiday is having nothing to do and all day to do it in. Life is better in flip flops. Happiness consists of living each day as if it were the first day of your honeymoon and the last day of your vacation said Leo Tolstoy, capturing it well.
The sounds of surf breaking and the cries of sea birds, with little to do and few distractions, opens your mind. More time to think, quiet time to not think, a holiday teaches us to bear witness to our inner voice and fully inhabit our inner, true lives. For all founders I’d recommend a trip to Skye, and the cure for anything, is saltwater swirling around your bare feet. We all need vitamin sea.