Work-related stress is linked to 85% of serious illnesses. Stress-related illness costs businesses an estimated $200-300 billion a year in lost productivity. Those numbers say it all: It’s time to rethink our approach to work beyond “work-life balance.”

As knowledge workers, we’re embedded in a culture that conflates ambition with sacrifice — sacrificing our health by staying up longer than needed, our relationships by saying no too many times, and our mental and physical stability by not giving ourselves a break. There is also a prevalent zero-sum mindset: framing work as a rat race-based game (we win if others lose). But what would the world look like if we favored collaboration over competition? It’s time to redefine ambition as a commitment to learning and growing — for ourselves and everyone around us.

I’m no stranger to ambition. I’ve held leadership roles at Google, Pixar, and YouTube, but my trajectory wasn’t linear. Today, I’m grateful for my career’s twists and turns. My advice is to slow down and take a mindful approach to career management. Your mental and physical health will benefit, making you more effective in the long run. Plus, you may actually enjoy the journey. 

Ditch the always-on culture — take breaks to reflect

Many of the greatest leaders have said their inspiration came in times of calm reflection, notably Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and even Oprah Winfrey. Did I hear someone say “Eureka!” from a bathtub?

In 2021, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all reckoning with this. How do you manage the constant barrage of email, IMs, and video calls? Remote work may give us more freedom and flexibility, but a side effect is that many of us can’t properly detox from the workday. Taking breaks and time off is essential.

Taking time away can be healing. It’s not optional, and it’s not an indulgence. So plan a vacation! If you need inspiration, check out The Sabbatical Project. Founder DJ DiDonna says that “Getting out of your head heals you and stimulates your creativity.” Whatever activity you choose, he says, “Find a way to reconnect your disembodied knowledge worker self with your flesh and bones.” Don’t feel pressured to limit your vacation to the traditional week. An extended sabbatical could be the key to unlocking the next growth phase in your career. 

Recently, I took a break to visit Southern California. I found myself exploring several important topics unrelated to my work: Mindful eating, climate change, and how fake news is developing. I also tried out surfing — mostly under the board. This respite gave me renewed energy. I came back to work refreshed and will be expanding the charter of my career (details coming soon!).

Prioritize connections at work and at home

Human connection makes life fun, but it’s also what gives life meaning. The early years of your career don’t need to be all hustle — use them to build up the memories of a lifetime. Maybe you’ll fall behind, but you’ll catch up. As an example, look to the many countries that offer extended maternity and paternity leave by law. Denmark provides 18 weeks of maternity leave, followed by 32 weeks to be split between the two parents, totaling nearly a year. Career-minded women in Denmark still make it to the board room: Roughly 30% of top managers in Denmark are female, compared to just 10% in US S&P 1500 companies. 

We’re all likely to work past age sixty, so don’t wait to take time for your family and loved ones. When my daughter was born, I took two years off work and then joined part-time to experience her childhood fully. I made a similar choice when my son was born. Sure, this may have slowed down my career, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything — and I have decades more to make it up!

Relationships provide mentorship and a support network. Both of these arise from conscious investment. You’ll have to consider how you can find mentors and maintain connections. These don’t happen as transactions but as nurtured relationships. Find reasons to keep people engaged in your career journey. I highly recommend Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village. In it, she reflects on how societies can come together to support children as a collective. The core principle is that it “takes a village” to raise a child. It also takes a village to develop a flourishing career. My husband and family have always been a big supporter — a crucial part of my village. We all have people in our lives who want to see us succeed. We need to invest in them as much as they want to invest in us. We also need to give back — enabling our own village to grow.

Embrace the scenic route

Sometimes your career journey will feel like driving a fast car down a straightaway. Other times, things will slow down. In times like this, I think of Lightning McQueen from the Pixar film, Cars. McQueen had places to be, races to win, and a lot to prove, but life had other things in mind. McQueen gets stuck in Radiator Springs, a rundown town along what used to be Route 66. He was forced to slow down, but it allowed him to invest in friendships and experience life in a manner that got him roaring back. 

Like McQueen, you can use slow moments to invest in yourself. You may choose to “sharpen the saw” by learning new skills. In his new book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, Neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta explains the science of memory and learning. He says that dementia isn’t natural or inevitable — we can avoid memory loss and brain atrophy by strengthening our neural networks. Supplements, crossword puzzles, and gardening may not be enough. Instead, Gupta advises that we invest in our relationships, learn new things, and remain physically active. Staying mentally active is essential even during breaks. When I had a maternity break during my second child, I actually wrote a book on computer graphics, published by Springer Verlag! 

Speak your mind, follow your heart

Mindfully managing your career means taking time to find your voice. I learned this the hard way in my early years at Google. Back then, I had an intuitive sense that a TV platform was in our future. But I was green, unaware of the state of the industry, and inexperienced when it came to advocating for my ideas. I also needed to cultivate the skills to lead a multi-disciplinary product team.

Now, roughly seven years later, my vision has come to fruition. There were a lot of moments in between where I felt like giving up. Instead, I let the journey unfold while staying committed to my goal. Over time, I found my voice and began to speak my mind. I learned how to challenge the status quo respectfully and champion my ideas with data. Building confidence takes time. 

Putting the guideposts into practice

It’s time for all of us to leave the rat race behind. As professionals, we will achieve more when we allow ourselves the space to be human and recharge. We’ll be less stressed if we prioritize connecting with people and building resilient relationships. We’ll stay sharp longer if we invest in ourselves. So do what you love, and take time to step back and enjoy life, family, connections, and learning new things! Sometimes your car will move fast and sometimes slow, but you will always be moving ahead, enjoying the scenery, and reaching the endpoint (eventually!). In the end, that’s what matters.