The Price of Ambition
I’d like to let you in on a secret – I am an ambitious person. You might think that’s not a secret at all, but what might actually be a secret is the toll taken by that ambition.
Before grad school, I was a firm believer that I could accomplish anything I wanted if I worked hard enough for it. I had big dreams for my life and was ready to go after them with everything I had. Then I went to grad school and, for the first time in my life, found that I had limits. Ironically, this realization frustrated me more than the limits themselves. Instead of slowing down my life to fit within those limits, I began looking for ways to break the walls and get rid of them. I started to wonder how the really successful people of the world were able to manage their lives without completely falling apart, a question I’m still asking today.
Nevertheless, as a result of that burnout, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the cost of ambition. For me personally, chasing my goals means two great consequences:
1) I’m constantly tired, stressed, and on the edge of another burnout
2) I’m rarely satisfied with the status quo
3) My ambition sometimes takes a toll on the people around me
But I’m not about to stop.
I realize that saying this may alienate friends or even potential dates who think I’m a crazy scary Type A personality. Don’t worry – I know how to relax too. Sort of. If it includes a puzzle or a podcast or a stimulating conversation. Side note – I may be the only person on the planet who hates the game Apples to Apples. What is the point of a game that no one can ever figure out how to win?
Anyway, I digress.
Not long ago I had a conversation with my parents about dating. Dating is one area where ambitious women pay dearly. I had just broken up with someone and was pretty sure that my ambition had played a role in that breakup, not because of anything I said or did, but because it worried him. My mom and dad innocently suggested that maybe I should tone it down a little in my dating so as not to scare off guys before they had a chance to get to know me. But here’s the thing – I can’t turn it off. I don’t know how. The desire to do more, to be more, to make things better and greater than they were before – that desire fuels me and is a fundamental component of my soul that brings me a great deal of satisfaction in my life. How do I tone that down just to get a first date? Nonetheless, it’s a reality I face, and the price may be a lot fewer first dates.
Let me stop a minute and define what ambition means for me personally. It’s not just about becoming the next Sheryl Sandberg or Hilary Clinton (although let’s not rule those out). It’s about making something better, about dreaming big and accomplishing big, and helping others to do the same, whether as a stay-at-home-mom or a Fortune 500 CEO. In other words, for me ambition is about executing your dreams, both professionally and personally.
Now back to the duality of ambition. I am obsessed with the Olympics. Winter or summer, I’ll watch them all day, every day. I love every part of it – the sense of national pride, watching competitors from different countries, and getting to experience the culture of the host country.
However, the Olympics also brings out feelings of frustration and longing inside of me – frustration that I have not accomplished in my life what kids at 16 are accomplishing in theirs, and longing to be really good at something and to be part of a team at the top of their game. It’s simultaneously motiving and disheartening.
But then I remember that the life of an Olympian is not easy. They spend hours and hours and hours from the minute they can walk training in one particular sport. They miss out on friendships, public school, and sometimes even childhood in the pursuit of their goals. I remember listening to a Freakonomics podcast where the host interviewed Malcolm Gladwell about his 10,000 hour rule. He said people have taken that rule the wrong way – it’s not meant to inspire you to put in 10,000 hours to be good at something, but rather to highlight the cost required to become an expert. He talked about how those kids would not be concert pianists or Olympic champions if they didn’t have parents and support systems doing all the other small things for them so they could focus solely on their skills. I’ve thought about that often, especially in light of my question about how successful people do it.
At the end of the day, where does this leave me? Stuck in a catch-22. After experiencing severe burnout, I’m now in a position where I don’t know if I can handle my own life. I recognize that I don’t have enough hours in the day or enough energy in my body to accomplish everything I want, and that makes me crazy. I also recognize that ambition will get you far, but, as with the Olympians, how many broken bones, how many stitches, how many sleepless nights and broken or missed relationships will it take to get there? Is it possible to have it all? Is it even worth it?
I don’t have an answer to any of those questions. All I have is awareness and a recognition that I’m going to try anyway. Because if I don’t try, I’ll spend my life wondering if I actually achieved my full potential. And to me, that would be worse than toning it down just to play it safe. I may give myself an early heart attack or a brain aneurysm in the process, but don’t worry – I’m going to live to 100 anyway.