How Ambition Is Ruining Your Life

2012 June 13

What would happen if you actually accomplished everything you thought you should? How would you feel then?

One of my wisest friends asks that question after I tell her about how I almost ruined this weekend’s trip to NYC with my single-minded focus on doing and seeing everything possible in the shortest amount of time, getting overwhelmed by the possibilities, not pursuing any of them and then getting angry at myself for “failing” at taking a vacation. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. And if I sound like a less than swell person to travel with, well, just ask the non-platonic person in my life. He didn’t abandon me at the base of the Empire State Building, but would have been fully justified in doing so.

I tend to think this is a particularly Millennial affliction and not simply just my neurotic cross to bear. The idea of having limitless potential with which many of us were indoctrinated from an early age means that you can be anything you want when you grow up. It also means that, by its very nature, it’s impossible to fulfill. You can’t reach the limit of limitless, but damned if I (we) don’t try. Ambition is an excellent quality to have, but ambition without focus, without perspective, without self-care will grind you into the ground. Trust me. Last month, I interviewed Ben Folds, I wrote a 10 000-word ebook for Forbes and Hyperink in a week and I spoke on NPR about commencement speech wisdom for the class of 2012. I felt accomplished for exactly six and a half minutes and then went right back to my default state of wondering what was next and fretting over needing to do or be more. Exactly what goes into “more” is left infuriatingly undefined, obviously.

And my trip to New York ended up falling prey to that mindset. Never mind that I had to get up at 3:00 AM on Saturday to make my flight, I should have pushed myself to head straight to Coney Island from LaGuardia. And there was no reason I couldn’t tackle the Met, the MoMA and a Broadway show in one day, is there? And meet friends for drinks afterward? Yes, there is – it’s called sanity. And also, the limits of your body and the 24-hour clock.

There will never be enough time and enough energy and there will always be too many mountains. This is the truth. You (and I) cannot do all of the things and be all of the things and have all of the things. It is not possible. Not in this lifetime and not in 10 lifetimes. And believing that it is (with just a little more effort, a little more time, a little more motivation) is not only maddening, it’s an exhausting, disordered way to run your existence. It means that you can’t appreciate the things that you do achieve because you always have your eye on what’s next. It means you can’t set goals, because you can’t narrow down your focus to only one or two big projects and be content with those. It means that you always feel  ravenously hungry and unfulfilled. And it means that you are a lousy person to vacation with.

When your answers to What would happen if you actually accomplished everything you thought you should? How would you feel then? are “nothing” and “still unsatisfied,” you know you need to make some changes.
Just not all of the changes and not all at once.



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