This summer I took a vacation. It was my first pure, 100%, not an overdue-visit-home-I'm-calling-a-vacation, vacation. I bought a plane ticket, I packed a backpack and I went to Europe and North Africa for five weeks.
Here are the most common questions I received after I returned home:
1. Why did you go?
I was a ball of stress. My anxiety levels were so high that if someone else's phone made a sound, my body would tense up. I spent a week in the spring where my throat began closing up as a response to anxiety. I was checking my social media and email countless times a day, comparing myself to others and trying to figure out how to get more work. I was even completely unable to appreciate good things that were happening in my life as a result of this anxiety.
2. Were you scared you'd miss a lot of work?
Sort of, but mostly no because I could not imagine continuing in the status quo. If I missed some summer wedding casuals, life would go on. If I cancelled private lessons for one month, life would go on. If I missed an awesome gig, at least I would have an awesome time and life would go on.
3. Did you miss a lot of work?
No, actually. School teaching sites were off for the summer and most of my private students were understanding and excited for me. Maybe because I was posting a travel photo a day or maybe because there just wasn't that much work, but I only turned down three gigs in five weeks. Unless you're part of a tour or regularly working wedding band, summer can be very slow...
4. How did you afford to go for so long?
I got a little lucky here. Well, lucky might not be the right word, I had a nice insurance settlement from a car accident I was involved in when someone pulled out in front of me. I opted to use this money for travel. I also felt like my mental health could not afford to stay at home all summer wishing for a vacation. Now that I no longer have a nice insurance settlement, you can bet I'm saving my airline miles and budgeting out my groceries and happy hours each month to make sure more international trips are feasible in my future.
5. Were you scared to travel alone?
Not at all. The world is as scary as you make it. Sure, I was harassed in Milan by pickpockets and panhandlers and yes, crossing the border by foot into Morocco was heart-racing and I highly recommend just flying straight into Marrakech. Even solo-hiking through the Alps without a soul in sight can make you feel momentarily isolated but, if no one will go with you, ditch the stress of waiting and coordinating and just go!
On my way to the Moroccan Sahara
Part of the mental health benefits from this trip, was my choosing to unplug (which I wrote a whole post on last week.) When I got onto the plane at LAX my phone went on airplane mode for five glorious weeks. No laptop, iPad or data.
Each night I would get to the hostel and check my email and iMessages to make sure no one was trying to get ahold of me. I'd post one photo to Instagram which I called my "proof of life" photo for my parents peace of mind and then I would go out and explore the new culture I was in with other travelers or locals I had met.
Here was my itinerary for anyone that’s curious:
LAX -> Madrid -> Italy to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc (a week long trek through the Italian, Swiss and French Alps) -> Chamonix, France -> Switzerland with stops in Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux, Zermatt and Zurich -> Southern Spain -> Morocco with two weeks of travel through Chefchaouen, Tangier, Asilah, Marrakech, Essaouira, and the Saharan sand dunes outside of Merzouga -> Madrid -> LAX
More than once on this trip someone commented:
- that it was unusual to meet an American gone for so long (five weeks)
- how few Americans they had met on the trail
- that it was nice to meet and American who wasn’t “just going to Paris and Rome”
- why don’t more Americans come to Morocco?
- why do Americans save thousands of dollars to go to Disney World/Epcot as a family when they could visit another part of the world instead of an imitation?
These comments are not unusual given that the average American has only 8.1 days of paid vacation annually. Compare that with European countries where it is mandated that employers grant 20 days of paid vacation annually. In fact, some European countries have raised the amount to 25-30 days. Most travelers I met were gone for either a two week getaway from another country or, if they had come from another continent, for closer to three months of travel!
While in Zurich I had hoped to visit the Hauser & Wirth museum on my way to the airport but when I arrived they had a sign taped up stating that the museum was taking their two-week holiday. While it might seem like a poor way to bring in profits or keep a loyal customer base, even for small businesses vacation is mandatory.
And it doesn't seem to be affecting their ability to survive in the world economy. Of the 21 developed countries in the world, the United States is the only developed nation to not guarantee paid vacation days. In fact, 23% of our workforce has NO paid vacation time and that same 23% gets no paid holiday leave either. Only 35% of the American workforce receives any kind of paid vacation and we have zero legally mandated paid holidays.
As a musician, I think working holidays like Christmas and Easter is a great way to boost my income while employees around the world, get paid to take the day off.
While the Japanese workforce, the only nation faring worse than the US in terms of vacation days, receives only ten days of paid vacation leave annually, these days are REQUIRED, while in the United States they are only received and accumulated. The average American accumulates two weeks worth of vacation days that they will never use.
In 1978, American's were taking an average of 20 days off annually. This number fell by an entire week in 2014 and only in the last year has been inching it's way back up (although it still falls short of the old national average.) Workers contribute this to a fear that they will be seen as replaceable.
As a musician, I live in constant fear that I will be seen as replaceable. While I would consider myself "my own boss", the truth is I have become a slave to the people who hire me and my instrument. Because musicians respond to their instruments neurologically in the same way that we respond to animate objects, this creates a "bad relationship" type of mental patterning in our relationship with our instrument and job.
While for some people, playing music is like having a vacation every day of their life, for others it can become a chore and the mental toll can drain us of our joy. Managers across the board agree that taking vacation time improves health, overall well-being, boosts moral and alleviates burnout. Workers who forfeit vacation time are consistently lower performers, less likely to have a promotion, raise or bonus and are more likely to report feeling stressed.
Major ideas like the company Instagram, the musical Hamilton, or the beloved SNL character, "Debbie Downer", were all inspired while vacationing! Studies have found that people who take vacations and step outside their day-to-day activities are more creative, have better mental health, lower stress and less likelihood of suffering a heart attack. To improve health benefits, experts now suggest taking a vacation twice a year. What you spend in travel, you'll save health costs.
While a vacation abroad is NOT the answer for everyone and can occasionally be linked to further depression when drastically stepping out of a routine, the benefits of taking an extended weekend and heading out of town can turn around burnout and anxiety as well as give you a chance to unplug and rest. The most important thing to realize is that vacation should not be a stressor, no one is asking you to abandon your current livelihood or schedule, and you do not have to just drop everything and leave.
Vacation for me was an incredible experience and gave me opportunity to relax and rediscover myself and my priorities away from my daily grind. I recovered from extreme and got back in touch with my creative priorities with clear mental health. I now try to travel somewhere (even domestic or a road trip) every six months.
Why? To have less pain and more music!