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You Think You're Not That Ambitious. Are You Dead Wrong About That?
The surest sign that you’re incredibly ambitious is a complete and total lack of ambition on all fronts.
Untitled (1971) by Helen Lundeberg
I often write about the perils of perfectionism and overachievement because they’re such a pervasive cause of our shared malaise in a world curated by the internet. If you want to feel bad every morning, nothing works better than comparing your life to the bright and shiny lives online and then feeling angry at yourself when you repeatedly fail to conjure passion out of thin air or bend the laws of space and time to achieve impossible goals.
Eventually, these accumulated perceived failures give you a warped view of yourself as unmotivated, scattered, depressed, or lazy. Your daily inability to FEEL GREAT and DO EVERYTHING WELL starts to feel like a verdict on your character, a message about your doomed future, a sad moral to your story. Even though you were set up to fail by inflated expectations and global comparisons (lol!), you attribute fatal flaws to yourself instead, recalling one or two stray comments from parents who were projecting, teachers who didn’t know you at all, or friends who were overly competitive. Slowly, you formed an inaccurate identity that was extreme enough to last a lifetime:
I’m too selfish to take on an idealist job. I’m too lazy to exercise regularly. I’m too impatient to write. I’m too needy to find love. I’m not hot enough to attract a worthwhile partner. I’m not ambitious enough to invest energy in my career.
Over the years, these repeating stories mutate into absolutes:
I’m not generous enough to have kids. I’m not creative enough to make art or write. I’m not patient enough to live with someone else. I’m not strong enough to exercise.
Meanwhile, areas of expertise or emotional resonance become rigid and intractable. You corral yourself into one small corner of your life, hold forth tirelessly on the things you know well, and forget to invent, discover, fail, and — most importantly – show your fragile, fearful heart. As your identity and repeating stories about yourself become calcified, you become less willing to wander, experiment, connect. You cut yourself off from experiencing the primal joy of a child. You self-protectively foreclose on hundreds of possibilities each day.
And what are you protecting yourself from? Life itself.
Being an overachieving perfectionist becomes worse and worse over the years, in other words, because it turns every source of joy into a source of self-hatred and failure. Aiming for perfect, aiming to be the best, sorting through data to see who’s better, setting impossible goals for yourself: These are poisonous habits that destroy your relationship to your own body, block you from the small pleasures of your day, and leach the natural optimism from your cells.
The irony here is that once you TRULY release yourself from punitive morals and rigid identities you’ve formed in reaction to your overachieving perfectionist ways, what do you often discover?
Because when you cultivate a healthy relationship to your body, mind, and habitat, one that’s no longer constricted by impossible expectations (internal and external) and moralistic SHOULDS, your passion for life often returns in full force. That passion is likely to whisper to you in the middle of the night, or wake you up first thing in the morning, saying weird things like:
Maybe I could run a half marathon. Maybe I could finish an album of new songs. Maybe I could make a few new friends who love to talk for hours just as much as I do. Maybe I could learn more about art during the Renaissance. Maybe I could ask for a completely different role at work. Maybe I could start collecting old prom dresses and throw a prom-themed party for my friends every year. Maybe I could fall in love again.
Once you realize how ambitious you are, though, watch out! Because anything you care about deeply is likely to kick up buried desires and frightening emotions. All of those stray judgments that you converted into harsh morals about how you’re supposed to live and who you’re supposed to become are likely to return. And your inner overachieving perfectionist might just be tempted to take the wheel and drive your newly ambitious car straight off the nearest cliff. Even though your inner child craves wonder and delight, and your inner perfectionist wants to be THE VERY BEST AT WONDER AND DELIGHT.
This is why finding the right balance of ambition and self-care is a lifelong challenge. Because it’s HARD to recognize when you need a real break, a real rest, a true period of nothingness long enough and big enough that you can rediscover who you are and what you love. But it’s also hard to notice when that freedom starts to become oppressive. It’s difficult to keep your eye on your own control panel, adding and subtracting structure and scheduling and organization from your life in order to maximize your happiness and productivity.
So here’s my simple rule of thumb: Pay attention to how you feel and take notes.
