Have you ever noticed that some of your most successful colleagues seem to view their careers as hobbies? The whole idea sounds heretical but actually it's based on sound psychological principles.

One of the tenets of sports psychology is that focusing too hard on a swing or a jump shot can actually harm an athlete's success. When you think too much about your actions and direct your attention to your skills, you lose your rhythm. You become much more likely to miss the shot.

When I held real "jobs" I noticed that some of my most successful colleagues seemed to have a focus in their lives that was far away from their work. One woman was a championship equestrian, riding rodeo style at competitions; another horsewoman did dressage. Some did weight lifting. One collected rare trinkets and toys. Others followed sports. Of course many had families. Other not-so-obvious interests include exercise and spiritual activities, whether through organized religion or independent sources.

Reading and television watching don’t count. Truly meaningful activities involve physical activity and/or interaction with others. Ideally you are outdoors or in any setting that feels healthy and comfortable.

What I’ve found is that many career problems are solved when you turn your focus away from them. When I was getting my PhD and teaching at the same time, I reveled in both activities. My PhD was more stressful because it was, well, a Ph.D. and because it was a high-stakes game. But, at the time, teaching was recreational. I had fun. As a result, I enjoyed the students and was probably a better teacher than I was after I graduated. As a colleague pointed out, when you’re being evaluated for tenure and ratings are part of the process, you feel a sense of struggle.

Why does this distancing work?

First, you gain perspective. After a day at work, when you’re off doing what’s fun, you realize, “In the broad scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.” In fact, you probably don't think much about work when you are not at work.

Second, you appreciate the value of your time. Who’s got an hour for a round of gossip or idle chitchat with your coworkers when you are eager to go off and ride horses, practice a musical instrument, or create a piece of art?

Third, as you relocate geographically for your job, you can make connections quickly. You feel at home on the basketball court or in the ceramics studio. You feel competent in one area of your life even while you are stumbling around, feeling awkward and useless, in your new job. You won’t depend on your coworkers for support so you are less likely to engage in conversations that will be overly revealing or that will destroy your confidence.

Author's Bio: 

Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D., believes in turning conventional career advice upside down to achieve meaningful career success. She's a published author and experienced career consultant specializing in mid-career challenges.
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