Where I work, I am surrounded by very ambitious people every single day. They’re lawyers or MBAs; they went to Ivy League schools or prestigious institutions abroad. They’ve skyrocketed up the ranks, holding titles in their twenties that most people spend their whole lives reaching — and they’re not done. For many of my colleagues, their ambition is President, Chairman, CEO. These titles and the lifestyles that come with them are just baffling to me. I look around and think, how did I end up here?
As a kid, my only concrete career goal was to be a writer. I’m talking fiction: novels proudly displayed on the shelves at Chapters. (eBooks weren’t really a factor when I was six.) I was constantly writing stories and showing them off, and family and friends would praise me for it. What kind of six-year-old writes stories like that? Probably quite a lot, but my friends didn’t. I won the local story contest in the first grade, which was my crowning achievement at the time.
Then, as I got older, more kids started writing. Some of them were really good. Some of them were better than I was. I wasn’t competing with a crowd of one anymore: it was a real crowd this time, and it hurt to not be the best. My writing was no longer worthy of the praise. At this point I shifted my focus to publication. If I couldn’t be the best young writer I knew, maybe I could be the youngest published writer I knew! But that timeframe came and went, and other, better, younger writers surpassed me.
The National Novel Writing Month came next. Writing a novel in a month? That’s definitely unique and impressive! But as more of my friends got involved and the years passed, it became less of a feat and more of a social activity. I now had a novel graveyard and no real passion for anything writing-related. Perhaps this blog, too, is just part of my never-ending cycle to find my niche.
So what am I doing at a company that glorifies ambition above all else? Well, it just so happens that I’ve carved out a little niche for myself there — for now. I’m “The Physicist”, the only non-Business student alumnus of the company’s leadership program. As we continue to work and our degrees fade into the past, though, this distinction won’t make much of a difference anymore.
What does this all say about ambition? For one thing, it’s not one-size-fits-all. Ambition is all about aspiring to reach the top of the heap — but the heap you choose to conquer is up to you.
Like many Millennials, it took me a while to learn how unrealistic it was to expect myself to literally be the best at something to which many people aspire. But I realize now that my goal then became the discovery of a teeny tiny heap, so that getting to the top (and earning the praise for it) would no problem. I’ve never looked at a role or an accomplishment and thought, “That hard thing is what I want to do.” Now is probably a good time for me to figure out where I should direct my ambition based on what’s right for me, not just on what’s easiest. Will I aspire to be the CEO of a multinational food service company? …Probably not, but I don’t want to rule anything out just yet.
What’s your ambition?
(And in case you haven’t read it, here’s an article from 2013 on ambition and Millenials: Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy.)