I have spent considerable time in the decades since college graduation contemplating my next move. Whether looking for advancement (greater challenge, more senior title, higher pay), relocating for family, returning to work after maternity leave, or considering sole proprietorship, I have continually found or made opportunities that have been rewarding and educational.
In and of itself, being ambitious is culturally accepted in the U.S., if not downright encouraged. It goes hand in hand with the norm in our present day society to expect upward career mobility (while recognizing that a few lateral steps periodically may be necessary to give us a better position from which to launch to the next level).
The following definition comes from dictionary.com:
eagerly desirous of achieving or obtaining success, power, wealth, a specific goal, etc.
In today’s business environment, it is fairly surprising that you would choose to be stagnant, complacent or disengaged, so the opposite and more justified mindset must be to portray drive and determination. The question I have begun to ask myself is “where does ego come into play?” In other words:
I believe the answer is “yes!” That said, I haven’t always possessed the maturity to feel this way. Early in my career I was more focused on ways to outperform others and figuring out the key to “what’s in it for me” (e.g., promotions, awards, title, salary, bonus, office, number of direct reports, etc.). Even after I achieved a certain level of “success” in a number of high-growth organizations, and had actually begun to understand the value of win-win outcomes rather than win-lose, I continued making sacrifices in an effort to stretch myself toward higher performance goals. It is hard to break the cycle when your perceived self-worth is tied inextricably to what you do for a living. With guidance from a number of invaluable mentors who have helped me grow over the years, I have been honing a heightened sense of self-awareness, which includes choosing to draw more on authenticity, patience, and empathy.
In the course of re-evaluating my perspective on what it means to be ambitious, I am considering whether being ambitious is automatically synonymous with constantly stretching oneself to take on more challenges and exceed higher growth goals, as well as stacking up the outward displays of accomplishment. In particular, I have wondered both from my own perspective and that of an employer's:
I believe the answer is a resounding “no!” Of course people must decide for themselves when (and for how long) it’s time to push and when it’s time to ease up. To be ambitious is a proactive state; it takes grit and determination, as well as intelligence. It also requires strategy to navigate the ups and downs of complex workplaces, as well as insight into leveraging people, process and technology. If I’m anything like the average American, I’ll spend 45+/- years in the professional workforce. That’s a long time to sprint if I allow my ego to set the pace.
While I’m still a long way off from traditional retirement age, I’m certainly getting older, and I’m fairly confident I’m also getting wiser. I consider myself a perpetual learner, excited at the prospect of what I can create, fix, or enhance, and I intend for that to be focused both externally as well as inwardly.
As Daniel Pink, author of Drive said, “The secret to high performance and satisfaction-at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”
Now that I’m more mature and still quite ambitious, I like this revised approach to high performance. I know I have the stamina that comes not only from the depth and breadth of my experiences, but from a more holistic mindset and self-awareness of what it means to succeed. Where are you on your journey – warming up, hitting your stride, intervals, full-on sprint, or cool down?