A great time to relax, summer is also the perfect chance to try new experiences. It's when you're out of the office and away from the workday grind that you may also discover your Soloist moment.
The summer break is often viewed as a timeout during the hectic business year. A reprieve from rushing to the airport or marching from one identically dull business hotel to another, or constantly checking your BlackBerry. A time to read books and see movies. To enjoy long dinners with friends, put your feet up and hang for a while.
But summer vacation can be something else. It's the ideal period during the year to take chances and have new experiences, the time and place to venture outside your regular life.
In our new book, I Hate People!, my co-author and I talk a lot about how men and women rise to the role of Soloist in their careers and business. Take chances as an individual or as part of a small, nimble Ensemble.
But too often we think of this role as something restricted to office hours. What about on your summer vacation? There are lots of temptations to fall back into the pattern of company teamwork, whether in the comfort of the air-conditioned tour bus or being herded through the museum with the rest of the pack.
Instead, why not take this ideal opportunity to test and explore your own limits?
This past week I stretched my Soloist legs and ventured into new waters. In the past year, my teenage daughter has become a competitive rower. Her passion for the sport and the positive effect it has had on her outlook on school and life has been extraordinary. Rowing is a storied sport and avocation that my wife, too, knows something about, having rowed on Philadelphia's Schuylkill River after college. Even my 12-year-old, a dancer, has recently gotten the bug, learning how to row after just a few lessons.
These facts led me to arrange an unusual family vacation: Nine days rowing in Boulder, Colorado. This vibrant college town is internationally renowned as a center for professional marathon runners and cyclists. Kenyan and Japanese star marathoners are among the distance runners you might see cruising along the roads here.
Rowing is not one of the featured local attractions. There is no Thames or Charles River. But a few Internet searches turned up a little known fact: The city is home to Boulder Community Rowing, located on a large reservoir with stunning views of the Flatirons and in the distance, the snow-capped Rockies. This is where the University of Colorado rows, as well as a junior team and a host of masters rowers.
Since we live near San Francisco, rowing as a family here would require stretching some rules. But the first rule of the Soloist is you don't worry about what is typical or accepted. The local rowing club didn't really have a model for what we wanted to do. Normally you'd have to join Boulder Community Rowing, which would be costly. Then there was the obstacle that I had never really rowed before (just one shaky lesson), and my youngest daughter had been out only a few times. But I exchanged a few e-mails and calls with one of the club members and explained our situation. He arranged for my rower daughter and wife just to take a flip test (capsizing the boat and righting yourself) and then pay only a small flat fee each for an entire week of rowing. My youngest daughter and I would need lessons, but the cost was reasonable.
Rowing in a racing shell or "scull" resembles skating on a pond. The boats are razor thin, made to knife through the water. They are anything but bulky rowboats. To fall out of the boat all that is required is to let an oar dig in too deeply or slip out of your hand. Balance is everything. You are a water bug, and your oars must be in motion or resting on the surface to maintain your equilibrium. There is the feeling of sitting on a rocking chair on ice. The boat is one long blade, the secret rhythm and momentum.
My first two times out were at once easy and humbling. Easy because I was in a double. Humbling because my youngest daughter was running the show, pulling us along with her 100 pounds of grace and power. My 12-year-old stroked the boat, and I did my best not to knock her oars. There was a definite benefit in starting as part of an Ensemble. I was less likely to capsize the boat. The technique was baffling. Square the blades before slicing into the water. Drive the legs, lean back as if into a lawn chair, pulling the handles into your chest. But my timing was wretched. I'd forget to square. Didn't push the legs hard enough, and worst of all couldn't slip the blades out cleanly at the end of the stroke.
"Square your blades, Dad!" my daughter yelled.
And that was when she was encouraging. A couple of days later, my youngest and I each graduated to singles. The switch was a shock, letting go of the safety of at least one person who could steady the boat. I felt as if I was riding a horse without stirrups. And just when I'd start to get the hang of it, a motorboat pulling a wakeboard would roar by, the wake nearly capsizing my scull.
But by my third day solo, my youngest took a day off and was riding with our coach, Lauren, in the launch. Lauren suggested I adjust my stretchers, the device that locks your feet in place. It's not easy to do on the dock. I leaned forward, unscrewed one, and then was suddenly swimming. Fortunately my daughter had brought a camera to record my prowess, and the turn of events brought a smile to her face.
Lauren coached me back into my scull, helped me to set the stretchers, and then I discovered something remarkable. My dunking had improved my stroke.
"You're more relaxed," a surprised Lauren said. "Your stroke is getting longer."
After a few minutes, she left me to see how my older daughter and wife were doing. Ten minutes more of vigorous rowing, and I noticed leaden clouds gathering. And just as I started to feel a little more comfortable, leaning back into that lawn chair and feeling the surge of the boat, the wind came off the Rockies. The change happened in a minute. Baby whitecaps. Not what you want when it's your third day in a single. I was half a mile out in the reservoir - more than a mile from the dock. I'd like to say I was cool and collected, but I had a good minute or two of panic. I stopped rowing. Then realized that was even worse. Then started dipping my oars in and pulling toward what I thought was the dock. It was a good ten minutes before Lauren and my daughter returned. I was glad I hadn't heard their conversation: "Is your dad a good swimmer?"
When they pulled up nearby, Lauren coached me along, and gradually my confidence returned. I was moving despite the wind and the white caps. Overcoming the urge to quit and crawl into the launch.
"If you can row in this you can row in anything," Lauren said, just before she and my daughter puttered away in the launch, satisfied with my progress. By now I was smack in the middle of the reservoir.
The fear would come and go. My shoulders ached and my legs lacked that drive. I noticed a bit of blood on my knuckles. The shore seemed a long ways off. Just when it seemed impossible, the stroke found me, and that wind off the Rockies eased.
I was still every bit the novice. Far from having mastered this classic, elemental sport. But I was crossing the reservoir in weather any rower would have found daunting. And I knew in my bones that the depth of the experience was greater because I was not part of a group.
It was my Soloist moment.
Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Marc Hershon. A Contributing Editor at Playboy, Jonathan is the co-author of the best selling Art of Innovation.
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