The French Alps, where we’re running a retreat. But WTF is a retreat anyway? (Image credit Stewart Gray)

Sometimes you need to retreat to advance.

Max St John
WILD AND FREE AT WORK
8 min readApr 26, 2016

--

Why going on a retreat is probably the most productive and professional thing you’ll ever do.

Retreats are everywhere these days. Buddhist, yoga, nature, silent, leadership, llama riding (ok, maybe not, but I’d go).

But I’m not sure most people know what one is. In fact, I think the people who’d have the most life changing experiences are probably put off.

One reason is that the word ‘retreat’ brings up negative ideas of moving backwards — quite literally.

But the problem isn’t *really* with the word ‘retreat’ — I think there’s a problem with the way we think about productivity, self-care and what drives sustained change or success.

So, as I’m in the process of organising a retreat (a wild adventure retreat, to give it’s full title), I wanted to make the following business case:

Going on retreat is the most pragmatic and productive use of your time, if you’re trying to create a truly successful project or business.

Hear me out.

1. Productivity is not just doing stuff

As someone trying to bring an idea to life — a project, a business — I used to think that I should always be engaged in *doing* stuff.

In fact, sometimes it wasn’t even a conscious choice. A gnawing anxiety inside drove me to continually set up meetings, write new plans or mission statements, go to networking events and feel like I should say yes to every request for a coffee that comes into my inbox.

And, in the gaps that I didn’t fill, even on a good day I’d be able to sense a nagging thought that ‘I should be *doing* something!’

This is all based on the idea that ‘doing’ means creating, and that anything less indicates a lack of progress.

And if I’m wasn’t progressing? That’s totally not ok.

So I carry on doing, making, pitching. Driven by what? Ambition, desire, clarity? No, often it’s just my fear of stopping.

For the record — I think that doing stuff is good. It’s how we learn. We put stuff out there, it gets praise, criticism, we feel it, we learn.

But we need to know when to switch modes, too.

In a society obsessed with efficiency and growth, we have a very narrow definition of productivity. There’s a different kind of productivity that we don’t talk about.

Instead of obsessing about output, it’s about checking in on quality and integrity.

It’s about working on the foundations. Getting back in touch with what’s at the very heart of what you’re doing, what you’re missing, what it really means to you, what’s changed.

It requires space — and the courage to give yourself that space.

Because until you stop, it’s actually impossible to really see what’s there — the busy-ness that fills your days and evenings fills your mind too.

I speak to a lot of people who are just not open to the idea of slowing down, or taking time to reflect.

Not because they‘re convinced they’re doing all the right things, or they feel confident about their ideas, but because they’re scared that if they look too hard at it all, it will fall apart.

But until we do take that space, we start to see things we couldn’t see before. The gaps in our thinking, the barrier we put our own way, the bigger idea that we were missing all along.

And yes, sometimes the original idea does fall apart when challenged.

But that was going to happen anyway, and left unchecked could have ended up at a time when people’s jobs, lives, credibility rested on it.

So, the most productive (and bravest) thing is to stop what you’re doing for a week or so, make some space to open up to whatever’s there, and let the ideas and challenge come your way.

And (potentially) ‘produce’ nothing to show for it.

Ouch.

2. Energy maintenance is mission critical

For anyone trying to lead a change, there’s something else that’s critical to our success that we often overlook.

Ourselves.

At the heart of any big idea is a human being, a need that’s being expressed, a vision that wants to be brought to life.

It’s about taking a risk, pushing ourselves to step outside of our normal patterns of behaviour, often dealing with our own personal demons in the process.

And if it’s about creating a change in the world — however big or small — we’re also challenging the status quo. Standing up for something that’s counter to an accepted way of thinking.

So the human being taking these risks, putting itself out there, pushing things forward, needs to be looking after itself.

Because your state determines the state of what you create. If you’re feeling burned out, on-edge, worried about what’s coming next, it will ooze out of you, and leak into everything you’re doing.

Again, our default mode doesn’t help us on this. The constant busy-ness has a physical and mental cost attached.

Aside from the over-doing, we can be constantly engaged in over-thinking. Worrying about the same things, going round in circles.

We can address this with lifestyle changes — getting enough sleep, regular exercise, spending time with the right people, having a good diet.

But every so often, we need to do something more radical.

