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Learning on Vacation: 3 Keys To Profiting From Time Off

Want to know the secret to having a lot of energy? Taking time to recharge. Now is the time to plan for that recharge vacation -- so you will actually take your vacation.

While we often overlook it, stepping away from day-to-day work is a crucial piece of the success equation. We focus on using our energy to be innovative and productive, but we often neglect the importance of recharging. 

All kinds of performance require you to have the reserves of energy necessary, and that’s why it’s so important for all professionals to take advantage of vacation time. However, the opportunities to develop new skills and improve yourself on vacation go deeper than that.

To be innovative, you need to adopt a learning mindset, seeing opportunities for curiosity and improvement wherever you go, and demonstrating the ability to work within constraints to develop fresh solutions to challenges.

Your vacation is a great time to develop this mindset. Freed of the regular rhythms of your working life, you can immerse yourself in unfamiliar activities and broaden your perspective, yielding personal benefits that transfer smoothly to the workplace.

The abilities you develop on vacation could be essential to your professional success. With this in mind, here are three important keys to improving yourself through your vacation.

1. To Spark Growth, Step Outside of Your Routine

This is a China to Maine vacation experience. The destination was a photography workshop with an award-winning photojournalist, Peter Turnley.

One core component of the workshop was to walk out onto the streets of Maine, engage people in dialog, and take photographs of them.

Turley teaches that people make much more interesting photographic subjects when they feel a sense of comfort with the photographer. Most people took 20 to 30 minutes of conversation or presence before they felt comfortable enough to open up and let a good pic be taken of them.

Listening to them and seeking to understand who they were, became key to being able to have the individual act more natural when having their photograph taken. Listening with curiosity made people feel respected and that's why they became comfortable and opened up to, “making” (as Peter calls it), a photo of them.

The only way to expand your comfort zone is to leave it. By talking to people randomly on the streets of Maine, there was a huge gain of new photographic subjects and knowledge, but also a better understanding of my employees and my business. Any new experience developed my creativity and got more comfortable approaching strangers and opening up to them, so that they would become more comfortable around me.

How often do you talk to people outside your immediate circle? How good are you at handling unfamiliar situations? To grow, you need to stimulate your mind in new ways. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a great way to do that.

2. Uncover Your Unconscious Bias To Become a Better Listener

Most people congregate in circles where their norms and opinions are reinforced. We socialize with people like us, who reassure us that people like us are right, okay and good.

When you go on vacation, do you spend all your time in circles of like-minded friends, or do you make an effort to speak to people who might have different backgrounds or experiences than you?

Interacting with a lot of people whose outward appearance and outlook were very different to what I am used to living in China, my first instinct was often to dismiss their views. Given it was the Presidential election season in the U.S., many people had an opinion on the most recent news cycle, and their own interpretations -- and I didn't want to hear more of it.

But, by listening to them, however, and focusing on the unconscious bias I brought to these conversations, I stretched my capacity to understand other people better -- I could actually see differently. I became curious about their concerns and interests.

This is a skill with huge application to building successful teams. What assumptions do you make about employees? Do you imagine that the person who doesn’t speak English as a first language as less intelligent than other members of the team? Perhaps you suspect that the quietest person in the room has nothing of value to contribute?

At Microsoft, we now run mandatory unconscious bias trainings, where we invite people to recognize biases they may not be aware of, and which may be influencing their behavior.

When you notice unconscious biases you have the opportunity to address them. This means your can ideally create a more inclusive environment for your team, where more people feel comfortable to contribute. 

3. Share Your Experiences with Your Team and Help Them Grow, Too

The growth you experience while on vacation is also a chance to help grow others. You want to transmit the value of that learning to your colleagues, and encourage them to follow your leading by example.

To inspire your teammates, it’s important that you role model the qualities you want to see in others. Telling them what you want isn’t enough; you must show them.

Just by taking vacation, I was modeling for my team the importance of recharging and actually taking vacation. By simultaneously encouraging them to take their vacations, I wasn’t presenting long vacations as a perk of senior management, but as a necessary part of being on top of your game and a professional at all levels.

On my return, I presented my vacation experiences at an all-hands meeting, where I discussed the value of work-life balance, and how I hoped others would also plan to use their own vacation time. This allowed members of my team to see that I wasn’t merely paying lip service to the idea. I had actually used my vacation time to do what I encourage them to do.

I went one step further by showing them some of the photographs I had taken during my time away, and the learning that I had gone through. This was a vulnerable step that helped to humanize me in the eyes of my team and break down the barriers between my persona as a boss and my personal interests. Expressing vulnerability is a key step to building trust, and trust is critical for any successful team.

Do you allow your employees to see you as a person who is constantly growing and changing, or do you cling tightly to your role as an authority? If you want to see creativity and a growth mindset in the people you lead, you need to model it.

A Rested Mind Isn’t Optional

It’s common to see vacations as a luxury, but for a professional they are essential maintenance. Simply put, without recharging, you will not be capable of performing at your highest levels.

Beyond the importance of recharging your body and mind, vacations are phenomenal opportunity to improve yourself by following any of these three strategies:

- Seek out new perspectives. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. When you step outside of your comfort zone, your creative brain engages naturally.

- Assess your unconscious biases. Judgment is a creativity killer. Use your vacation to practice letting go of the certainty that you’re right, and you’ll start to see people and ideas in a new light. Bring this skill back to the office, and you may find that your employees surprise you in all sorts of positive and welcome ways.

- Lead by example. Your team members want to see that it’s safe to be creative. When you demonstrate that you’ve used your vacation time to explore new places and learn new skills, they will feel more comfortable trying out new ideas or opening their mindsets.

It’s easy to see vacation as unproductive downtime and resist the urge to take time off. When you use this approach, your vacation can become a crucial part of your calendar, for you and for everyone who works with you.