She Writes, on ambition
Advance is a classic January buzzword. A new year is a chance to do more, be more, be better – all good intentions. But by week three, we’ve swapped packed lunches for Pret sandwiches and that unused gym membership isn’t helping our saving. Advance is not so achievable as the optimism of January 1st would have us believe.
I am part of a generation – or so sociologists will tell you – that has a difficult relationship with ambition. Secure in relative economic privilege, we were raised to believe that anything was possible. We bought into the idea that advance is about self-belief and individualism – ‘believe in yourself and anything is possible’, ‘you can be anything you want to be’. We traded self-discipline, humility and talent for mindfulness and self-help mantras; Jesus-belief for self-belief.
But somewhere along the line, reality set in. That application to the elite university we’d had our hopes set on was rejected because our straight As could have been A*s and our extra-curriculars were just too predictable. We graduated and, far from landing the dream job, we found ourselves spending our days writing endless job applications and our nights working behind a bar to pay the rent. We felt betrayed; we worked so hard, but it still wasn’t enough. It’s all very Lena Dunham, isn’t it. Our very own American dream.
It is a picture of ambition that equates ‘progress’ with ‘greed’ and makes advance a tricky idea to reconcile with faith. So what next? How do I balance my desires to be the best in my field, to run marathons, to be an influential voice in my generation fit with following a Saviour who proclaims that ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5, NIV)? Here are some pointers that I have found helpful along the way.
- Start by listing the things that you are grateful for in 2015, and get excited about what is to come this year – especially the things you can’t predict. For me, giving thanks to God for things that haven’t happened yet builds faith and keeps me from believing that my greatest asset is my own abilities.
- Consider why you work. Are you working just to build your self-esteem with approval from colleagues and peers and to bring in a nice paycheque? While there is nothing wrong with promotion and a career that is financially rewarding, ambition that focusses solely on these things is likely to be shallow. The most satisfying goals are those that edify others, rather than put your needs first at their expense, and that see your talents blossom.
- Learn to sit still. Grass-is-always-greener syndrome (see ‘generation Y’, above) means that my natural position is always first gear, always eager for the next step. But it’s too easy, as Ernest Hemingway reportedly said, to confuse movement with action. Only in periods of stillness are you able to fully enjoy what you currently have and discern when it might be time for change. Waiting doesn’t have to be boring – get excited in anticipation.
- Conversely, learn when to push. There have been times in my life where I have felt that an opportunity was absolutely right for me and I was able to pursue it and pray for it righteously rather than self-righteously – and incredible things happened.
- Don’t limit your dreams by what seems reasonable. Look back at your life so far: how different would it look if only the things you’d been able to predict happened? Sometimes the best and most rewarding adventures come from ideas that seem impossible at first.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. For me, this has looked like turning off the industry email alerts that tell me who has got what new job. Don’t force yourself to move forward before you are ready because you see others around you moving up – you will likely either fall flat on your face or burn yourself out.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to advance; to grow, to progress, to become the best version of yourself that you can be. We were made to flourish. Heck, when Jesus told the disciples to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19), you can be sure he was being ambitious – he was asking a handful of young men to change the world. So let’s set aside the voice that says that success is all about self-reliance and self-esteem and make 2016 a year of big dreams, big gratitude, small self.