And Now for Something Completely Different

Why Doing Things That Have Nothing To Do With Your Career Will Make You More Successful

By Pernilla Peterson: Boxer, Mixed Martial Artist, Political Policy Podcast Nerd, Associate Creative Director at Rightpoint. Has Horrible Taste in Music.

Americans are nothing if not driven and very much into their careers. The American dream didn’t come about by people dillydallying around with hobbies and taking breaks, now did it? When I first moved to the States, some 20 years ago, this message came through loud and clear. Year by year, I have become less European and more American in my ambition and workaholic tendencies.

There seems to be an unspoken rule that being a career-driven creative should be all encompassing. However, I was never able to commit to being all creative all the time. While candidates I have interviewed throughout the years listed hobbies like photography, calligraphy, industrial design and learning code, I found refuge in things that were not creative at all — like mixed martial arts, nerdy political policy podcasts, and running to playlists so horrid anyone considered cool would need a stiff drink to combat how dirty they felt just imagining it (what’s up FloRida?)

Still able to move my career forward without the constant commitment to always be ON as a creative, I slowly let go of the lingering insecurity I felt not pursuing additional creative hobbies. I noticed the breaks I took away from creative work made me better at it. Mastering something physically complex increased my focus and stamina. Learning intricate policy rules about a country I can’t even vote in made me think differently about things. Laughing at stand-up comedy shows relaxed me. And doing nothing freed me up to sit with who I was and ponder who I wanted to be.

I asked around the office (note: this is not the type of deep qualitative research we do around here with our clients) and found that I was not alone, so I am adding some color commentary from my fellow I Do Better In My Career When I Do Things Unrelated To It throughout.

“ I love basketball. I think it makes me more competitive (if that is possible) at work. It keeps me focused on winning.” — Ross Freedman, Rightpoint Co-Founder

With my anecdotal evidence in my back pocket, I was curious to see if there was any science to back this up, and sure enough, there was.

In an always “on”, competitive, 24/7 race for more, more, more, it’s important to note that pursuing completely different passions, situations, people, and thought patters away from work, is not just fun, it’s a career booster.

Scientific American states that in order to be more truly YOU, you need to step away from yourself through a mental downtime process called “default mode”. Default mode is that space that modern society tries so hard to get us away from, a place where you can simply be and not achieve.

“…these moments of introspection are one way we form a sense of self, which is essentially a story we continually tell ourselves. When it has a moment to itself, the mind dips its quill into our memories, sensory experiences, disappointments and desires so that it may continue writing this ongoing first-person narrative of life.” — Ferris Jabr, Scientific American

You need to shut down work to be better at it and (arguably more importantly) to be better at being you.

Related research suggests that the default mode network in the brain is “more active than is typical in especially creative people.” In short: science says chill and you shall be better at your job.

“Since I was a small child I have been obsessed with flight. Full scale private aviation can be costly and time consuming, so I use radio controlled aircraft as a proxy. This helps me at work through both needing to pay close attention to detail as well as relaxation. Flying is my meditation.” — Mike McDermott, Solutions Architect, Rightpoint

We have all had the experience of “sleeping on it” or taking a break and eventually coming back to something that suddenly felt more in focus, less complex. Pursuing hobbies, passions or simply downtime, is just a much larger version of that same phenomenon.

But don’t just take my word for it, take Kevin Eschleman’s, an assistant psychology professor at San Francisco State University. His research suggests hobbies that are less relevant to one’s career are paradoxically more beneficial for it. As quoted in Fast Company:

“Whatever the activity is that you’re doing in your free time, it becomes incredibly more valuable if it is different from what you’ve been doing most recently in your work environment,” Eschelman told Fast Company. “People need to be mindful and aware of what resources they’re using in the work environment to realize which resources they need to protect and refuel in their free time,” he said.

The same sentiment is echoed in this article in Entrepreneur Magazine about the secret of increased productivity: “There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources,” says Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth. “When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be.”

By constantly pursuing more of the same, you will burn out. And with that burn out, you decrease your ability to get better at what you love.

“I’ve been fascinated with the weird and macabre side of science ever since I could remember. Whether its skulls, bones, specimens, medical anatomy dolls, zodiac or voodoo-related artifacts, natural history, science culture, artwork, books or jewelry — I’ve meticulously hand selected these items over the years. It’s given me an appreciation for how delicate life is. It’s made me slow down and recognize the beauty in nature.” — Marta Coleman, Designer, Rightpoint

Being driven and working a lot isn’t bad. It’s how this country was built. But do not dismiss hobbies and leisure as luxuries you might get to once you get the rest of your to do list. View them as powerful tools for your essence, your mental health and, per science, great tools to further your own career. That mean left hook might just help your career goals (don’t hit people though.)

Additional upsides to random and interesting passions unrelated to work:

  • Being a more interesting cocktail party attendee
  • Making terrible “tell us something interesting about yourself” questions in anxiety inducing ice breakers easy
  • Knowledge for the hell of it (or as my high school history teacher told me when I complained of having read too many pages for a test: “Knowledge is never a hard burden to carry.” Noted.)

Why not get better at your job and expand your own idea of who you are while you’re at it?