It was a beautiful San Diego day. I was doing something that back home in New Jersey I never get to do: sitting with my wife in a street side cafe eating breakfast. Just as one of the largest strips of bacon I have even seen was laid before me, I noticed two gentlemen sitting across from us, and it sounded like they were speaking German.
They were chatting with computers in front of them, and though I don’t speak German, I imagine it had to do with business. One man left after a short period, the other got up and had a cigarette. After a brief few minutes, the man returned to his computer and seemed to dive back into his work, his fingers deftly tapping keys with melodic accuracy.
Our breakfast went on, later moving into a business strategy session applying what we had learned in the previous day’s seminar. Curiously, about an hour later, the German gentlemen got up and had another cigarette. It was interesting to me and caused me to have a realization about our shifting culture: the smoke break has been lost. A giant cultural shift has happened which seems to have gone completely unnoticed.
Though my father quit smoking when I was a child, I still vividly remember my parents and family drinking coffee over a cigarette. It was a social act, one of relaxation and beckoning the need to go outside. I have never been a smoker, but a keen observer and the rather curious type. Once this realization hit me I started to think about the current workaday world in which we live and the past it left behind. Workers would break every hour or two to have a cigarette and relax, breaking up the monotony of their day. This in turn allowed them a mental vacation that arguably made them more productive.
As we have become better educated about the dangers of smoking—and as a society, generally more healthy— smoking and the idea of the smoke break has fallen out of vogue. However, it seems to me that smoking is what used to break up the monotony and is what kept workers productive. Many practices have come and tried to help workers along, such as the Pomodoro method— the idea of keeping a timer running and breaking every 30-60 minutes—but none has really taken hold because it does not possess the cultural power that smoking had in our society.
At the previous day’s event, I heard John Assaraf speak about a practice he has of “ccentering” himself once an hour, no matter where or whom he is with. John sits, closes his eyes, and takes a giant breath in and out, bringing his attention back to his current place and breaking up the mundane action of daily activity, getting him back to a mode to produce. It seems to me, John’s practice, though for him more of a spiritual experience, may be the absence of the smoke break.
Though I’m not advocating smoking—medical science has shown that starting now is a poor and probably life-threatening idea—but it begs the question whether it’s falling out of vogue has affected our mental health. To this point, nothing has filled this societal void—and for some, it’s almost the absence of spiritual ritual. It remains to be seen what will fill the void, but for entrepreneurs’ mental health, what will break the monotony? As we have consistently seen, obstacles breed innovation.
Creating a new culture is a tall order, but we have a new generation eager for a challenge. The one who answers the call will be handsomely rewarded and never forgotten; the opportunity is open.
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