I know that sounds hopelessly basic, but stick with me for a minute. How do you feel when you’re binge-watching a show you’ve seen twice before? How do you feel when you read a new novel a friend recommended? How do you feel when you spend a few free minutes on Instagram? How do you feel when you run in the morning instead of sleeping late?
Every time you check in with yourself, you help yourself. Every time you ignore an old, warped story about what your sensations and feelings mean, you improve your connection to your body. It sounds obvious, of course! But it’s exactly what the perfectionist overachiever — even the one hiding inside that aging stoner on the couch playing Assassin’s Creed for the third hour in a row — doesn’t remember to do. PERFECTIONISTS IGNORE THEIR BODIES, EMOTIONS, AND SENSATIONS. SECRETLY AMBITIOUS SLACKERS IGNORE THEIR TRUEST DESIRES AND PASSIONS.
Because our culture has a habit of misinterpreting passion and pathologizing weakness and need, it’s hard to find an accurate portrait of how it feels to be a sensitive person with big feelings, big ideas, and big dreams. The most ambitious, expansive, passionate people on the face of the planet are often painted as the most troubled, the most limited, the most doomed. That’s part of what makes so many perfectionists and overachievers so confused about themselves. When we look for guidance from others, we’re constantly in danger of being summed up in some trend-driven way — by pop culture, by armchair psychologists, by careless friends, by ourselves. Our ambitions look deluded to the numb and the rigid. We’re encouraged to view our feelings and sensations as afflictions that need to be ignored or stomped out or medicated, even though they offer the clearest path to finding the JOY OF A CHILD inside our cells.
That’s why it’s so transformative to ignore the bad noises around you, trust your gut about what you need, and redefine what you’re capable of.
NOTICING HOW YOU’RE FEELING IS REVOLUTIONARY.
Moreover, when you regularly tap into the uncomfortable sensations and sadness and pain in your cells, you sometimes discover that you never had much reason to fear these things. The prospect of failing at a new pursuit isn’t actually a big deal at all – those were just your poisonous stories, created by an anxious mind hellbent on blocking out feeling. The pain of working hard or running five miles is actually restorative and energizing, compared to the soul-sucking despair of sitting in one place, staring at your phone for three hours.
In fact, the more you check in with your feelings, the more you notice HOW OFTEN WHAT YOU’RE FEELING IS COUNTERINTUITIVE: Feeling dispirited and exhausted sometimes means your body wants to move MORE (and sweat profusely, and eat bitter green vegetables!). Feeling angry and annoyed by others sometimes means you’re craving DEEPER connection with that one friend who understands exactly how you feel. Feeling needy and lonely sometimes means you’re merely avoiding a pesky organizational task or looming deadline that, once tackled, will make you feel more independent and more resilient.
Understanding our truest desires and building a life based on that knowledge has never been more challenging or more crucial to our well-being. Because our screens pose a constant threat to our passion. We carry around pocket-sized devices that divorce our minds from our bodies and re-inflame our worst notions about ourselves, pulling us back into the realm of tireless mental puzzling and anxious problem solving and nervous comparison every few seconds.
Even if we manage to ignore our phones most of the day, many of us have careers that require a connection to the whole globe, with its relentless despair and tragedy and desperation. And we encounter these DESPAIR PORTALS in solitude now, thanks to the post-pandemic trend toward working from home.
All of these factors make it hard to cultivate a steady connection to your body, your emotions, and the natural world around you. So dare to do the revolutionary work of NOTICING HOW YOU FEEL. Write down your sensations, take notes on your discoveries, and pay attention to patterns. Prepare to be surprised by what you find.
And when a voice says:
MAYBE I WANT MORE. MAYBE I AM CAPABLE OF GETTING IT. MAYBE I’M CAPABLE OF MUCH, MUCH MORE THAN I EVER IMAGINED.
Listen to it.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org. Cultivating your ambition includes giving your time generously to the people who matter the most to you, and making sure you’re honoring the relationships that are the most meaningful in your life. Ambition is emotional! Give yourself credit for the ways you live your values, every day.