One day, Stephanie Scheller came home exhausted from another late night at work. Even though her business was growing, she found herself anxious, overwhelmed, and frustrated, with a nagging feeling that she hadn’t done her best work.

Looking for some kind of distraction, she walked by her violin — an instrument she hadn’t played since college — and picked it up. Though she was never the best violin player, she began playing it and found that it helped her release the emotions from work. Since that day in 2019, Scheller has incorporated playing the violin into her routine and even started taking lessons again. Not only did it help her be able to disconnect from that day’s work stresses, but she found it also made her a more patient, present, and capable leader during business hours.

For executives, cultivating hobbies like this can be key to achieving emotional stability when they’re often in highly stressful environments. One study found that CEOs that run marathons had 5% better company performance, and another found that CEOs who were also pilots ran more innovative companies.

“Creativity is how we solve problems in business,” said Scheller, now founder of Grow Disrupt and author of Friend Power. “When we give ourselves space to tap into that creativity, we also create capacity to handle larger and larger problems, both ours and those of the people counting on us as leaders.”

For people who’ve focused so intensely on their career for decades, it can be a challenge to chart new territory to find hobbies and activities outside of work. But it’s never too late to start and reap the emotional, physical, and mental benefits from having passions beyond managing the P&L.

Pursuing the Right Passions

Because today’s executives have likely dedicated so much of their 20s and 30s to their careers, leaders who are now in their 40s and 50s may struggle to find their identity outside of the corner office.

“Having a second life outside of work reminds you that your self-worth doesn’t purely depend on what you achieve in your professional life,” says executive coach Smita Das Jain. A non-work passion can provide a second identity and sense of freedom, she says, which can also bring new perspectives on leadership.

If you find yourself struggling to identify where these passions might lie, Jain suggests asking yourself the following questions as a starting point:

  • As a five-year-old, what did you want to be as a grown-up? What about when you were fifteen years old?
  • When was the last time you lost all track of time while engaged in an activity? What was it?
  • If you were to be locked up in a bookstore overnight, which section(s) would you head to?

Renee Rosales, M.Ed., Founder and CEO of neurodiversity education platform Theara, also recommends leaders read The Artist’s Way and It's Never Too Late to Begin Again, both by Julie Cameron. “Don’t be put off by the title. The lessons in the book can apply to many activities, such as writing, sports, dancing, baking, ice-skating, basically anything you may enjoy,” says Rosales. “You might be surprised at where your imagination takes you and what interests you develop.”

Opposites Attract

Executive coaches agree that it’s important to cultivate skills and hobbies in areas that you don’t typically engage in during the workday to enjoy the most brain- or body-stretching benefits from a new interest.

“Be a bit contrarian,” says leadership coach Blanca Vergara. “If you have a sedentary job, choose a hobby that forces you to move, like dancing or playing volleyball. If you work with words, choose a non-word hobby like painting or hiking.” Ideally, look for activities where your skill level is met with the right level of challenge, she says. If you engage in the types of activities you normally do, you will likely be bored and won’t learn anything. Conversely, if you try something so far outside of your comfort zone, it can make you anxious and you may avoid doing it habitually.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to change interests as time goes by. “Years ago, I loved dancing and weightlifting. Now I prefer painting and yoga,” says Vergara. “Don't fight yourself. Do what feels expansive 90% of the time.”

Even if you’re not focused on work itself, engaging in other activities can create the conditions necessary to solve challenging work-related problems and invent innovative solutions.

“Hobbies bring your brain to a magic place where three variables co-exist: You are in a relaxed state of mind, you are easy to distract, and you’re full of dopamine,” says Vergara. “When this happens, your brain is most likely to give you your best and most creative ideas. This gives perspective you can’t find by just staring at your computer until midnight.”

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