Home Thinking Aloud How Embracing Outside Interests Can Contribute To Career Success

How Embracing Outside Interests Can Contribute To Career Success


by Aliza Knox, author of “Don’t Quit Your Day Job: The 6 Mindshifts You Need to Rise and Thrive at Work

When I was 21 and just starting out in my career, I moved to New York City for my very first job at a bank. Once there, I started looking for a place to go swimming. I needed at least a 25-yard pool to do laps, my go-to exercise since my years on the junior high school swim team (and a short period of near-glory as a synchronized swimmer). Now, working in my first real job, I really needed that daily release.

Swimming pools were not a common feature in Manhattan’s dense, built-up, glass-and-concrete urban landscape. The only pools I found were at the Downtown Athletic Club, which had a quota on people under the age of 25, and the New York Health and Racquet Club, which had many branches, primarily devoted to aerobics. The pools at the latter were the size of a large coffee mug, built so you could show off your body in a bathing suit after all those hours of jumping around.

I knew of one other pool in Lower Manhattan, close to my apartment in Greenwich Village: a brand new one at New York University. The university had just built a huge gym with a great swimming facility, a block-and-a-half from my place. But there was a catch: you had to be an NYU student to use the pool.

So there I was: a swimmer with no place to swim.

And then I got an idea: I’ll take a class at NYU! Why not? If I took just one class, I could use the pool every single day. Going to school seemed like a small price to pay for a pool. It’s always good to learn new things. And my bank employer would cover the cost of my education, as long as I earned a B or better. It would be like a free gym, with homework attached.

I had considered getting a graduate degree at some point in the future, maybe an MBA, perhaps at Stanford, where I grew up. But now I was in New York, near a good graduate program that included pool access. I thought: Why not take a couple of classes in business and then maybe use those credits to transfer to Stanford later?

I applied for the part-time MBA program at NYU. I got accepted, enrolled in two classes and joined the pool. The commute to the downtown campus for class was inconvenient, but I liked the educational content. The pool around the corner from my apartment was fabulous. It was love at first sight.

I went swimming every single day that semester. I also went on to complete my entire MBA at NYU. It took me four years, since I was working full time. This meant four years of daily swimming.

Having that MBA wound up being a great asset, one that helped me move into my next role and assume leadership positions early in my career. I would not have pursued an MBA right after college if not for my need to go swimming.

Our passions matter. Rather than detracting from a career, they can help support it, often in surprising ways. While some people try to ignore or minimize their personal desires in order to focus on their careers, our non-work passions are part of who we are. Embracing the various aspects of ourselves helps us thrive, creating energy and a sense of agency, both of which can empower us at work. Making room for non-work-related interests helps us get where we want to go — and love all parts of our lives. Your work and your passions are on the same team.

Our passions matter. Rather than detracting from a career, they can help support it, often in surprising ways.

Outside interests also support our careers over the long haul because they build our ‘mental toolkit’, says Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of a handful of books on thinking and success, including “Bring Your Brain to Work”.

Markman says:

“Most of us don’t realize how much the variety of experiences we have in our lives benefits the overall base of knowledge that we can draw on to be a success at work. We’re not trained this way in education. All of our classes have names: English Class; Math Class. We’re taught early on to segment our knowledge, to solve problems on math tests only with math solutions. We bring that approach to work. But actually, anything you know is fair game to solve a work problem.”

Creative passions, in particular, can improve our ability to see things from different perspectives; this includes things like watercolor painting, bonsai gardening and writing poetry. As Markman says:

“When you do anything creative, you are forced to look at the world around you and see it from different perspectives. The research suggests that this can become a mindset, and it can be great at work.”

Seeing a situation from more than one perspective might help you access needed resources from a distracted or uncooperative colleague; for example, as Markman notes:

“Often, we try to convince someone to see things our way in order to get the resources we need. The alternative is to see it through their perspective and show them how supporting your project will make life better for them. If you legitimately understand what they’re trying to accomplish and show them how what you’re trying to do will help, that makes it a lot easier to get things done.”

Perspective-taking also could mean stopping to consider what might be bothering a colleague who is being difficult, and offering to help, rather than getting offended.


*Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” by Aliza Knox with Wendy Paris. Copyright © 2022 by John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold. 


Aliza Knox

Aliza Knox built and led APAC businesses for three of the world’s top technology firms — Google, Twitter and Cloudflare. Named 2020 APAC IT Woman of The Year, Aliza now shares her passion and lessons learned with the next generation of business leaders, guiding companies across new frontiers while building and maintaining strong connections between teams around the world. She is author of “Don’t Quit Your Day Job: The 6 Mindshifts You Need to Rise and Thrive at Work“.