I read this wonderful post from @Batty_Towers about ambition the other day, and it really struck a chord with me. I may not be a Christian, but I completely agree with everything she writes about how talent and ambition are not incompatible with humility and kindness.
This is actually something I’ve been thinking about for a while – I’ve had a draft post with the title “on ambition” and absolutely nothing in the text sat in my WordPress drafts for about a year. Inspired by Batty, I thought I’d sit down and try to work out what it is I actually want to say about this.
I’d never really considered myself ambitious, which is why it came as a surprise to me when, after my first interview for the job I’m in now, the feedback I got was that they’d been impressed by my “evident ambition and drive”. The “drive” part I sort of got – although hardly a workaholic, I do aim to do the best I can at whatever I’m working on, and put all I have into it. But “ambitious”? Surely ambitious people are the ones who stamp all over their colleagues to get to the top, basically sacrificing any hopes of a personal life in the process? I’ve never really aspired to a management position, and I certainly wouldn’t want to push past someone else on my way up, so surely I’m not ambitious? All I really want to do is be the best I can be at what I try – and in a work context that means being the best librarian I can be.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that actually, that is a sort of ambition. It may not be in the way I’ve always thought about it – talk of ambition in the workplace always puts me in mind of women in 80s power-suits and killer heels – but ambition for yourself is still ambition.
(Sidenote: I’ve now typed “ambition” too many times, and it’s stopped looking like a real word. I hate it when that happens.)
Perhaps that’s why the feedback I got put “ambition and drive” together: for me at least, they are inextricably linked. My personal ambition means that I am driven to push myself harder, to achieve what I want to achieve.
Of course, a lot of this has fallen by the wayside in the last year. On a personal level it’s been a very difficult year, and I’ve pulled back from a lot of the extra-curricular work I do. I’ve still done odds and ends, but I haven’t been nearly as busy in the last year as I could have been, or as I have been in the past. It’s been good to take a bit of a break from everything, but I’m starting to feel like I need to start pushing myself again.
On some level, I feel a bit disappointed in myself if I’m not working as hard as I think I could be, or should be.
I’m aware that can be an unhealthy way of looking at things, which is why I also found this recent Harvard Business Review post on changing your thought patterns useful. The writer argues that feeling passionate about your career can lead to harmful, obsessive passion – which can lead to negative thought processes around a flawed evaluation of your own worth, feeling over-responsible for things that may be out of your control, and probably weren’t your responsibility to begin with, and insecurity in your relationships with others and your perception of how they see you. The article outlines some common statements associated with these thought processes, and suggests some positive alternatives: for example, “I can only rest without guilt once all the work is done. If I stop any sooner, I am lazy, selfish and irresponsible” (that one certainly sounds familiar to me!) becomes “There will always be more work to do. By choosing to rest at reasonable intervals, I increase my productivity, accomplish more, enjoy life and stop feeling resentful toward others who take breaks”. The writer suggests getting into the habit of repeating the positive alternatives to yourself, to break the habit of negative thought processes. I certainly think it’s worth a try, so I’m going to give it a go.
I guess what I’m circling around here is that there are positive and negative sides to ambition. Ambition as outlined in the first blog post linked to above is a good thing: it’s good to take pride in doing things you’re good at, and to want to do them the best you can and in ways that will benefit more people. On the other hand, you have the stereotypically bad view of ambition, and the one most people associate with the word: that of pushing others aside to get ahead at all costs. I don’t think I’m guilty of that, but there is another, more insidious downside to ambition: if you become too driven, you end up pushing yourself far harder than is healthy. I guess, as with so much in life, it’s just about finding a balance.