I recently was fortunate enough to break away from the office for a week-long backpacking trip in Olympic National Park. It had been years since I fully disconnected from all work communications for a long period of time. I was excited to get some quiet time away, but I was equally anxious about leaving the business behind with no way to check in. Below I outline 4 business lessons learned from this experience.
Saturday August 26th came around and off we went. Two good friends and I flew from Baltimore to Seattle and drove out to the Washington coast. From there, we continued through the Hoh Rainforest, climbed to Bogachiel Peak, then explored the primitive trails along the Bogachiel River, finally heading south to return to our car a week later.
Now I’ve settled back into our always-busy office, but I brought back some valuable business lessons from the trip.
Lesson 1: Slow down and focus on the steps to get there.
After a nice warmup day hiking along the Hoh river, day 2 was slated to be the most strenuous hike of our trip. Starting with a 5 mile hike to the base of Bogachiel mountain, then over 5 more miles of steep incline (over 4000 feet of elevation) to Hoh lake in the direct blasting heat of the sun. Halfway up the mountain, we took a lunch break in the middle of a steep and narrow trail. I think it was more of a collapse from exhaustion than a strategic lunch location, and I couldn’t believe we were only halfway to the lake. I wanted to be at the lake. After lunch, we carried on and I focused less on the lake and much more on completing each step forward – knowing that eventually they’d add up to our destination. Sure enough, they did. Hoh lake was an extraordinary reward for all of those steps and exceeded my expectations.
As a co-founder at Duckpin, I’m regularly involved in planning ambitious goals for our company and coordinating projects for our customers. In that role, it is easy to get distracted by the desired results and deadlines, losing focus on the small steps to get there. We’re conditioned to “think big” and “focus on the big picture”, but we’re not always encouraged to deal with the reality of big goals – they need to be broken down into much smaller tasks.
Takeaway: When it comes to projects and goals, I’ll be asking myself “how do we get there?” more often. It may change the steps we take, the time we need to complete them, or even the end result entirely, but we’ll be delivering higher quality work with healthier, more manageable workflows.
Lesson 2: I’m not as important as I think I am (and neither are you).
My departure experience for the trip wasn’t pleasant. I was really stressed about leaving my work behind. I work all the time – keeping projects on track, dabbling in all sorts of production, handling most of our administrative needs, and building new processes for our web and marketing team. How would it be possible that my full disappearance for a week would go smooth? I thought…There is no way I can bring everyone up to speed on everything before I leave. Surely something will be missed while I’m gone!
But a few days out, that all melted away. I found myself eating the most delicious wild blueberries in a hammock next to a small lake. I leaned over to ask my friend “what day is it?” and laughed to myself as I realized it was the first time in years that I wasn’t concerned about, or even aware of, time. Like all good things, that didn’t last forever. As I boarded the plane home, I could feel it all coming back…How many emails will I have? What if something went terribly wrong? What if I forgot to tell someone how to do X, Y, or Z? How annoyed are my customers that I’ve been unavailable?
But everything was fine. Work was moving along at it’s usual pace. Customers were interested to hear about the trip and joked about “being back to the old grind.”
At that moment, I learned a valuable lesson. I’m not as important as I think I am. I don’t mean that in the sense that I ever thought “no one can do what I can do”, rather that I was worried about people needing to step outside their typical daily roles to handle tasks that they don’t normally need to do, or even work with clients on projects that they were not ever previously engaged in. But everything was fine! I also underestimated how reasonable clients and vendors can be – of course they weren’t upset that I took a vacation!
Takeaway: I’ll be more mindful of the team’s ability to be flexible when people need time off or when workloads need to shift. We all bring unique talents and fill specific roles, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stretch a bit to fill gaps or help one another out.
Lesson 3: Plan, but embrace change when it presents opportunity.
Our original trail plan had us getting out of the national park late Friday night. We’d hop in the car and find a greasy burger and a beer on our way back to Seattle. But we later changed that plan, thanks to a seed that was planted on the first night after we made some new friends on the coast.
The first night on the coast was surprisingly cold, with the chilly winds coming off of the ocean. A young couple was camping a little ways up from us, and walked down to ask if we’d like to join them at their campfire. Even though we were all tired from a day of travel and a time zone shift, we decided we’d make some new friends. We enjoyed their company for hours, talking mostly about traveling. At some point, they told us about their experience gathering oysters and eating them raw right off the shore at Belfair State Park, across the Puget Sound from Seattle. It sounded fun, and delicious.
Later in the week, after many freeze-dried meals, those oysters sounded more and more tasty. As we packed up camp one morning, the topic of going to Belfair State Park came up, and we decided we’d make some changes to our route to allow us time on Friday to get some Oysters. As a result of our changes, we ended up with a 22 mile day of hiking, and a couple hours of bushwhacking our way up a mountainside through an abundance of wet bushes…filled with thorns. When we exited the park, we were tired, wet, and bloody, but we had plenty of time to enjoy our Oyster excursion before heading to Seattle.
Takeaway: Planning will always be a critical step in Duckpin’s growth, but I won’t be so quick to let the plan get in the way of great opportunities that may not have been evident during the original planning stage.
Lesson 4: There’s life, and there’s work. Separate the two, but they’ll mix a little bit.
I went on vacation to Olympic National Park because I like nature, the company of friends, adventure, and challenge. It was purely a vacation. Not a work trip. Not a vacation where I’m taking emails and conference calls. Just a vacation. In the words of Mad Men’s Don Draper, “there’s life, and there’s work” and this was undoubtedly life.
In our always-connected world, I think it’s very important for all working people to find a clear separation between their lives and their work. But even if you draw a hard line in the sand between the two, experiences on each side will spill over to the other, and that’s a good thing.
Takeaway: I’ll be more aware of how my life can enhance and enrich my work, and vice versa.
Bonus Lesson: If you feel like you need a vacation, you probably do.
Take some real time off, you deserve it!