During World War II, Winston Churchill was famously called on to lead the fight against Adolf Hitler as Prime Minister and see Britain through the war in the face of insurmountable challenges.
What many people don’t know, though, is that prior to this appointment, Churchill disappeared abroad on a vocational adventure–a period that he called his “wilderness years.” And without it, the world today would arguably be a very different place.
After losing his seat as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1929, Churchill left England for Germany to research the Battle of Blenheim, a war fought by his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough.
In 1932 Hitler was on the rise but not yet a dictator. He was considered by much of Europe a model leader who was helping Germany out of depression and transforming it into one of the most organized and productive countries in Europe. It was only natural that Churchill wanted to meet him while he was visiting.
As it happened, a German-American businessman named Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, a leading Nazi who knew Hitler intimately and who would become a mediator between Germany and the Allies in the war, was at the hotel where Churchill was staying–and that Hitler frequented–and agreed to arrange an introduction.
Churchill wrote in his memoirs, “I had no national prejudices against Hitler at the time. I knew little of his doctrine or record and nothing of his character.”
But he was curious. And he did have one question that he posed to Putzi: “Why is your chief so violent about the Jews? I can quite understand being angry with the Jews who have done wrong or are against the country and I can understand resisting them if they try to monopolize power in any walk of life; but what is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?”
Churchill waited for two days to meet Hitler, but the Nazi leader, who otherwise appeared at the hotel almost every day, did not show up. The snub was particularly suspicious considering Hitler’s reputation for showing famous Brits all around Munich as part of his propaganda campaign while he quietly planned to take over Europe.
￼With his curiosity aroused, Churchill observed firsthand how Germany was transforming under Hitler’s power—he witnessed the national fervor and the look of intensity in the eyes of the marching youths.
On his return to England from his sabbatical to Germany he made a landmark speech in parliament. Churchill explained that while in Germany he saw “all these bands of sturdy Teutonic youths, marching through the streets and roads of Germany, with the light of desire in their eyes to suffer for fatherland, are not looking for status. They are looking for weapons!”
Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain famously fell under the highly seductive spell of Hitler, pursuing peace through diplomacy as the Nazi leader bulldozed through Europe. ￼But the loudest voice of resistance was Churchill. He knew there was something inherently evil about Hitler and understood the real ambitions behind his invasions.
At the time of Churchill’s election as Prime Minister in 1940, there were several politicians who had military experience without the controversial reputation Churchill had. What led to his appointment was how right he was about Hitler.
Churchill’s story is a great example of how a personal vocational adventure can provide someone with invaluable direct experience, while others rely on theories and conjecture.
While most of the British government had nothing more to go on than Hitler’s propaganda and their own assumptions, Churchill had taken himself out of his comfort zone to get the answers he needed and to acquire the innovative thinking that would give him the edge.
We all face transitions in our lives. They may include facing an innovation challenge at work, feeling disillusioned by one’s career, being drawn into doing more meaningful work, or even being fired like Churchill.
If there is anything that Churchill’s story teaches us, it’s that there is no greater wisdom during these times of transition than gaining direct personal experience.
To ensure that we are at our cutting edge, we need to design windows of exploration that give us the freedom to reflect, experiment, and conceptualize new ideas. We need real experiences that challenge our assumptions, reinforce our values, and open ourselves up to trends that are shaping our world.
Traditionally called gap years or sabbaticals, these windows can take on various durations and don’t even require travel. Often seen as luxuries, these experiences are now critical gateways to innovation that can be completed in a very sustainable way. Ultimately, an exploratory and curious mindset seeks out new experiences no matter where you are.
The next time you feel the urge to get out and explore, but feel guilty that you should be getting on with “real work” or should be following conventional career development path, embrace your curiosity. You may be on an adventure that will one day save the world.
—Jeremy Behrmann is career and entrepreneurship coach. He is the author of Breakaway, a book that helps people navigate career transitions and discover new innovations through the design of gap years, sabbaticals and mini-vocational adventures. He writes and speaks around the importance of experiential learning, creative renewal and exploration.