I’ve been thinking a lot about ambition lately, for a few reasons. I’ve just turned 40. Twenty-twenty has come to a close, and we’re at the start of a new year. It’s a time to think about new mountains to climb, starting with clear intentions.
I’ve been ambitious since I was a kid. When you’re a child, goal setting is typically done for you; a curriculum creates the framework for every school year, and you are supposed to advance in knowledge and skills with each lesson. I was good at meetings the goals set for me then. I liked learning–I still do–and meeting the goals was a natural consequence of my interest.
As I advanced in high school, the goal setting became more personal and more competitive. My grades had put me on track to be valedictorian, and I put in the effort to secure this position. I had a final GPA above 4.0 because of AP classes. I recognize that I worked hard to graduate at the top, but it also seemed natural. It wasn’t a struggle because I love understanding things, and my grades reflected my love of learning.
College was different in feel, though not in result. A high-school teacher of mine had drilled into me that college would be harder. It would be a bigger pool. It would be more intense. And so I geared myself psychologically for battle. I attacked my studies with ferocity. I still loved to learn, but I started to feel anxiety because of self-imposed pressure to perform to the highest standards. I had come to equate doing well in school with validation, and my natural love of learning was distorted with the desire to prove myself on a larger stage.
College became, then, an academic battlefield, and I fought with everything I had. I tackled intense course loads, and I worked to exhaustion, with poor diet and sleep to boot. I was extremely driven, but I drove myself crazy.
In the end, I met my goal: I graduated summa cum laude in three years with a 3.95 GPA. I was also named a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an honors society that recognizes academic excellence. I felt good standing at the top of that mountain after all the hard work. But I didn’t know that I had created an unhealthy, cuthroat mindset around ambition.
I did journalism internships for a year afterward, during which I longed for a new mountain to climb, in a different environment.
I decided to apply to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, so I figured J-School would help me find a path. I also wanted to live in New York, a city I’ve always associated with ambitious, creative people.
Fortunately, I got into Columbia. This was huge validation for me. I was an immigrant kid, and acceptance into an Ivy League school was like an imprimatur from American society: You are accepted! My ambition was stoked.
The master’s program was only a year, and it was a pass/fail system. It turned out not to be a mountain to climb, but a rite of passage into the professional world for me.
My relationship with ambition had changed. I had gone from a healthy sense of ambition through high school, when I had the mindset of competing primarily with myself, to an anxiety-ridden mindset in college that was continuing with negative consequences into my young adulthood. I had become so tightly wound up about “being the best,” but I got lost when the pre-fabricated structures that told me I was “the best” suddenly disappeared when there were no more grades to earn.
There I was: 22 years old and a newly minted Columbia J-School grad. I was full of burning ambition without direction. That’s a recipe for implosion; hence, my approximately “quarter-life crisis.”
I was a young adult wanting to make it in a new world–a new city, a new stage of life. I had a strong will, but I lost the focus of my ambition when life started asking me to make big decisions, namely, what was I going to do with the rest of my life?
I considered getting a Ph.D., but I realized I did not want to commit to a career as an academic. I wanted to write, but I didn’t know where to focus. And, so, I floundered.
Because I had not set clear goals, I ended up drifting where the wind steered me, with bits of conscious input here and there. This led me to dark places internally.
The bottom line was: I didn’t know what I wanted, but I had so much desire to do well and be validated with conventional success that I made myself sick with confusion. I had set the bar remarkably high because that’s what I’d always done, but, at that point, I didn’t even know what, or where, the bar was.
This led to chronic unhappiness because I yearned for career success, yet I never defined what that success would look like for me. I was looking to externalities–how my peers were doing–and feeling bad about where I was at. I had always been a high achiever, and I felt like I was achieving nothing.
I failed to ask myself key questions: What goals do you strive for, and why did you choose those goals?
More broadly: What is the why behind your ambition?
When you answer those questions, you will understand your values. And when you understand what you value, you can be a better director of your life.
I’ve started to ask myself these questions in the last few years, and the mindset I have around ambition has evolved as a result. I used to view ambition as a pathway to external validation. Now, I view ambition as a way to consciously direct my life so that I’m learning and growing in ways that I want to, according to goals that I set. These goals are meaningful for me and unique to me. My current goals range from career to creative development to various aspects of health. My overarching goal is to be my best self.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit,” Aristotle said so famously. I would add to this: Meaningful excellence is important.
It is essential to examine your ambition so that you can live life on your own terms, not on the terms that someone else sets for you.
As 2021 begins, I encourage you to reflect on your ambitions so that you can set and/or tweak your goals for the year. Which ambitions are outdated? Which ones remain relevant? What new ones do you want to focus on? How would you like to grow in capability this year; this decade?
And don’t forget to examine your why. It’s important to know the reason behind your ambition so that you don’t act on autopilot. Try to see yourself as you are, and if you want to change some things, then you can make your ambition work for you.