When I graduated college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself, and no drive for anything more than having drinks and hanging out with friends. Looking back, it was a sad state of affairs.
Slowly, however, things started to change. I met inspiring people, traveled and started to see the world differently. I finally started to get somewhere. I started telling myself “I can” instead of “I can’t.” I was happier. I had more energy. More charisma. I started a non-profit. I started writing professionally for a company I love. I began a radio show. And I got a little bit of recognition along the way. I was driven, and it felt great. It was a new life.
Less than a decade into this life I’ve learned something valuable. I learned that ambition, for all its praise in our culture, is a delicate thing. Because being ambitious requires balance.
The American idea of ambition is like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from The Wolf of Wall Street. A young, power-driven, aggressive guy who stops at nothing to get what he wants. But I call bullshit on this form of ambition. Ambition can be a gentler and humbler thing. You just have to do it carefully.
In 2012, I got a dreamy job as a copywriter. I was a few years into my “doer” lifestyle, and I was walking on clouds. But it was a big change. As the months went on, I lost the ability to balance my personal and work lives. My time with friends dropped to zero. Quality conversations with my then-girlfriend were replaced by incessant soliloquies about my “projects.” I had once dreamed of a wonderful integration of work and life, where they ebbed and flowed seamlessly with one another. To an extent, I had achieved that exchange, but I wasn’t ready for how exhausting and self-centered it would be.
Six months into the job, I was overwhelmed with anxiety. My body shut down, forcing a realization: I was so concerned with the job, so concerned with feeling important, that I was choosing that feeling over everything else. I had lost touch with the bigger picture and I was losing sight of myself. I couldn’t clearly gauge what I wanted, why I was so ambitious, why I wanted more and more and more.
It took a while to reconnect with myself and return to what made me so happy. Considering balance would have saved me a lot of trouble. I could have saved my relationship. I could have saved a ton of heartache. And I could have saved time.
Realizing that ambition required balance was a revelation. I thought I had figured it all out. But before long, I began adding more and more to my plate because I believed I had the energy and capacity to do all things. On top of my full-time job and the non-profit, I joined the creative team at my job for a lecture series, the board of a print studio and committed to writing articles for local magazines. Soon I found myself back to feeling disconnected, burning friend-bridges and choosing to “do” rather than being present.
Ambition doesn’t mean you have to do everything all-at-once all the time. In fact, being ambitious requires you to not do things. It demands laziness and obliges you to rest, relax and come back to center. If you don’t, you run the risk of losing the drive to do anything. Ambition keeps people resilient, energetic and it drives newness in the world. But like all things, it requires balance. I wish I had known it when I was just starting out.
Illustrations by Grace Manno