Too much ambition makes life miserable, too little makes it meaningless. Here’s how to strike a balance.
Many people believe that success will make them happy. But science shows that it’s the other way around.
Being happy seems to increase your chances of success, while study after study indicates that chasing success tends to make you unhappy. In short, both science and personal experience demonstrate that ambition for one more accomplishment or one more dollar is a never-ending rat race that results in misery.
But that’s not the whole story. While playing the status game is a surefire route to dissatisfaction, a complete lack of ambition is untenable too. Without dreams to strive for, not only will you have no impact on the world, you’ll also probably end up unfulfilled. Just chilling — for all but the most supernaturally mellow among us — feels both boring and pointless.
So how do you resolve this conundrum, balancing a healthy dose of striving with a wise desire to avoid ‘keeping up with the Joneses’? It’s one of the hardest problems professionals face, which is probably why entrepreneur and author Ben Casnocha recently devoted thousands of words to the issue on his personal blog.
1. Be process-driven, not goal-driven.
What’s the problem with goals? “If you don’t achieve the goal, you’re unhappy. If you do achieve the goal, you’re happy but only for a moment because there’s inevitably someone else you can compare yourself to who achieved a more audacious goal. The pleasure is fleeting,” explains Casnocha.
What’s the alternative? “Ideally, you love the process of the work itself and are non-attached to a specific outcome. Ideally, your work is more about doing the thing itself and reaping intrinsic rewards in the process,” he writes.
How do you know if you’re focused on the outcome or the process? Ask yourself, if I accomplished this but couldn’t tell anyone, would I still do it? If your answer is no, you’re goal-driven. If you can honestly say yes, then you genuinely love the process.
2. Pick your friends wisely.
This is wise advice for so many reasons, but it’s also key to avoiding getting caught up in the status rat race, according to Casnocha: “If everyone around you is on the more status, more status, more status track, and straining their necks to check the leaderboard, it’ll be hard to resist doing the same.”
3. Diversify your identity.
You wouldn’t put all your financial eggs in one basket, so don’t invest all of your egos in a single pursuit either. Focus on only one track to success, he warns, and “you compare yourself more easily to all the other professionals who are also specializing in that single line of work.” Far better to pursue a bundle of projects. That way you’ll always have at least one area in which you’re excelling.
“This strategy can stretch beyond career activities and into the realm of hobbies, personal interests, friends, political affiliations, faith, and so on. The more idiosyncratic the bundle of things that makes up who you are, the harder to compare yourself to others,” he asserts.
4. Operate a dashboard, not a leaderboard.
A dashboard — like your car’s speedometer — helps you gauge your own progress. A leaderboard perpetually compares you to others. No surprise then that Casnocha advises you to use the dashboard model to measure your progress.
“You should measure yourself in the spirit of improving upon your last best record, not what an opponent has accomplished. Leaderboards turn your attention to others; dashboards turn your attention within,” he writes.
5. Be a big fish in a smaller pond.
Sure, physically locating yourself at the beating heart of your industry can be a huge leg up in your career, but the hottest hubs are often the least livable in the longer term. If you’re a techie in Silicon Valley, it’s going to be nearly impossible to feel accomplished when you pass Mark Zuckerberg in the Starbucks parking lot twice a week. Moving somewhere slightly smaller is often the solution, suggests Casnocha.
He recommends this strategy: early in their careers people should “live in the place where their industry is headquartered. Bay Area for tech, New York for finance and publishing, LA for movies, Michigan for furniture and cars, Nashville for country music, etc. Soak up everyone’s expertise. Study. Learn. Even if you don’t want to start the next Google, you’ll learn a lot by way of ‘network intelligence‘ from physically living in Silicon Valley. But feel free to leave and join a lower-cost-of-living secondary market if and when you begin to feel perpetually not quite good enough.”