Balancing Ambition

I saw this post a while back, from an ambitious engineer reflecting on their career thus far and the allocation of time spent in advancing that career versus opting for the comfortable and familiar:

How to waste your career, one comfortable year at a time

The characterization of driving hard towards advancement and professional growth is a familiar one; I’ve certainly gone through intense bouts of work motivation, and in complement to that intrinsic drive, I’ve also been fortunate to work with teams also filled with ambitious people wanting to push themselves to loftier titles, bigger salaries, and greater renown. This stuff is like catnip to venture capitalists and managers around these parts1, the vaunted 10× engineering that overnight creates unicorns ex nihilo. So hey, I get it.

On the flip side, I also tell people to try to chill a bit more.

A part of it is that it’s very easy to burn out trying to always be “on” and throwing all of your waking hours towards career advancement and self-improvement. Skills don’t improve linearly, and the opportunities to improve those skills are themselves more random and beholden to lucky circumstances, the stories told in hindsight prone to survivorship bias. While people early in their careers can expect steep growth curves and frequent promotions, the cadence of explicit recognition inevitably slows down and there will be setbacks and faux pas down irrelevant paths—a career line chart doesn’t just go up-and-to-the-right all the time. Contrary to the impressions drawn by fawning biographies of famously successful people, an “overnight success that takes a decade” is also not about continuously grinding for 10 years straight in an uninterrupted crescendo of winning.

These outsized and frankly unrealistic expectations then help set up this intense, intrinsic pressure to perform and make peer comparisons. Like that of the above author, career plateaus are almost seen as failures—regretful hindsights of opportunity costs and unrealized potentials. More insidiously, the obsession with just learning and growing all the time often ends up seeping into the introspector’s self-identity, and their perception of worth is now unhealthily skewed towards how much and how hard they’re working to constantly better themselves. It’s a hamster wheel, doubling as a prison, constructed with their own hands.

Ironically, a strategy of focused intensity with intentional rest may very well produce the same—if not better—results in the long run. In strength training, this dynamic is well-understood; exercise routines are designed with periods of rest so your sore muscles can recover and return stronger. Creativity and problem-solving are also domains where mental rest and relaxation are useful tools, contributing to the “eureka moment in the shower” phenomenon. And though the sabbatical has mostly gone the way of lifetime tenures, their original purpose was to give space for professionals to explore their interests and come back not only rejuvenated, but get better at their jobs through that exploration. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World makes a case for not being overly intentional, with some real-world value imbued in just messing around.

All that said, ambition really is a positive and powerful motivator, and I’d rather meet and work with ambitious people than the alternative2. The key is balance; ambition, for its own sake or for the sake of extrinsic comparators, lends itself to unhealthy obsession, and it may well be the case that moderation will produce better results.

  1. Where these parts = Silicon Valley; of course it is.

  2. I’ve only worked in Silicon Valley, throw a rock in any direction and you’d hit a dozen up-and-coming techies hustling. Always hustling.

Share this article
Shareable URL
Prev Post

The Smart Home Sweet Spot

Next Post

COVID, A Year Later

Read next