We need to escape our day-to-day environment or we can’t escape our day-to-day habitual doing and thinking.

Completely changing our context for a week, going somewhere very different, switching off email, being in nature.

When we do this, we create the opportunity to refuel at our deepest level. Beyond a bit of rest and some good food, something that’s much more about how solid we feel at our core.

3. Community is your superpower

Another critical component in any ‘retreat’ type space I’ve been part of has been the people.

Again, as someone trying to lead a change, I’ve often found myself feeling alone. In my business, as a founder, as someone trying to start a community project.

Feeling like I’m the only one who sees the need, feeling like I want people to understand how hard this is, or just craving new creative input.

And, ironically, sometimes the needs been greatest when I’ve been living in a city surrounded by like-minded people.

When you share so much in terms of worldview, values and common reference points with the people you hang out with, together we create new, narrow ‘norms’ for ourselves, blinded by their ‘purposeful-ness’ (or whatever makes us feel different and special).

So we find ourselves unchallenged, uninspired or wondering if we’re all just walking around agreeing with each other.

But when I’ve found myself in Denmark or Holland, with 40 total strangers, and the only common thread being we liked the sound of the event, that’s where the magic happens.

It’s in those groups I’ve found inspiration in new ways of thinking and working. I’ve found myself challenged and provoked by people asking what they might see as very innocent questions.

And sometimes it’s just been about experiencing people that are different to those I’d usually choose to hang out with.

Most importantly, I’ve always walked away feeling like I belong to a community that’s bigger than me, and has my back.

4. Your comfort zone is the worst place to stay

Going away, to be with people you’ve never met, to do stuff you’ve never done, in a place you’ve never visited, might feel scary.

Good. It should be.

We’re programmed to stay in a safe place, where everything is familiar and we know what’s what.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. That piece of programming was written when we were constantly surrounded by genuine threats to our lives — bears, hostile tribes, storms.

The great news is that you can be confident that you won’t be eaten by bears, killed by a hostile tribe or die of exposure, on 99% of the residential training and retreats on offer (llama riding would probably be hazardous, though, right?)

The bad news is that unless you see this discomfort for what it is, you’ll avoid challenging environments, or even straying from your day-to-day routine simply because your inner cave person says it’s a safer place to be.

If you’re signing up to something and you can feel a bit of fear and trepidation, then it’s probably a good sign you’re pushing your boundaries in the right way.

5. Nature has the answers

Most of us don’t spend enough time in nature.

We base ourselves in offices or co-working spaces, in busy cities.

And cities are great for lots of reasons. But in large, uninterrupted doses, they’re fundamentally bad for our minds and bodies.

Scientific research (yes, SCIENCE!) has shown that spending time in nature gives us more energy for the things we want to do, makes us more resilient to physical illness and wards off exhaustion.

One study showed: “people on wilderness excursions report feeling more alive and that just recalling outdoor experiences increases feelings of happiness and health”.

Every good retreat or residential training I’ve been on has involved being somewhere fairly wild.

In recent years, I’ve also come to realise how nature has already figured out a bunch of stuff that we’re still struggling with.

In fact, I think most of the difficulty we experience as individuals and as a society are just the gap between how nature (and in this I include human beings) works and how we think.

By spending time surrounded by nature, I think we drop some of the mechanistic, efficiency-and-growth mentality that the city reinforces in us, that contributes to our stress.

Nature has a way of slowing us down. It doesn’t fight against the flow, or wish things could go faster, it just is. And being with this for a while, melts away some of the tension we build up living cheek by jowl in busy cities.

//

OK, so you get the picture.

I strongly believe that carrying on looking for answers in what you’re already doing, when you’re feeling stuck, frustrated or frayed at the edges is a poor business strategy.

But the opposite, to me, is nothing short of pure pragmatism.

Of course I’m biased — I’m organising a retreat that tries to integrate all of these ideas in just the right combination. A small, diverse and curated group, for a week in the French Alps, using training, dialogue and buckets of space to reflect.

And to top it all off, we’ll connect to nature by walking up a mountain.

If you’re a leader, changemaker or founder trying to make a difference in your work and life, then you could do worse things than join us.

Or don’t. But make some space for yourself some time.

--

--

Max St John
WILD AND FREE AT WORK

I teach people how to navigate conflict and have conversations that matter. www.maxstjohn.com