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Summer Vacation—It’s Not Just For Kids!

Summer has arrived in the northern hemisphere (even in Seattle!). Children across the globe are enjoying time away from their studies. After a long year in the classroom, the anticipation and excitement around the first day of summer vacation runs high - and then quickly turns to boredom. That first day of vacation, so highly anticipated for months, almost immediately dissolves into tedium.

This time of year, much of the world owes a nod of thanks to Willis Haviland Carrier, the inventor of the air conditioner. Carrier was an engineer for the Buffalo Forge Company, who was trying to solve a problem for a Brooklyn printing company involving the effect of heat and humidity on paper and ink. In the early 1900's, Carrier was waiting for a train on a foggy night and had, as he described, a "flash of genius" about the relationship between temperature, humidity and dew point which lead to the invention of the air conditioner. His persistence in gathering data, combined with his imaginative thinking about the problem, led to a solution that changed lives everywhere.

For a kid on summer break, this is absolutely the best time of the year. Freedom from the shackles of homework, exams, book reports, and detention--even if only for a few weeks-- means unbridled creativity, optimism, fun, and adventure.

Fast forward twenty years, and now that kid (perhaps it's you) has a job. What joy does summer bring these days? Maybe a hot and sweaty commute? Regret that the cubicle doesn't include a view of the deep blue sky or a game of stickball? Perhaps there is a week (weak) vacation at the beach, along with thousands of others in traffic? The best news might be that the office probably has air conditioning, so being at work might even be more comfortable than staying at home.

It wasn't always that way, though, was it? As a kid, summer meant freedom, boredom, long days with no plans, the opportunity to be completely carefree. Think back. Imagine. Do you think it's possible to get that same feeling at work through these long summer days?

In the hack, Unlimited Vacation Days, Khalid Ashour suggests that we "study the effects of implementing an unlimited vacation days policy in different professional environments, from small businesses to mega corporations."

It seems that the answer lies in our increased ability to imagine when we are freed from constraints. Thinking creatively is really hard, perhaps impossible, to do when there is a deadline. The painter with the empty canvas or the writer with the blank page may struggle for a bit, but no differently than that kid on the first day of summer vacation. Put a deadline on any of them, and panic sets in. Each of them get through it by summoning a creative spirit and inventing new approaches that conquer the emptiness because they have time to ponder. U2's The Edge concurs, "Whenever I start working on a song, I immediately try to forget everything, to empty my hands and head of anything that may be hanging over from another song or album. I try to approach it like, 'This is the first time I've ever played guitar. What am I going to do?'"

For kids, summer vacation is great because there are no deadlines, no deliverables (grown-up word for homework), and they can invent, imagine, fantasize and aspire to greatness for several long and boring weeks...

...or not....

Participation is voluntary! That's what makes play great. In Homo Ludens, John Huizinga outlines the 5 characteristics of play:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.
  2. Play is not "ordinary" or "real" life.
  3. Play is distinct from "ordinary" life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

...play is a most fundamental human function and has permeated all cultures from the beginning.

In his story, Vision-led Freedom, the key to reigniting management innovation, Bill Nobles talks about freedom's profoundly positive impacts on human behavior and growth, which economists identified by comparing centrally controlled socialist societies with free-market democracies, and which are equally powerful inside organizations --as well as the impact of shifting from the slow, cumbersome "controlled order" of hierarchical control to dynamic "self-organized spontaneous order."

On summer vacation, kids can sit on the metaphorical porch swing and think about nothing. They can play catch or just listen to a ballgame on the radio as the sky turns orange and not have to worry about the Monday status meeting. As adults, if we think back to our youth, what REALLY made summer great was that there was nothing to do. It got so boring that we had no choice but to be creative. Without the structure of school, homework, and organized events, we had to invent our own play. It was memorable because we had to use our imagination. We found games to play, we found drama, we found competition, we found fun and adventure--we found things that didn't exist during the school year, because we were forced to imagine a world of our own.

Those carefree days of summer vacation reset our thinking. Shoshin --the "beginner's mind"--refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

In his seminal work, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, stresses that, "one of the most common descriptions of optimal experience is that time no longer seems to pass the way it ordinarily does... during the flow experience, the sense of time bears little relation to the passage of time as measured by the absolute convention of the clock."

Willis Carrier was raised on a farm near the eastern shores of Lake Erie. He was an only child in a house full of adults. He entertained himself playing games of his own invention. He learned fractions by slicing apples. He had to create his own fun. In his adult years, legends grew around him as a problem-solving genius who spent a year or two to come up with solutions. We can thank Willis Carrier for the whole concept of summer blockbuster movies. His first air conditioners were installed in movie theaters. At the time, summertime movie attendance was low, but when theaters became a place to escape the heat and humidity, attendance soared.

Ironically, the origin of summer vacation lies in the world of work. In the 1800's, children were given time away from schooling to help with the family farm. Later, educational reform advocates proposed limiting the school year to prevent over-stimulating young minds and physicians had concerns about the spreading of disease in hot classrooms.

Obviously, as the need to employ children to help with the farm decreased, summer vacation evolved in to one of the greatest, most memorable times for kids everywhere. I'd be willing to bet that every reader has a memory from a summer of their childhood. (If you'd like, please comment with your own examples of using your imagination to bring fun to summer break.)

The greatest idea you've had in the last six months likely pales in comparison to the creative juices that flowed on a boring summer morning in an August of your youth, as you tried to imagine something to fill your time.

So, as we celebrate summer and take the work out of work, think back and try to bring some of that optimism and excitement from the first day of summer vacation into work over the next couple months. Take vacation time and work hard to be bored.

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