“We want to wait and see.” That’s the message I got from management about my big project at work last summer. I hustled to get the proposal ready for their approval, as I had done many times before. Honestly, I’d never had one turned down. I worked hard to make sure that was the case. I checked in with the key decision makers to see if I could answer any questions; to see if I could clarify my rationale or projected outcomes. This time was no different. But they wanted to wait. My reaction was like: Okay!? Wow! That’s cool I guess!? Well, I suppose now I have a little more time on my hands.
So, I walked away.
No, I didn’t quit my job. I just took a walk. Several walks, actually. For 30 minutes each day last summer, I walked. Really, it was more than once a day. I found my walks so refreshing that I started doing it twice, occasionally three times, a day. I called them my “30-minute vacations.” I eventually added a sitting part to the middle of some: walk for 15 minutes, sit for 15 minutes, walk back for 15 minutes. This continued on through the fall and into early winter. And, though it was frankly hard to stick to through the dead of winter, it was really easy to start back up again in the spring.
I rarely had a specific route or destination in mind when I walked. I just picked a direction and went. I tried to be present in the moment, to notice and appreciate the beautiful architecture and people of Chicago. I took pictures and shared them on Facebook under the hashtag #30minvaca. I learned the history of some of the buildings, parks and sculptures. I visited some places that I hadn’t been in a while, like where my Dad used to work. Occasionally, I invited a friend from work to walk with me. But mostly I just walked, in several short increments each day. And as I walked, somehow, little-by-little, something transformational was happening. Without any particular direction or goal, day-by-day, I was changing. By walking around and paying attention, I was finding myself. During these brief breaks from the daily grind, I had some time to think and explore.
Once I started walking, I found myself doing all kinds of other things I’d never tried before. I built a website with my wife for our friend Dana who runs a wonderful local yoga studio. I blogged about controversial issues in my community and openly, but respectfully, disagreed with my good neighbor, Heath. And, because we disagreed, we talked more. Because we talked more, my good neighbor became a good friend. Because I opened up, I met a bunch of interesting people. For example, I met Elias, a community organizer, and got involved in his new civic incubator idea, the C-Lab. Because I got involved in C-Lab, I met an up-and-coming entrepreneur named Eric and had many good conversations (and maybe a few good beers) about the promises and challenges of creating a mission-driven business. I met my ground-breaking, trail-blazing city councilman, Robert, who later nominated me president of our long-standing Central Neighborhood Association. And in this role, I met another whole-hearted community leader, Garner, who inspired me to broaden our group’s mission to include helping the less fortunate within and beyond our neighborhood boundaries.
In the year since I started taking 30-minute vaca’s, I was easily more creative, more productive, and more engaged with the people in my community than I was in the previous 41 combined. I guess I was focused on other things. Important things, for sure, like going to college, getting a job, starting a business, failing in business, getting another job, climbing the corporate ladder, starting a family. These are worthy pursuits. I had by almost any measure, a truly great life. But something was missing. Somewhere along the way, I traded my creativity for certainty. I sacrificed freedom for comfort. Because I worked 50 miles from home, I was quite literally not “in community” much of the time. I was making a great living, but not living greatly.
Throughout the past year, I realized how important community is. I opened myself up and all of these wonderful new relationships and opportunities within walking distance of my front door came flooding in. I am surrounded by so many interesting people — successful artists, and small business women, authors, and university professors, doctors, and developers, farmers, and even a Hollywood-acclaimed fashion designer. The talents, accomplishments, and all-around hutzpah of my neighbors and friends was awe-inducing once I got to know them.
Oh, and that big work project that started me on this journey, it was approved. I finished that too. And everything was fine. So, nearly a year on from starting my 30-minute vacation practice, and after 15 years at a legendary company doing interesting and impactful work for great pay, I walked away from my job; for real this time. I made my last commute into Chicago as a full-timer on September 30, 2016. About a month later, my wife and I bought a local business that we loved called Roots Organic Juice Café. Motivated by the desire to spend more time with my family and in my community and inspired by the many people I’ve met, I gave back the comforts and the perceived certainties in exchange for a more authentic life.
Now, I’m not saying that walking 30 minutes a day is the only thing that triggered this change in me. Lots of people my age go through a similar mid-life … checkpoint, shall we say. I was fortunate to be at a point where I was both ready and able to think deeply about and act on these things. Not everybody has such a privilege. But I’m lucky. I have a supportive family, centered on my gracious, lovely wife of 20 years who thought it was crazy, not that I left my day job, but that it took me so long to summon the courage to do so. She’s braver in these matters than I’ll ever be. And there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I could have made this decision without her absolute encouragement and unrelenting faith in me. But I found that the simple act of taking frequent, short breaks from my “normal” routine allowed me to see things that were right there in front of me all along. It gave me a little space to drop in and listen to myself and to think critically about the purpose and direction of my life. I don’t know how this will all turn out. We’ll see. But, in the meantime, I recommend that you get out of your normal and go take a hike.