Bland Ambition?

I’ve always possessed a driving sense that I am destined for great things, and this has pushed me to do better, be better, do more, be more. Of course at times, that means I’ve slacked off and let myself down, beating myself up in the process. This cycle of build-up and tear-down is often counterproductive, and it’s hard to feel content with what you do accomplish.

Recently, a couple of friends of mine posted some (private, or else I would link) reflections on ambition. My one friend D ruminated on coming to terms with his own limitations and not pushing himself to be a superman all the time or wringing himself out to dry for every misstep or foible. Another friend, A, posted a response in kind, focusing more on the specific notion of ambition and how our society judges success based on acquisition, ascendance and attractiveness. Not wanting that to be the measure of our success, A says, is not an admission of failure or inadequacy. It’s just means we’re using a different yardstick.

I used to not understand people with what I perceived to be low ambition. How could someone be happy in a job they are not passionate about, but merely content with or tolerable of? How could someone have no career trajectory, have never answered the question of what they want to be when they grow up, or even seem to want to try? Don’t we all want to be the best that we can be?

Then I realized that, well, maybe that’s not low ambition. It’s just a different ambition. Ambition is often only understood in the context of a career. But what about, well, life? Liberty? Pursuit of happiness? Maybe the Founding Fathers had it right — after all, they didn’t say “pursuit of middle management,” “pursuit of four weeks’ vacation” or even “pursuit of high Google pagerank.” Some people are content to make enough to get by comfortably, to subsidize a life of friends, family, travel, experience, entertainment and perhaps modest philanthropy, in addition to making a home and meeting basic needs. And that’s their ambition, really — just living life. Being the best at that is relative only to your own happiness.

In the past year, mainly for work but also out of personal interest, I’ve started reading a lot more blogs on social media and marketing. And I always marvel when I read about the lives of some of these young entrepreneurs making their names in the nascent field of social media marketing. I came across this article, “How I Cut 6 Hours From My Workday with These Seven Tips,” and was stunned. I cannot imagine micromanaging my productivity to the level of reclaiming 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there, and then reinvesting that found time back into my work to the tune of 70+ hours a week. I also follow self-described “social media ninja” Justin Levy on Twitter, and he regularly talks about how he only gets 3 or so hours of sleep a night. He works from dawn ’til midnight, it seems, travels regularly, has his hands in a bunch of active initiatives — and is getting married in a few weeks? But he’s not complaining. At least online, he comes off as one of the most positive, balanced, good-natured folks I’ve ever encountered.

I am entrepreneurial only in the respect that I love starting new projects, but I tend to have six-month syndrome — after about that period of time, my interest wanes, or I get distracted, or I start a whole new project. I have trouble with disciplining myself to see these ideas through. As I started this blog as a way to practice non-fiction writing in preparation for The Project, it has been helpful to feel accountable to people other than myself, which helps push myself to keep it up.

But as I write this blog entry, and in the back of my mind am planning for my headfirst dive into The Project, I can’t help but think about these two sides of ambition. It’s funny that, increasingly, it feels like the minimum standard to be deemed successful is to go full throttle, and anything less is failure, or at best mediocrity. And for some people, the go-go-go life is the way to be. There are people who can’t help but throw themselves into their passion, whether it’s launching a social media marketing firm, being a stay-at-home mom/dad, or becoming an associate in a law firm. That is the path for them. But why should that be considered success to the exclusion of a path that may be simpler, in one sense, but is no less valid? Ultimately, we should all be spending our time doing what makes us happy, whether it’s working 70+ hour weeks to launch an innovative business idea or putting in 35-40 at an okay job that allows time for hosting dinner parties and learning the guitar. And no one can judge one as a more worthy pursuit than the other. We need both types of people in this world.

For me, work-life balance is a huge thing.  A while back, I came to terms with certain things I needed in my life. One was sleep. The other was time with friends and family. If I don’t get enough of either, even if I am spending time doing other things I enjoy, I suffer. I’ve fallen victim to sacrificing these core needs to the project of the moment, whether it was my former life as a freelance web designer or diving headfirst into a big freelance writing assignment. And in the end, I always suffer, and I always return to the fact that I am just a type of person who needs balance. I need a little of a lot of things.

It’s easy to see that as weakness when you’re surrounded by high-acheivers who make it look so easy, and you are not living up to your own (unreasonably?) high expectations. But it’s good to stop and look at where I am once in a while and say, hey, this is pretty OK. And that doesn’t mean I give up my dreams or stop working hard on my projects (and try to overcome my six-month syndrome. But what it does mean is that, even if I keep on working and I don’t become the Best (and who’s to say what that is, anyways), that’s OK; I just need to be happy, and for me, I’ve proven to myself time and again, happiness is balance. When it comes to ambition, what more could I possibly want?

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