Unrealistic Ambition is Ruining My Life. Now What?
Top image: Feline Lim/RICE Media

“Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.” 

Is there a more insidious myth for millennials? This magical thinking has tricked us into accepting two unrealities. The first is that work is not work. It is a fact of life—natural like a deep sigh or the morning thirst. The second is that all-time should be optimized and monetized. Time is money, et al. Don’t waste it.  

Some time ago, my colleague Eve opined on her lack of ambition. It resonated with people. The article was even mentioned in Parliament. She pointed out that the social pressure to strive (for more money and better titles) is a myth. Meaning, if she wants to opt-out of the rat race, she can. Simple as that. Furthermore, her approach to work is pragmatic—she goes gently at her own pace. She’s not orchestrating some blueprint for astronomical success in the distant future. 

This brings me to what I believe her article revealed: lacking ambition is often a good quality. The lack is the straightest path towards contentment. If your mission in life is to be happy rather than to be accomplished—ambition is not required.  

Reading the responses to Eve’s article triggered a paradigm shift for me. Though the appeal of not defining oneself by a job or an accomplishment felt loud and clear, it didn’t reflect the approach I’ve taken in life.

I’m a pusher, and ambition is what’s holding me back.

I know that pushing is holding me back because I’ve grown dissatisfied with the present. I’m always looking into the future: booking a trip or making far-off weekend plans. Sometimes, I spend twice as long on a task at work because I can’t meet the imaginary standard (read: perfection) I’ve set in my head.

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And worst of all I’ve grown competitive in my hobbies. Not with others, but myself. 

I fume on the treadmill when I run one less kilometer than the day before. On the yoga mat, I curse my injured back for not contorting into the wheel pose the way it used to. I am trying to become a jack of all trades. I want to master everything quickly, and when I can’t, frankly I am despondent. It exhausts me to harness this ambition and make good with it. 

So, my new year’s resolution was to let go. I want to ease up on myself but I’m finding it hard to spot the grace. I’ve spent my adult life pushing harder, and shooting for the stars. 

But now, I wonder: what’s the point? 

Ambition to Perfection Pipeline

Unlike aspiration, which is the desire or hopes to achieve, ambition is a character trait—compulsion to succeed. To be ambitious is to view life as a Sisyphean task. Like other immutable personality traits, ambition is difficult to quell. The ambitious person is forever cursed by discontent and yearning.  

However, an ambitious person does not make an accomplished person. The trouble with striving is figuring out where to stop. 

On its own, ambition has no logical end. Without perspective, strong moral values, and healthy self-esteem, an excess of ambition spirals into a sort of perfectionism where ‘just fine’ is never enough.

Perfectionism is antithetical to the spirit of ambition—when one is never satisfied with their work or their efforts, they’re unlikely to complete tasks or have confidence in the sufficiency of a completed task. 

An example of this endless pursuit of perfection occurred on our shores this week. The reigning women’s golf champion, Jin Young Ko of South Korea, defended her title with a staggering win in Sentosa at the 2022 HSBC Women’s World Championship. Her first thought as the most accomplished athlete in her field? That she could do better the next time. 

“It’s a great honor to set the record. But I can practice more in the break before the next tournament. I can play better than I did the last couple of days.” 

Current Self Vs Ideal Self

In the last year or so, we’ve seen negative cognition from the highest achievers in sports—from Simone Biles to Naomi Osaka, elite-level athletes often view their accomplishments as the currency which makes them valuable to others. 

While most of us are not elite-level athletes, there’s some research on their mindset that can be applied more broadly to those of us who also tie our self-worth with achievement. 

In a 2002 study on perfectionism and anxiety in elite-level athletes, researchers found that the gap between the current self and the ideal self can prove to be intolerable for those with low self-esteem. 

Outside of sports, we invoke the ideal self to fuel self-improvement—whether it’s to hit the gym and become more desirable to attract a partner, or develop a side hustle to diversify income and pad out the resume. 

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For me at least, there’s an imaginary, perfect self who is serene and content. What that perfect self looks like changes depending on whatever goal I’m hyper-fixated on.

But what I’ve noticed is that the most appealing aspect of my perfect self is not how he looks, what he does for a living, or how much money he has. It’s his serenity and contentment that I crave. 

Still, I don’t know how to become the serene self in my imagination. Every small achievement I painstakingly make (from a raise at work to an extra mile on the treadmill) brings me no closer to him. 

That’s what’s so torturous about striving for perfection—it’s not achievable.  

