What I Learned on Summer Vacation

I used to think summer vacations should be a time to not think. Turn off the brain, tune out and drop off the map was the idea. Read a mystery novel or biography. Take a dip in a different pool. And above all, don’t follow the news cycle or get tethered to the goings on back at the office.

Some of this I still believe (like disconnecting from the office). But now I have a different take. I now see vacations and travel as unparalleled opportunities to observe trends, and to understand how the hyper pace of change is affecting us in what I and others are calling the “Age of Acceleration.”

I love asking people what they read while on vacation this summer. This question came up yesterday as I was talking with the CEO of a global trade association that I am going to facilitate a strategic thinking session for. “My wife was reading a Danielle Steel novel and I was reading “The Algorithmic Leader,” he confessed. Both were happy, he reported, adding that he finds it stimulating to read a book about the future on the beaches of Atlantic City because being in a relaxed state you can really get you inspired to think big.

Vacations and time away can help us reflect on changes in our own lives. Normally we cruise, mostly on autopilot, through its seasons but then things hit us. Face to face, we notice and contemplate changes in the lives of our family members and friends, and catch up on what they are dealing with, and what’s bringing them joy, and their concerns about the state of the nation.

Vacations can throw us insights that don’t get stimulated otherwise. Tied as we all are to hectic routines – even retired people tell me how busy they are — our regular lives often become a blur of deadlines, duties (get the kids off to school), and decisions (when should I retire, should I get out of the stock market before it crashes, who can restore America, should I get my MBA, etc.).  Vacations can, if we allow them, become a pattern interrupt.

This summer I visited with my nephew and his family in suburban Washington, D.C. While this was not really a vacation (I was on my way to a speaking engagement), I never miss the opportunity to visit people in their homes and see how they are living their lives. On their refrigerator were five or six wedding invitations – definitely a Millennial trend. “That’s all we do is go to weddings. Our vacations this year are all destination weddings,” he tells me over a beer.

My nephew is a rising finance manager at a multinational food company, and a student of biography. Our conversations about history and business always enlighten. I bring up the steep slide of Kraft-Heinz’ stock (down 34 percent for the year), and we parse the CEO’s admission that “We’ve been too focused on the present and literally on firefighting and we need to work on our competencies for the future.” My nephew reveals that his own company recently organized a day addressing competencies for the future as well, to try and avoid Kraft-Heinz’ recent fate. I file this away, seeing that the future will be about blending strategic foresight and innovation.

This summer my wife and I visited dear friends from college days at UC Davis. They’d just returned from a three-week trip to Italy, Scotland, and Ireland. When I asked Bob, who’d been a pal in high school and a roommate in college, what he enjoyed most about their journey, it wasn’t the Colosseum, The Forum, or wandering the streets of Dublin, all of which they enjoyed. Instead, it was a 13-month-old “bundle of joy” nestled in a baby back pack on the shoulders of a young couple in their group. There were four or five generations on the trip, Bob observed, and that made the conversations much livelier than with a group of all retired folks, who tend to talk about aches and pains and how hard it is to get a good night’s sleep.

“The Italians love babies and families so we got attention everywhere we went,” he added.

Politics is another fun conversation to have with people, but you have to be careful. My wife Carolyn and I were relaxing in a bubbling jacuzzi at a roadside motel when we struck up a conversation with a 60ish couple from Redondo Beach, California. They were both high school teachers, and both were planning to retire in three years.  “Then we’re moving to Colorado where we can live less expensively,” said the husband. “Even Oregon and Washington are getting too expensive,” added the wife.

Were it just idle conversation, such insights might go in one ear and out the other. But because I’d recently heard an economist at a conference in Santa Clara, California discuss the out-migration from the Golden State, I realized they were part of a growing trend. How many more retiring Boomers will leave the state over the next decade and what will be the impact?

As I tell my clients, not only do we need to look ahead of the curve, we’ve got to think and act ahead of the curve in order to adapt to an ever-shifting reality and thrive. Drop me a line, okay, and tell me: what did you do on vacation this summer, and what did you observe?