What would you do with a million dollars? "Nothing."
April 29, 2012 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Is Ambition required for Success? Is it possible to be too well adjusted? What if you don't like what you're good at? I have been struggling with the concepts of ambition and achievement in regard to self-esteem and a sense of self-worth (warning: long, vague)

Lets say you're good at something most people find difficult. You're not bragging, you've been skipped ahead in the field, put into special schools for it, competed with adults in High school (and won) and eventually dropped out of college because you where teaching yourself faster than the classes could keep up and didn't feel like paying for the privilege.

So of course this is the thing you need to do for the rest of your life. It's a calling, something that people have sunk a not inconsiderable amount of time and money into to make sure you are Really Really Good at the thing you are Really Good at.

And what if you don't like doing it?

Not enough to go runaway to the mountains but enough that the prospect of doing this thing for the rest of your life fills you with a foggy dread and you seem to lack the laser focus ambition and striving work ethic of your peers and you wonder how much of your time is being taken up by doing something that, for the majority of the time you're doing it, you're miserable and hating it and wishing you could be doing anything else.

This isn't the skillful lacking conviction, you know you're good and you have faith in your abilities. You just don't enjoy 90% of the thing you're doing on a basic level. it's not exciting or fun or interesting.

Example, I read this quote from Stephen King (“They pay me absurd amounts of money,” he observes, “For something that I would do for free.”) and I just don't feel that. I don't understand liking one thing that much. I don't actually enjoy working on the thing I'm good at (I like some parts, the planning parts, but the bulk of it is a huge drudge) and the rewards aren't that great considering how much loathing and effort goes into it. There are much more consistent rewards in my hobbies or in socialization. And honestly if I couldn't do the Thing I'm Good At Anymore I'd probably just do a few things related to it, it wouldn't be the end of the world, I enjoy doing lots of different things.

There is that gnawing feeling other high-achieving friends of mine have that occasionally perks up in my own heart but having seen them go from nothing to being quite successful and still that ache to work, and I can't relate. If it won't be solved by exterior validation, then why struggle so hard if it'll never be sated? Am I just really lazy? Reading getitdone stuff and ambition-related media is exhausting enough on its own without also feeling like I'm letting down the hours and hours of time spent getting Really Good. What am I feeling and how do I make it stop or at least put it into a context I can better understand it? Is it possible to be a lazy success without being a dilettante?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
If you have other options (that is, if Thing You're Good At isn't the only thing you can do that will pay you enough money to live on), don't work at a job you don't like. No matter how good you are at it, and no matter how successful you are, a job you don't like won't make you happy, and it won't lead to a satisfying life. Remember that all the people who have put effort into seeing you succeed want you to succeed because they want you to be happy, so if the thing you've been working towards isn't what will make you happy, continuing to do it won't actually fulfill their goal. Figure out what it is you really like to do, and assuming it won't leave you hungry and homeless, do that, even if you're not as objectively talented at it as you are at other things. Thing You're Good At will survive without you (unless Thing You're Good At is something like being Superman and saving the world from imminent destruction, in which case you should probably do that first). You're the one who has to live with your life choices, so if you can, you should choose the things that make you happy, not the things other people think you ought to want.
posted by decathecting at 5:29 PM on April 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

"So of course this is the thing you need to do for the rest of your life. It's a calling, something that people have sunk a not inconsiderable amount of time and money into to make sure you are Really Really Good at the thing you are Really Good at. And what if you don't like doing it?"

You quit. I dated a guy in high school who was competing at the most prestigious piano competition in the world for under-20s, traveled around playing with world-class symphonies, etc. He went to college and quit. Majored in anthropology, went to law school, works as a lawyer. Obviously he's still high achieving -- the skills he gained from years of working hard at piano (tenacity, practicing, doing the scut work to achieve more things, cool head under pressure, etc.) served him well in college, law school, and beyond.

But just being an extremely talented and well-trained piano player doesn't create an obligation to the world at large to play piano for them.

I think people who are less ambitious are often happier. Ambition is prized in the U.S. (if that's where you are), but there's nothing innately morally good about it, I don't think.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:37 PM on April 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?

Being good at something that comes naturally is great! But it's what you do with that ability that counts. Being able to pick up foreign languages is a real gift, but if all you can do is talk about the weather in 42 languages, you're wasting the talent. I don't think ambition has to be about climbing to the top of heap or getting the corner office or making a gazillion dollars, but if you're not eager to learn more or master a new thing, I think that's coasting.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:59 PM on April 29, 2012

1) Ambition isn't as important as perseverance. A lot of people can dream big dreams but very few of them can follow up on making them a reality.

2) Wow, this was so me two years ago; everybody and his brother does the whole high school packaging thing to get in Top 10 schools. I, for one, will always resent my parents for forcing me to become a polyglot/linguist/musician/dancer from the time I could walk; I was shoved from activity to activity with neither space nor time to think about what I actually liked. :( The moment I moved out of my parent's watchful eye, I started a nearly three year quest to ascertain what motivated me to contribute to the world--and it turned out to be something very, very different from my childhood areas of expertise. Though I sometimes struggle with feelings of inadequacy because I'm unable to use my childhood expertise in my chosen life path and because other people have had more time to get good at what I'm trying to become perfect at, I'm glad that I'm doing what I love. Even if you feel like you're "wasting" yourself and your talent by joining the race in what you love, my own experience has proven that the benefits will outweigh the costs.