Do What You Like, Not What You Love

Before hustle culture and widespread workaholism, working meant doing a job for x amount of hours in exchange for x amount of money. It was rarely more complicated than that. 

‘Do what you love’ commands us to relinquish the enriching and inward hobbies that shape our personhood—by supplementing stagnant wages with additional work and optimizing ‘free’ time.

Alongside this commandment, we’re expected to brand ourselves as well. Whether it’s on LinkedIn or Instagram, we are encouraged to categorize ourselves by what we do.

A job is no longer just the way you earn money. It’s a stepping stone or a building block towards something larger. We’re made to believe that your job reflects your values and character.

We are so married to work that we’ve created archetypes for various professions—doctors and lawyers are disciplined and austere, artists and creatives are detached from reality, bankers are ruthless, unfeeling sharks. 

‘Doing what you love’ applies pressure to define oneself by accomplishments. For the unhealthy achiever, this trope coupled with the rise of hustle culture and workaholism has heightened the unrelenting desire to do more and to do better. 

Allison E. McWilliams, who holds a Ph.D. in higher education administration, posits that to find meaning and purpose in life, doing what you like or what you are good at is more important than pursuing your passion. 

She’s spent most of her career counseling anxious college students on their future working lives. 

On doing what you’re interested in right now versus what your passion in life is, McWilliams said: “It’s completely ok to take a role that aligns with your current interests even if you can’t forecast how that will play out over a career. Remember, it’s all data. Your next experience will help inform the one after that, and so on. Stop trying to figure out the next 20 years. Simply figure out what’s next.” 

Like my colleague Eve, McWilliams understands the social pressure to strive as a harmful myth. Part of the unhealthy achiever’s angst is the inability to look into a crystal ball. If I could see my current life choices in hindsight, perhaps I’d be less anxious about maximizing every accomplishment. 

Evidently, I need a practical way out.

Talking back to your negative self

The compulsion to succeed (in my case, at least) is driven by a negative internal voice that sets arbitrary expectations. I know it’s illogical because the bar keeps getting higher, and there’s never a kind word when I actually accomplish something. 

Two years ago I underwent EMDR therapy for a number of reasons, and one component of the treatment has helped me squash the negative internal voice. It’s a simple question to ask in the throes of a negative spiral: would I speak to the child version of myself this way? 

In these sessions, I observe how much kinder I am to the younger version of me. Children are blameless innocents, driven by the basic human emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear. In some ways, the child version of yourself stays with you. My therapist called it the inner child.  So, I’ll often ask that inner child: what basic emotion are you feeling right now? 

Visualization exercises—where I’m imagining my current self, the inner child, and then negative voice conversing in tandem—helps me to view what’s going on internally in a more objective way. From there, it’s easier to be compassionate and forgiving to my current self. 

When in doubt, punch it out

Connecting with my physical self is a huge help when I’ve worked myself into an ambition driven ball of nerves. For many years, I practiced yoga—the slow, meditative pulse of the practice encouraged me to ‘let go of what doesn’t serve.’

While meditating is often recommended as the antidote to anxiety, I found it too daunting as an entrypoint. For me, yoga is a moving meditation. I found it easier to disconnect and let go doing yoga versus meditation on its own. 

Over time, though, I sought an outlet for the frenetic symptoms of perfectionism—namely anger and frustration. High impact workouts have regularly enabled me to put a problem on pause and return to it later with a clearer, less enraged mind.

Boxing, HIIT, and strength training have assisted me so far. Sometimes I’ll visualize the negative self while I’m punching on the boxing bag. It helps. 

There is something else I have yet to try, but I’m keen to explore––reigniting the childlike sense of wonder. It’s well known that ‘play’ increases spontaneity while reducing stress. In fact, it’s a coping strategy that reframes stress inducing conundrums as stimulating tasks to be solved creatively.

Rene Proyer, a ‘play’ focused psychologist, recommends the starting point to be an observation: list three things today that happened spontaneously. It could be a surprise encounter with a colleague, or a random stranger doing something bizarre on the street. Noticing the joy of the unexpected in daily life makes you more open to play. 

I get the feeling that opening my worldview to randomness and spontaneity will do me some good. In 2022, I’m working to ease my restraints. After all, the unhealthily ambitious person is defined by arbitrary  (and self imposed) rules and regulations.

Alas, despite the above declarations—I am a mortal striver, still married to my goals. But I ran one less mile on the treadmill today and did not hate myself for it. 

So, baby steps, I tell myself. Baby steps. 

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