Getting Out Of That Rut

Most working vacations are the end-product of due diligence and hard work–making cold calls, following leads, filling out applications.  Occasionally, though, dumb luck pays a visit, and you find yourself with a golden opportunity through no effort of your own.  But even when presented with unexpected good fortune it’s surprising how many people let it slip through their grasp like water through cupped hands.

Skyline of the City of Sendai Where I Lived and Worked for One Month in 1991

In early 1990 my school signed an educational and cultural exchange with Miyagi University of Education in Sendai, Japan.  The agreement specified that every August two Miyagi faculty would visit Macalester while every January two people from Macalester would spend three to four weeks there. Visitors stay on campus for seven to ten days meeting faculty and students, giving public talks, and presenting guest lectures.  The remaining two to three weeks is spent traveling the country and learning about its history and culture, with all expenses covered by the host institution.  In simple terms the agreement traded one to one-and-a-half weeks of academic work for a paid two to three-week Japanese holiday!  To me that is the very definition of dumb luck, and I submitted an application on the first day they were accepted.

Macalester has 150 full-time faculty with two being selected to participate in the program each year.  With 75:1 odds against I doubted I would be in the initial group and was simply hoping the grant would last long enough for me to reach the front of the line.  However, I had not accounted for the lethargy and lassitude of many of my colleagues who were content following their unchanging daily routine–work, eat dinner, play with the kids, watch TV.  They played poker on Monday, bowled every other Thursday, had sex on Saturday night, and spent a week or two each summer “up at the lake.” Over and over and over.  It is so easy to unknowingly fall into this rut and, once in, so awfully hard to get out.  The end result of their inertia was that of the 150 eligible faculty ONLY THREE APPLIED, MYSELF INCLUDED!  (Sorry for shouting.)

I will give some of my colleagues the benefit of the doubt.  Roughly forty were untenured and working their butts off to get it by the end of their sixth year on campus, so I can only assume they did not want to fully disengage their noses from the academic grindstone.  Another fifty or sixty had young children and may not have wanted to travel without their spouse or leave the children with friends or family.  But that still leaves fifty or sixty senior colleagues who were either unmarried, had no children, or whose children were grown and out of the house.  Of that cohort only two showed any interest in adding some spice to their daily routine by participating in this unique Asian experience.  Because of their indifference my estimate of 75:1 odds against morphed into 2:3 odds in favor, and on January 2, 1991  I boarded a plane (with a colleague from the Economics Dept.) for a glorious, no-cost, one month Japanese adventure.

One fact that is clear to me is that there is no shortage of working vacation opportunities, only a shortage of the motivation needed to go after them.  My passion for writing this blog is not simply to relate fun stories and provide a bit of “how-to” advice.  It is also presented in the hope that these posts will motivate you to apply for a working vacation of your own. Reading someone else’s adventure stories may be a pleasant diversion, but it is nothing like the thrill of experiencing those same adventures for yourself.   No matter how enjoyable your current life may be, it can only be made even more enjoyable by the personal growth and intellectual excitement that derives from living and working, however briefly, in a new culture. Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, the beloved children’s author, captured this idea far better than I could ever hope to in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (New York: Random House, 1990).

You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.  And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

So, have fun whenever you get to your ultimate destination and, please, do send me email when you arrive.

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6 responses to “Getting Out Of That Rut

  1. I would definitely jump at an opportunity like that. I wonder if more people would be interested now compared with 20 years ago – we are more of a global society now. On the other hand, the actual travel portion is becoming more of a pain every year.

    • That’s a good question. Places like Japan (and China, Brazil, Russia, South Africa) are not as exotic and remote as there were 19 years ago. So maybe more people now would jump at this opportunity to work and travel in Japan. But one thing that has not changed is that sense of comfort, regularity, and security that many people feel about their neighborhood and home town. Traveling for months at a time shakes up that regularity and a lot of people don’t want to deal with that.

  2. That is somewhat surprising to me that people wouldn’t have applied for this chance to travel!

    • Luke,

      I could not agree more. I received a comment from a cabin attendant for an airline. They get free travel as one of their perks, but she wrote to tell me that about 50% of her colleagues never use this perk, even for domestic travel to see family and friends. Can’t explain it!

  3. So you offered faculty the chance for a “free” trip to Japan, provided they 1) took the trip during their vacation, 2) worked during the trip, and 3) left their families at home? And few took you up on it? And you think that this proves that they were in a rut? Is that it?

    • 1) … took the trip during their vacation

      Actually, the trip was taken during the month of January. At that time my school was on a 4-1-4 calendar, with January being a one month self-contained semester. So, not only did this Japan visit not come during vacation, it actually was done IN PLACE OF having to work–sort of like an extra vacation. The trip was equivalent to one month’s teaching responsibility.

      2) … worked during the trip

      That is true–I had to work for seven days. However, in exchange for that seven days I received 14 days of paid travel, about a $4000-6000 value. I would say that was a fair exchange. Also, those seven days of work in Japan were done INSTEAD OF the 24 days of work I would have had during the typical one month January semester.

      3) … left their families at home

      This is absolutely true, or if you wanted to take your spouse you had to pay their costs. However, that does not explain the large number of unmarried, widowed or divorced faculty who chose not to apply.

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