3) What you need to do know is figure out what it is that you're really, really passionate about. If you want to do what I did, read as many biographies as you can, watch TED talks, read the newspaper, figure out whether money or power is more important to you, go on a lot of long roadtrips, spend time kayaking, expose yourself to as many new ideas as possible, see as much of the world as you can, wander through museums, go to a nursing house every day and talk to residents to learn life lessons, dance, daydream, and doodle in your diary every night. After a while, you'll then form a tentative 5, 10, 20, 30, or 40-year gameplan to actually achieve what it is that you want to do.

Remember: it's always scary to break away from the path that's been beaten down for you when you see your cowardly peers sucking it up and going with the flow for resume purposes. Be brave, figure out exactly what you want, and go after it with full force! :)
posted by lotusmish at 6:00 PM on April 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

So of course this is the thing you need to do for the rest of your life. It's a calling, something that people have sunk a not inconsiderable amount of time and money into to make sure you are Really Really Good at the thing you are Really Good at. And what if you don't like doing it?

This "thing" you're naturally good at isn't actually the "thing" but some abstract set of skills you are applying to that "thing." Like the piano-player-turned-lawyer, you have certain talents that lend themselves to success in a specific field. It's more than likely that there is some other area in which those abstract talents and skills are values that you can apply it to.

And as you've probably noticed, ambition and tenacity win out, in the end. The people who perservered in college are the ones who finished, not the people who decided they were "too talented" for it. The people who picked a goal and pursued it are the ones who succeeded, not the ones who had a lot of natural success and thought whatever they could do "naturally" was just fine.
posted by deanc at 6:08 PM on April 29, 2012

Quit. Doing work you dont like might ultimately make you sick and depressed
posted by sparkle55 at 6:43 PM on April 29, 2012

It depends how you define 'success'. How you define it. That is to say, sit down and define it (maybe on paper if it helps). This isn't something to take from other people. Think long and hard, meditate, brainstorm, really chew on this concept. What is a good life to you? Well, when I said 'other people'... this doesn't include some ancient Greeks, so if you're so inclined, read some excerpts from the Epicureans and/or Plato and/or the Stoics. 'The good life' is something way more meaningful as a concept than 'success' or 'ambition' and deserves way more thought. This isn't to say that money or social recognition isn't important, but that the ambition for them comes from a certain definition and understanding of 'the good life'; for instance, if you're a gregarious person who likes to be able to be lavish and hospitable, 'the good life' is one which grants you enough funds-- just enough-- to finance these get-togethers. If your preference is for silence and quiet and empty walls, 'stuff' acquired with sit in your craw and choke the life out of you. Real ambition isn't about 'stuff' but about defining what you need and being active in getting it.

I would even say that the most satisfying thing you may do is often the most difficult and challenging. This applies to artists and writers, people in romantic relationships or in families, politicians and public figures. Being 'good' may as well mean being finished, because it's a dead end. So it's not so shocking or wrong that you're dissatisfied with that. If you are so good you're not having to work, you're wasting your time. In all the things worth being good at, there's no way to both work hard and be so good you can't be a lot better (this is true for the crafts, the arts and the sciences, and also in relationships and parenting and politics, etc). Being 'good' (when you're really that good) is also about having high enough standards for that label to be meaningful, and with high standards come to ever-present margin of failure. It's not something that correlated with 'being better than'-- you can be 'better than' many people while failing to achieve excellence, simply because most people you encounter are so deeply mediocre. It's not worth caring if you're better than 'the masses'-- that's partly what ambition is, too, though. Maybe I'm just especially blase about contests and victories, but in all the important human endeavors, I think competition with anyone but yourself is pretty meaningless. First, because 95% of people are like, way more mediocre than the 'top', and second because those 5% are people with highly individualized strengths (if they're really good rather than mediocre). Well, this is just my personal idea of achievement. Sort of how you can't compare Roosevelt and Jefferson (in the 'good politician' category itself), or Newton and Einstein, or Michelangelo and Rodin. They are simply too different. And (on my scale of ambition) if you're not 'that level', then saying you're better than 'the rest' isn't that impressive anyway.

Anyway. So in the end, do what interests you the most, and it'll be worthwhile to you and give you the drive to become good and the dissatisfaction with the idea of 'goodness' and your own achievement that'll ensure you keep improving. To paraphrase, being insanely interested is 5% of greatness, and the other 95% is just constant slavish effort.
posted by reenka at 6:48 PM on April 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

And what if you don't like doing it?

You do something else.

Just because you're naturally very good at something doesn't mean that it's fulfilling to you personally nor does it mean that you should be doing it all the time. There is nothing stopping you from doing something else that maybe you're not as good at but that will provide you with more stimulation and give you the opportunity to challenge yourself in a way that you're not necessarily being challenged now.

