When I was an academic I noticed that some of my most successful colleagues seemed to have a focus in their lives that was far apart 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 a 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 PhD and because it was a high-stakes activity. But 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 think, “In the broad scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.”
Second, you guard your time. Who’s got time 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 move around for your job, you can make connections quickly. 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.