I still find the college life enchanting. All these years later, when people ask if you could go back to any time in your life, what would you choose?
My response – almost automatic at this point – is my college years.
You see, I both adore and appreciate what the college experience has to offer, what my college experience offered.
Adore in the sense of infatuation. The way I was completely infatuated with a girl during my senior year, and never told her. She was cute, sassy, and sexy. I always wanted to ask her out, but never summoned up the gumption. I adore the college experience for the surface-level, superficial reasons: Having had the freedom to stay up until 12am, 2am, even 4am, with no recursions – either academically or physically. When I’d go to the gym, I lived there; working out for at least an hour, most times 1.5 – 2 hours. Never living with regret, knowing there was always tomorrow. Like many college students, I felt invincible!
At the same time, I appreciate the college experience, similar to (but on a much scaled-down version of) the way I appreciate my wife (my senior-year crush!) for being a mother of two, working all sorts of crazy hours, cooking and cleaning on her days off from work, walking our dog when I’m stuck late at work, baking birthday cakes for our children, working out, being a fabulous sister/aunt/friend/daughter, and still being ultra sexy! (Take that Hollywood actress, songstress, celebrity, reality TV star who needs a personal chef, trainer, caregiver – and sometimes plastic surgery – to be sexy!)
But a recent trip to the Adirondacks helped me appreciate the college experience in a way I had never considered before. Unlike adulthood, the college experience encourages, hell almost forces, students to take vacations.
When it comes to vacationing, adulthood says all of the right things. Four Personal Days per year, to use as you wish. Twelve Vacation Days per year, merely requiring your supervisor’s approval. Sick days, bereavement days. When you first start a job, the new-hire meeting can make it sound as if the agency/institution/company will practically beg you to use the time off you’re entitled to.
But in adulthood, vacationing comes at a price.
Unless you’re with the right company (and how many of us are with the right company), taking vacation days can almost feel dirty or shameful. Something to feel guilty about – as in, because you’re vacationing, and your colleagues are working, you ought to check in with a phone call, or respond to just a few emails, or send a quick text to see how the office is holding up. I had a former co-worker who was replying and responding to emails while she was vacationing on her honeymoon! As if we shouldn’t have boundaries between our work and personal lives, and if we do, we should feel ashamed.
Adulthood also make vacations feel as if it’s for the weak-minded. As in, hard workers don’t need a reprieve or a break from the daily grind. How many of us stay in the office well past quitting time, not wanting to leave because our supervisors are still working, because we want to be like them (that is, in their roles, one day). We see our supervisors as the pinnacle of hard work, so we work longer hours, more hours, just to to show the same level of commitment.
When you’re an adult, vacationing feels like something you have to work for, not something you’re entitled to. As in, you have to work your ass off, until you’re damn near burned out, before you can take a vacation. Or, as another former co-worker wrote me as to why she couldn’t attend a meeting I was scheduling: I’m taking a much needed vacation. It felt as if, she felt she had to justify using her time off. As if she wasn’t supposed to take a vacation, unless there was a good, damn, reason. And working like a dog for twelve months straight, had constituted that good reason.
So, what’s the point? Of course we know adults are overworked, while the college experience has ample opportunities for respite. Well, since vacationing in adulthood is not as free as it was in college, as professionals, it’s time that we redefine vacationing.
Instead of using time off to take care of household chores and errands, how about vacationing to accomplish your goals and aspirations? Take time off from work to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, join a reading group, or cross off something on your bucket list. Use your vacation time to accomplish all those things you tell yourself you don’t have time for; not necessarily the stuff you have to do, more the things you want to do. I was working on a book, and it felt like I was never going to finish. After work, I had to take care of the kids, walk the dog, help tidy up the house, spend time with my wife, and then find me time to relax from my day. I was usually in bed by 10pm. When I did make time to work on my book, it was 30 or 40 minutes; just enough time to get a groove going, then I’d have to stop and get ready for the next day. With my wife’s support, I decided to use a couple of vacation days to work on my book. Having 8 hours of freedom to read, write, and edit allowed me to finish my book. Not only in a shorter timeframe, but also a less stressful one too. I wasn’t writing in short bursts, I was pacing myself, so I was able to give more of myself (my creativity and ingenuity) to my book, which ultimately, left me more satisfied. That’s what vacationing should do, leave us feeling satisfied.
We could also use vacation time strategically. When do you fill your car with gas? When you’re running on empty and your car is cruising on fumes? Or do you fill up when you have ¼ tank left? Maybe it’s just before you get on the highway, before a long trip. Or on Wednesday mornings, because you pass a gas station that always has the least expensive fuel. Hopefully, you fill up at strategic times, taking control of when you put gas into your car. Similar, you have the ability (in some cases) to take control of your vacation time. Don’t wait until the end of the calendar year to use your vacation, simply because you’ve received an email from human resources that you are going to lose your PTO days if you don’t use them. Decide when you’ll vacation, instead of letting it be the other way around. If not, you might be left with two weeks off, chauffeuring relatives back and forth to the airport, for their Christmas-Kwanzaa-Hanukkah visits! Nothing wrong with it, but hardly does it feel like a vacation.
Redefine vacation too, as something that actually makes you feel relaxed. Sure, the yearly family trip to Disney is enjoyable, in a certain kind of way. But those kinds of vacations often leave us needing a vacation, from our vacation. On the other hand, using a personal day for an impromptu day at the beach can leave you feeling as refreshed as you’ve been in months. Vacationing doesn’t have to be the contrived, the stale, the things you always do, just because. That’s what makes a vacation feel like work, and not a vacation. I introduced my wife to spontaneous days. I’m not sure where I got the idea. But somehow I got the idea of a one-day reprieve – call out of work, and do something completely random. Something that was never planned. One day we went to the casino. Another day we took a trip to a breach town. It was fun. Being on vacation, enjoying the beautiful weather. People watching. My wife even got a facial. It wasn’t what we did; rather, that we were spending time together, in ways that weren’t forced or contrived. Doing things that helped us feel relaxed, and able to tackle the grind of our jobs, the next day.
Just like we learn from the college experience, change can start with just one person, who performs a single act, that is but one ripple in a sea of monotony. College students get to choose how they’ll spend their time. If they want to take more classes, that’s supported. If they choose to work and save money, that’s commended. And if they decide to sit on the beach all summer, that’s applauded all the same. No pressures or obligations. College allows students to live life on their terms. Like taking the necessary time off to recharge their batteries and de-stress from the grueling workload. It’s time vacationing in adulthood to mean the same.