I enjoy doing lots of different things.

So then maybe you should do this. And the end of it there will be no one measuring your successes and achievements and seeing whether you did exactly what you were supposed to do in your life. You'll simply be dead like everyone else. Do what you enjoy.
posted by mleigh at 7:42 PM on April 29, 2012

Success <> happiness
Talent <> direction

Your parents/teachers/coaches have fostered something very special in you. Part of becoming & being an adult, though, is deciding which opportunities that you have been given in life you will pursue. Sometimes that means things that excited & inspired other people in your life will be set aside --because they don't excite and inspire YOU. It can cause friction, and being willing to deal with that friction is also part of becoming/being an adult. I say walk away if the drive isn't there. You may lose out on some irreplaceable opportunities, but there's always the new opportunities you'll find in whatever you do instead. And maybe you can revisit said talent/ability on your own terms some time later in life.
posted by Ys at 8:08 PM on April 29, 2012

Reading getitdone stuff and ambition-related media is exhausting enough on its own without also feeling like I'm letting down the hours and hours of time spent getting Really Good.

Ambition-related media is written by people who don't understand.
posted by kettleoffish at 8:27 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ambition-related media is written by people who don't understand.

I like that.

I think there's another side, too, though: ambition-related media is a business. They're not going to say "Okay, yeah, I think you've all got it, we're done here" -- well, other than Merlin Mann who did basically say that -- because they want their readers to keep coming back for more and providing more ad impressions, etc. So the other side is that the people writing ambition-related media understand too well.

(And they're not writing about how to solve this problem here.)
posted by mendel at 9:05 PM on April 29, 2012

I have no ambition and own a successful company, BUT I didn't do it alone--an early partner and maybe even main impetus behind starting our own place is tremendously ambitious. I believe at some point, most successful ventures go through someone with some of that gusto, that chutzpah. I'm not that guy, but he helped me and got out at the right time.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:16 PM on April 29, 2012

If you hate it, it's not your calling. Though possibly you might hate the specific circumstances, say the pressure and the expectations you've heaped on yourself, or your too narrow focus of one thing all the time, rather than the thing itself.

If you excel at one thing, generally there will be a bunch of other things you could excel at too.

I've as yet never met anyone who was "too well adjusted".
posted by philipy at 6:08 AM on April 30, 2012

Also keep in mind the sunk cost fallacy - the hours and hours you and others have poured into this endeavor in no way obligate you to continue. You may find your path easier in this domain - from reputation and exposure - but you don't have to.
posted by bookdragoness at 10:53 AM on May 1, 2012

(warning: long, vague) I was going to answer this a couple of days ago, but got distracted. Does this sound familiar?

Some people above suggest you find your passion, but what if you don't have a passion?

You said: I like some parts, the planning parts, but the bulk of it is a huge drudge. Indeed, this is true of many things. Perhaps all things, unless ambition or something else takes over with a counter-drudge.

Fact is, I'm having trouble continuing on with this answer because I lack sufficient motivation to complete it. But, if you ever get to see it, it means I did complete it. Why should I do so? I'll tell you as it occurs to me--as I experience it--because there's less drudge that way for me.

On the one hand, though I generally know in advance what I'm going to say, I don't know the specifics. It's an empirical process and I won't know without actually doing it. Finding that out is part of my motivation.

Second, I'm like you. Not ambitious. Even anti-ambitious at times. I don't want the attention and pressure that goes with achievement. "What will you do next?" is the typical question achievers get asked. Because of this, I want to share my experience with you, who I imagine will get it (being like me.) We think those who write the ambition books don't get it.

kettleoffish: "Ambition-related media is written by people who don't understand."

But I've read some of it. Not in order to fix what's broken so I could become an achiever. But because I was curious about them. Like an anthropologist studying the Martians. And, no, I didn't read whole books because that's too much work, as you noted above. I skimmed some, abandoned others early on. Many of them do get it, at least a little. They get, for example, that ambition isn't always there when you want it. (IF you want it, I'd say.) They also understand that there's conflict involved in it. To GTD, you need to overcome not Getting Things Done. Some conflict is rational ("It's a drudge.") but others, less so. ("It won't be appreciated.", "It won't come out beautiful, like I envisioned it.", "People will be envious.", "'they' don't deserve it," etc.) This is the category that the loathing you mentioned fits into. You loath yourself and those who won't appreciate you/ envy you. It's worth it to explore those less-rational conflicts in yourself. Not to necessarily overcome them, but because, if you're like me, you want to know who you are.

O.K. this is getting a bit too long. I went and got something to eat and came back to see this long thing, so let me get to the point. Why did I write it? Well, I said so above, but, tl;dr: to share with those like me (you and "the community") and to find out what I was going to say. The good life (see the philosophers mentioned in an earlier post) for me involves connection and sharing. And helping others. And sometimes those goals require completing projects. And I switched careers a few times to put myself in a position to do those things with a minimum of prep work and drudgery. Not a total absence, but a minimum. And it turns out that sometimes I learn things (about myself and the world) from the drudgery.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:59 AM on May 2, 2012

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