Out of practice

I’m back to work on Monday after three weeks off, visiting Krakow, Budapest, Timisoara, Bucharest, Istanbul and Sofia. They’re all places I haven’t visited, all with their abundant share of relatively recent social tectonics.

A month or so ago it was the 12th anniversary of Houston, the company I founded, and this break was the first time in all that time that I have genuinely switched off from work.

Not having done so before has had its consequences. Switching off, I’ve relearned these last weeks, is vital. I hadn’t consciously intended to switch off. It just sort of happened as I went along. Part of it, I think, was finding myself immersed in other plights over which I could only be an observer. I dug into a deeper understanding of the assault on Jews in World War II in Krakow, the mysteries of Budapest, the revolution in Romania, its antecedents and aftermath, the excesses of Ceasescu, the tricks of commerce, the sleights of language, Istanbul – surely the world’s premier cultural palimpsest – and Sofia, a crossroads for so many things. I sought out Brutalist buildings, many of them wearing the stories of their residents on the outside. I tackled local foods, succeeding and failing. I watched people. Their carrying of their stories, their routines, their assured cultural identities whatever populists will sell you about the importance of rock solid borders. I listened to impassioned arguments for lateness, enjoyed extraordinary coincidences, stayed in an array of homes – from the primitive to the grotesque. On the face of it, not uplifting, but actually strangely so, in the resolute responses everywhere to oppression. Throughout there were strange collisions, respresented physically in architectures, street art, the entrails of short-lived technology, beliefs, life experiences, ingredients and more. Point a lens anywhere and you capture a Rauschenbergian world.

Spending time in the habits of others is a great way of refreshing our sense of the world and looking again at our own practice. I think it is ultimately more renewing, invigorating and relaxing than a couple of weeks by a pool in another country, which for the most part is a womb with a view. It is also less costly!

Practice is the key word. Over time we form grooves in the ground, get comfortable in our chairs, shoes and clothes. But getting better at what we already do gets harder.

Holidays are a way to unlearn how we look at the world and make sense of it, personally and professionally. They invite us to look again at our practice and come back with a shift of emphasis and lots of new ideas. Perhaps try this: When you draft your out of office note, consider being bolder and writing ‘out of practice’ instead.