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November 6, 2017

How Ambitious Should You Be?

Rosie Robinson


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Picture the scene: you have a job that you love, working for a great company. But, this has been your life for the past five years. Surely you need to be more ambitious? Perhaps now is the right time to be moving "onward and upward"?

So, your boss recommends you for a manager role, which you take. But soon you seem to be spending all your time in meetings, and you have so much paperwork that you swear you can hear your desk creaking under the weight. Eventually you find yourself asking, "When did I become so unhappy?"

Seeking progress for the sake of progress can often leave us feeling deflated, and even more unfulfilled than we did in a lower-ranking job. So, where's the line? Is there a conflict between ambition and happiness?

What's Happiness Got to Do With It?

For many of us, career success brings genuine happiness. But when this stops being the case, we need to re-evaluate what makes us truly happy. A promotion might bring more money and new challenges, but the trade-off could be that you spend less time at home, or you have to deal with a lot more pressure.

Many people spend their careers – and their lives – pressuring themselves to achieve more in the hope of obtaining the "Shangri-La" of jobs. But, Swiss entrepreneur Fabian Pfortmüller disagrees with this way of thinking, asserting that we should be "creating more with doing less." Just as money doesn't buy happiness, a high-powered job won't always get you job satisfaction.

Who Drives Us to be Ambitious?

Before we contemplate a big career move, it's important to assess who is motivating us to move on.

Often, we are our own worst critic – I know I'm guilty of that. All it takes is that nagging feeling of self-doubt that we aren't doing enough, and we begin to push ourselves to achieve more. But this can leave us feeling drained and disappointed if we don't reach the goals that we set for ourselves.

Self-criticism is neither a healthy nor a productive method of career advancement. And those of us who are prone to it will likely benefit from a change of mindset (as opposed to a change of job) if we want to achieve real job satisfaction.

Alternatively, some people feel pressured to strive for bigger and better things because they fear that their peers will view them as a layabout, lacking drive or enthusiasm. But, it's important to remember that what's right for others, isn't always what's right for us.

As the programmer and entrepreneur, David Heinemeier Hansson argues, we shouldn't rely on "the fulfillment of the expected" to be happy. That is to say, we shouldn't be driven to achieve what others expect of us. Instead, we need to recognize where and when we are truly satisfied with our work.

It's a Balancing Act

Working mothers are a perfect example of well-balanced ambition. Many women are expected to "make up for borrowed time" after returning from maternity leave. Instead, plenty of women will strike a careful balance between their home and work lives. They will put less pressure on themselves to constantly achieve and, instead, set themselves realistic goals over a longer period of time.

They understand that in order to pursue their own family ambitions, it may take longer to reach their career goals. In this sense, it may be worth letting career ambition take a back seat to happiness. This doesn't mean that working mothers are no longer ambitious in their jobs. Rather, they work out how to reach their full career potential without making themselves miserable in the process. We can say the same for men, of course, with shared parental leave enabling more and more fathers to strike a healthier balance between parenthood and work.

Work to Live or Live to Work?

By remembering that there is more to life than work, we can alleviate some of the pressure that we, and others, put on ourselves to achieve.

That said, we should never underestimate the power of ambition. It's an invaluable source of motivation, and it can help us to accomplish the goals that matter most to us. Nonetheless, we should beware the dangers of being over-ambitious. This can force you into a job that you don't really want, and may greatly damage your home life. The ability to recognize what does and doesn't make you happy can be the difference between under- and over-stretching yourself. So, in short, be careful what you wish for.

Have you ever experienced the negative impact of over-ambition? Or maybe you've felt pushed to take a promotion you didn't really want? Please share your experiences and thoughts below in the comments section.

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4 comments on “How Ambitious Should You Be?”

  1. For five years I worked part time at the Postal Service while working as an owner of my electrical business full-time. I was doing very well in my electrical business when the post office offered me a full-time position. I decided to take the federal job because of the regular paychecks and benefits. Three years later I hate it and I’m thinking of leaving to return to doing residential electrical work. Many people call me crazy and stupid for leaving a federal job, but I love being an electrician. I’ve looked into other positions at the Postal Service or the federal government and nothing has come to fruition(location and experience requirements). So happiness isn’t making $60,000 guaranteed a year, it’s doing what I like, doing what I love during feast or famine.

    1. Thanks Erika for sharing your story. It is great to hear that you are clear on what motivates you and what makes you happy! I suspect you do an amazing job simply because you love what you do!

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