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Saturday, December 13, 2014

The ambition dilemma

Horia Varlan, Flickr

I was recently reading this post by fellow blogger Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist.

It is about the ambitions you have as a young adult, that will or will not materialize themselves by the time you hit midlife.

It is a topic that speaks to me as I approach (two years from now) my forties: have I accomplished, or am I in the way of accomplishing, what I really wanted in life?

Becker talks about choosing between career paths, some that will bring fame, prestige and money, some that will provide other types of - mostly non-material - benefits. I read his post early morning yesterday, sipping on my coffee, and it is still resonating with me so much I had to write about it.

As a young(er) woman, I had big dreams. And a way to achieve them. I started by attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world (arguably the best in the country - depending on the year and the faculty you look at).

On the way to - ahem! - stardom, a couple things happened.

I could blame it on the children, and it would not be entirely false - becoming a mother did have an impact on the order I put my priorities in - but it wasn't all of it.

With adult life, and the help of experience, readings, discussions with other, older, wiser adults, and pure and simple introspection, I realized that there are some things I value highly that kind of get in the way of a BIG career. Notably the following:

  • Contemplation is important to me - and by contemplation I mean all things ranging from petting a cat absentmindedly and daydreaming to taking a quiet stroll in nature. Meditation fits in that category, too. I do not do well if I don't have some alone time to indulge in those contemplative activities on a daily basis. Maybe my previous life was spent in some monastery? I used to feel somewhat guilty about my contemplative predispositions, until my favorite aunt, M, told me how central it is to her life.
  • Balance is very important to me - I cannot bear the idea of not having enough time to sleep full nights, to eat healthy meals, to exercise, to write, to read a book, to relax with loved ones. Those things are sacred to me. I am lucky enough to have the choice, and I won't waste it by neglecting what matters. 
  • Stress is okay... in small doses. I function really well under pressure, be it in the form of tight deadlines (crazy translation industry!) or in the form of undisciplined students. It does not affect me too, too much. I rarely become overwhelmed. BUT. I need time to recharge my batteries on a regular basis. I am no Energizer Bunny. I cannot go-go-go. I need breaks. Peacefulness is both underrated and underrepresented in our society. In my life, it occupies a special place. 
  • I question the real motives behind ambition. Do we have ambition because we aspire to something, or do we have ambition because we want to get rid of something (e.g. feelings of inadequacy, of not being enough, of lacking value?) The former is a great motor. The latter... not so much. Before I go "on a quest", I examine my true motives.
  • I cannot fathom taking advantage of others to advance my own career.
  • I'm willing to set the bar lower and to sacrifice some sense of accomplishment and material luxury if it means that all of the above criteria will be met. My family's and my own well-being makes it all worth it.

Instead of single-mindedly following the path to "as much fame, prestige and money I can get", I have made each life and career choice mindfully. I started small and slow. Back in the day, my main drive was to remain the main caregiver for my own children. Gradually, I instilled more time and energy into my career, but always with the bigger picture in mind. It's easy to get carried away, especially with a start-up business, and I sometimes got caught up in the excitement: there were moments when I took too much on my shoulders, and was rewarded with "economic growth" (i.e. money) and renowned clients (i.e. big companies), but soon realized other areas of my life were suffering. I had to learn the fine art of keeping everything afloat and balanced.

Keeping my business on the smaller side not only helps me maintain balance, it also allows me to indulge in other things I cherish, namely, working with people. I teach French "on the side". I give talks and workshops. I write. Without being specific with the numbers, let's just say teaching pays significantly less than translating professionally. As for the talks and workshops and writing gigs, they are occasional at best, and do not yield a significant income - yet. Still, I hold on to those activities for dear life - because they make me feel alive, precisely. As much I enjoy (greatly!) my work in the translation business, I cannot fail to notice that:

  • Translation does not exclaim, when I walk into a room, "Yay! You're here!"
  • Translation does not chat with me and ask for my input on important, sometimes personal, issues.
  • Translation does not excitedly want to show me her latest project.
  • Translation does not run to me screaming "I love you!" and give me cuddles.
  • Translation does not thank me profusely, teary-eyed, for what I've done for their child or themselves.

