The Aztecs of ancient Mesoamerica played a game called ulama. The object was to get a ball through a stone hoop using only one’s elbows, knees or hips. The game was played by two teams, and the stakes were extremely high. The captain of the losing team—and, some scholars say, the rest of the team as well—were sacrificed to the Sun God. Ulama, and similar games from that era, are ancestors of modern sports like soccer and basketball—the biggest difference being that, today, no one usually gets killed for losing.
The difference between ulama and its modern descendants mirrors the difference between how we experience the “work” and “play” activities in our lives. When we’re working, we tend to think and behave as if our lives are on the line in everything we do. This sense that there’s “so much at stake” puts us in a constant state of anxiety. We worry about whether our colleagues are “backstabbing” us, whether our bosses disliked the colors we used in our presentation, whether we’re using too many pens, and so forth. Our usual emotional state around our careers probably resembles what an ulama player felt like when his team was losing.
Career anxiety also limits our productivity and creativity. We spend hours second-guessing the words we use in documents, mentally replaying stressful interactions at work, losing sleep over how our superiors perceive us, and so on. We feel afraid to make suggestions about how things could be done better in the workplace, ask the boss for a raise, give constructive criticism, and take other actions that might benefit us and our coworkers. Because we think we have so much to lose if our colleagues disapprove of us, we shy away from “rocking the boat.”
Most importantly, our constant state of career-related fear makes it impossible for us to enjoy what we do for a living. No matter how well-paying our jobs, how fun-sounding the activities they entail, or how supportive our colleagues, we can’t be passionate about our work if we’re worrying nonstop about our reputation and security in our jobs. This is one reason many people end up dissatisfied when they change careers—as the old saying goes, they take themselves wherever they go, and their perception of work as a super-high-stakes game keeps them in the same fearful state in their new environment.
By contrast, when we do something we consider “play,” we’re able to relax and enjoy ourselves, because the risks that come with losing don’t seem so overwhelming. These activities are more like games of basketball with your friends—they might get a little rough, but nobody feels and acts as if his or her life were on the line.
Some people’s reaction to reading this might be “of course I need to behave like my life is at stake in my job. My job pays my bills, and I need to take it seriously.” This reflects the conventional wisdom in our society, which is that career anxiety is good for you—that the way to be successful in your career is to treat it as if it were a matter of life and death. Some even take pride in their anxiety—they feel that worrying as much as they do makes them responsible, hardworking people.
But worrying, in fact, doesn’t pay your bills—it only hurts your creativity and productivity, and takes the fun out of what you’re doing. As management psychologist Art Horn puts it in Face It: Recognizing And Conquering The Hidden Fear That Drives All Conflict At Work, “[w]orry can be quite self-defeating. When it strikes, we think something quite unfortunate might happen. Often dealing with the unfortunate matter requires clarity, and this is exactly what worrying destroys. As a result, on-the-job worry reduces productivity.”
How do you dissolve the feeling that your life is at stake when you’re working, and regain peace and focus around what you do for a living? I’ll describe one approach I use myself, and that I’ve used with clients. When career-related anxiety arises, begin to breathe deeply and rhythmically, and focus on some point in the room. Keep this up until the tension in your body and the other sensations that signal the anxiety pass away. Don’t distract yourself by diving back into your work, procrastinating, or numbing yourself with food, drugs or alcohol—just stay where you are, and breathe and focus until the sensations are gone.
When we’re worrying, our minds become preoccupied with past experiences involving dangerous or harmful situations, or frightening possible future events. For instance, perhaps we think back to our parents punishing us as children, or imagine ourselves losing our jobs and being forced to live in a dumpster.
Our bodies react as if these events were actually happening, and often respond by clenching the muscles and breathing shallowly. As Dr. Robert E. Thayer describes in The Biopsychology of Mood and Arousal, biologists call this a “freeze response,” and it’s what animals do when they sense danger and seek to avoid detection by a predator. Thus, when we do this, we are actually reacting as if we’re in a life-or-death situation. However, since concerns we face at work don’t usually threaten our lives, all getting into this state does for us is create discomfort and distraction.
Holding our attention on our breathing and our surroundings helps keep our minds focused on what’s happening now, rather than what happened in the past or might occur in the future. By breathing fully, we take ourselves out of the constricted “freeze” state. Psychologist Stephen Wolinsky describes the benefits of this kind of technique in Trances People Live: Healing Approaches In Quantum Psychology:
In order for a symptom to remain a symptom, there has to be a holding of the breath. This holding allows the person to shift into a self-to-self trance: he or she is no longer present with you but is back watching an old internal movie. . . . When I request that clients continue to experience the symptom while they breathe and look at me, I am offering them the possibility of experiencing their symptoms fully but with me in present time.
As we continue to breathe and focus, our bodies gradually recognize that the past and future traumas we’re imagining aren’t happening and we’re not in physical danger, and they feel free to relax again. Over time, as we keep doing this simple exercise in response to our anxiety, we become more and more composed in the face of situations that used to rattle us at work.
Gaining this sort of composure creates space for us to actually start enjoying what we do for a living. Where before we may have dreaded getting out of bed to return to our stressful, frightening work environments, we develop a peace, focus and creativity we may not have experienced on the job before. We start perceiving work as less like an Aztec bloodsport, and more like a friendly, invigorating pickup basketball game.