Ambition is conceptual.
It’s a compass, pointing to a place beyond the horizon. It’s not reality.
Although religious dogma tends to shame ambition (perhaps in a past attempt to neuter the populace and keep power for the church), I believe it came from insight.
The insight that cautions against ambition is that happiness is found now, not later. Ambition focuses the mind on the future (a mental simulation). To place your happiness in the future does not mean that you’ll have happiness later if you plan and implement well…it means you will never have it.
Putting Ambition in Its Place
Ambition should occupy around 2-5% of your day, I would guesstimate.
It also does well when given its own time, when you’re not doing anything else but visualising, writing about, or planning what you want to achieve.
Once the direction is set, let it inform your daily activities.
And those daily activities can be shockingly unambitious.
Enjoying The Journey to Greatness by Setting Tiny Goals
Neil Strauss (4-time New York Times Bestseller) says the key to getting over writer’s block is to temporarily drop your standards.
Another bestselling author, Tim Ferriss, says the best advice he was ever given for writing books was to have the following goal: Write 2 crap pages a day.
IBM was known for having a sales team that consistently smashed records. How? By making their sales quotas (the number they had to hit) very low. The rationale? The salespeople would not be intimidated by starting, would rarely be slowed down by unuseful emotions like despair and self-scorn.
Chade Meng Tan, an early Google employee, award winning engineer, and creator of a groundbreaking mindfulness course, says:
“I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students that all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day.”
(The above was learned from Tools of Titans.)
Slow Down and Do Less Than You Can
Mingyur Rinpoche, author of The Joy of Living, advised Chade Meng Tan to do less formal practice than he is capable of. If it starts to feel like a chore, you will subconsciously undermine it.
Tiny Habits methodology works by a similar mechanism. when your daily goals are far less than what you’re capable of, their effortless acheivement builds momentum, and you slowly develop them and do more.
China trains their Olympic bodybuilders from a young age, focusing for the first 4 years on exercises that the kids enjoy. They make sure that it feels like a fun activity, not training. James Clear goes deeper into that here.
In Convict Conditioning, Paul Wade promotes the wisdom of “the strong men of old”, who had the mantra, “Leave some strength in the bank.” We now know that while lifting to muscular failure is the fastest way to build muscle, it’s also the fastest way to cause injury. The connective tissue under your skin takes longer to adapt than the muscle. In extreme cases, weightlifters have torn ligaments just by lifting a weight. Their muscles were literally stronger than their ligaments.
The point is, ambition does not hurt happiness, but a preoccupation with it certainly does.
Play to win, but only because the game is more fun when you give it everything you have, not because you need to win to be happy.
I’m going to set my long-term goals ambitiously high, think about them briefly every day, and then set about crushing my tiny habits and my little daily goals.