(Note: all those things happened in the past week in the context of me teaching and tutoring.)

I think this whole letting go of ambition belongs to a wider predilection for detachment. Detachment from trying to impress people (I would rather inspire people). Detachment from accumulating stuff (I would rather accumulate wisdom). This detachment does not only apply to my career. It applies to my life as a whole. However, there are some things I have NOT renounced:

  • Striving for excellence - what I do, I do it well, as any of my clients could tell you. 
  • Hard work, passion and dedication - when I am immersed in something I love, like preparing lesson plans or reviewing a text for style and flow, I could go all night. I have not lost the drive to accomplish things, to push myself. If I had, I would not get up at 5 am to run in the cold and dark Canadian winters before work, or set my alarm on weekend mornings to take advantage of the quiet house before everyone gets up to write my future book. 
  • Wealth and prestige - there's nothing wrong with them per se, and I still get excited when I make "gains" in those areas. 

However... bygone is the yearning to prove something at all costs.

What have you been willing to let go in order to achieve balance and well-being for yourself and your loved ones? Share in the comments.


  1. I was going to be an orthopedic surgeon but after getting married I realized that I didn't want to devote the next 10 years to school and studying. Now I'm happy with that decision but it took me a couple years to be OK with it!!

    1. Those are never easy decisions! The "what if" questions will always be there. If they bother us too much, it's never too late to change things up... :-)

  2. I don't have much to say on this, but I enjoyed reading your interesting essay.

    We all find a path in life. Some see it in front of them to be followed, some see it trailing behind disappearing off in the distance. There is no right or best way.

  3. I totally agree with you. I also savor contemplation. I need it.

    1. I am glad you savor it! It's a wonderful gift to oneself.

  4. I think a lot of people are almost 'brainwashed' into believing they MUST do this - they MUST do that - they MUST have the latest item, clothing, mobile phone etc etc.

    How many do take a step back and think - is this really want I want?

    It is important for us all to find our own balance, to think about others as well as ourselves.

    We all need some quiet time to think ..... it's nice to enjoy a cup of tea, coffee, glass of wine and relax.

    .......hope the run up to Christmas is going well for you.

    Take Care and

    All the best Jan

    1. You got it right, Jan. Mindfulness shows us that a lot of what we chase is meaningless, or at least unnecessary. :-)

  5. Contemplation. Where have I seen that word before...?

    Somebody asked me once as it relates to my writing and leadership in fitness: "Do you want to be famous...?"

    No, I said, I just want to be heard.

    I'm famous to dozens of people. That's good enough for me.

    I work very hard at being accurate on their behalf, and balanced on my own behalf.

    That'll do pig, that'll do...

    1. Heheh, I like that comment a lot! :-) Thank you Roy.

    2. When I first decided not to work full time after our most recent move, it was a struggle to adjust. If we didn't have kids, it was all but expected I work a job too. I'm sure people still think I'm lazy, but I've stopped caring as much. With my husband's rotating schedule, we get to prioritize family time when he's off, not when we happen to have matching Saturdays once or twice a month. It means less money, but it was the right choice for us.

    3. If it feels right to you and him, then it's the right choice. :-) Thanks for sharing!

  6. Last year was the year of cleaning out unnecessary items....tons of it to thrift shops and some of it sold in an online auction. We are still laden with too much and I will have to cast my orbs upon the remains and see what else I can get rid of. Our goal is to pare down enough to move into a condo. This year my goal is to ALMOST eliminate eating out. I will be watching this site with great interest.

  7. As I UNPACK my boxes IM SO SO SO GLAD I less is more'd before we moved too.