When ambition eats at you, it feels like no matter how much you accomplish or how hard you work, you haven’t done enough. There’s always more to do. There’s always others doing more. It’s a never-ending battle. Sound familiar?
Many days I’ve spent in this state, watching as others passed by while I fell deeper under the growing pile of career milestones that I wished to tuck under my belt. This pile paradoxically growing more unreachable as I achieve more of what I set out to accomplish. The fear of mediocrity always lurking.
I wouldn’t call it depression, though it certainly shares some similarities. But the origin is different. This feeling doesn’t stem from a place of failure, it stems from a fear of not living up to your potential. The difference is subtle, but the impact is drastic.
Most of us aren't short on ambition. We all want more wealth, more success, more accolades, more everything. The ones that succeed in life and in business are the ones that have figured out how to deal with their ambition, harnessing it for good rather than letting it lead to jealousy or inertia. The reality is that there's only so many hours in a day, and more importantly, so many hours that our bodies will allow us to work. If we can’t control ambition and subsequently, our mind, hours become painful and output becomes less.
So, how does one manage their ambition? It's a question I've been wrestling with for years. Below are a handful of things I do when I feel ambition nagging at me.
Each year most of us set goals. Most of us also file away those goals until the clock strikes midnight 12 months later. But goals, not unlike objectives that are set by a board in a business, are fluid things. Circumstances and priorities change; what’s a priority in January seems laughable in December.
Each quarter I have a recurring calendar notification that holds time for my personal board meeting. Yes, a board meeting with myself. During this board meeting, I review my goals, analyze my performance over the preceding time period, and re-prioritize goals based on what I wish to accomplish and what can wait.
So much of the trouble with ambition is that it's viewed through a lens that shows a hazy picture of where it needs to be applied. Breaking yearly goals into quarters allows you to adapt and execute with a clearer mind on the tasks at hand. It also allows you to appreciate the progress you’ve made since the last check-in. Day by day it can be hard to miss all the great stuff you’ve been doing.
It’s tough not to get caught up in the success of others, especially if you’re an entrepreneur. Almost daily, headlines of
million billon dollar exits and “overnight successes” fill the interwebs, often with people much younger than you. If this is the benchmark that you compare yourself to, it's tough to feel like you’re doing enough. In reality, with this benchmark, it’s impossible do enough. When you’re chasing others, you're chasing a finish line that’s always evolving and never ending. The more successful you become, the larger and more luminous the person ahead of you becomes. It’s a vicious cycle.
The best way to combat this may be to establish a checklist of sorts to put the comparison in perspective, providing structure and finality for acknowledging, learning, and abruptly filing away the news of others. Awe can quickly cascade to self-deprecation. Remember, the success of others does not dictate your roadmap or path to happiness. That’s easy to remember in principle, but much harder to practice.
Ambition affects more than just your career. If you channel all of your ambition into your career, you're running risk of a lack of diversification. Your emotion ebbs and flows with the path of your career, which is rarely straight. Finding an alternate outlet where you can please your ambition is crucial.
These can be activities like starting side businesses, as I’ve done in the past, or something as simple as attempting to master the art of espresso-making, which I still haven’t quite nailed. It allows me to exercise my desire to create and learn in an environment that I have complete control over. The only way to satisfy a curious mind is to let it wander.
Complacency sounds like a bad word, but not if it's selective. The reality is that certain things take time, regardless of how much you’d like them to move quicker. Other things can move with your help. Distinguishing between the two is where selective complacency comes into play.
Every now and again, you'll need to select complacency. Whether that's giving a career the time it deserves or sitting tight as the market moves. Some things take patience. This has always been difficult for me, an obvious indicator of my lack of self-control, but I’m getting better. And as I do, I’m able to focus in on the things that need my attention now without the distraction of what’s to come.
Every single person you look up to struggles with managing their ambition. We all face feelings of mediocrity, not doing enough, not making enough, not winning enough—insert your insecurity here. But people rarely talk about it because it shows vulnerability. Even writing this post was difficult, but cathartic.
The mental side of your career is extremely challenging. It’s why, as I’ve progressed through my career, I’ve spent less time writing about tactics and more time writing about business and its affect on the mind. It’s fascinating and it takes work. Those that have a grasp on it arrived through a process of self-awareness and adaptation. It’s not simply a natural evolution. Ambition is power, but only if you know how to use it.
Has ambition ever held you back?
Andrew is an Entrepreneur in Residence at Betaworks, an early-stage VC firm and startup studio that has invested in companies like Tumblr and AirBnB, and has created companies like Bit.ly and Dots. You can read more from Andrew on his blog or on Twitter @AndrewDumont.