Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.
In politics, I’m something of a progressive extremist. But in my approach to living, I’d say I’m something of a moderate. I mean, by that, I believe in achieving balance. Extremism may be good in politics—especially if one advocates extreme liberalism and understands that the problems facing us are so dire that no wishy-washy, namby-pamby approach is going to be effective enough to solve them—but it is a terrible way to live one’s life.
Having said all that, I want to talk a little about my past and a human drive—that many have and some even to excess—called “ambition.”
As a boy, I was always driven to “succeed.” I wanted to be first in everything and to be recognized for my accomplishments. I often wasn’t a very good loser. I tried to keep my cool on the outside, but inwardly, I scowled, I pouted, I even engaged in self-loathing if I felt that I hadn’t performed as well as I was capable and had lost as a result.
Children of this type often get a variety of accolades and very good grades. They get praised, patted on the head, and receive recognition. Everyone around them predicts that they are headed for success and maybe even greatness.
Ambition served me through my undergraduate studies but then became very detrimental when I got into grad school. At that time in my life, I was a perfectionist. I held myself to very high standards. Actually, let me restate that. I held myself to impossibly high standards.
(If something is impossible to accomplish, and we, not surprisingly, fail when attempting it, this failure has nothing to do with our performance or ability. It’s a failure of expectation. How can we expect anything but failure if the thing we are trying to do is, in fact, undoable?)
During the period of my life when I was ultra-ambitious, I thought I was taking care of myself, but I wasn’t. I thought I was pushing myself toward notoriety. I told myself I was building a career and setting myself up to have a prosperous future. Unfortunately, though, right toward the end of my first graduate degree, I developed anxiety and even had panic attacks. I eventually discovered, after going through several months of counseling, that I had driven myself too hard. That I hadn’t been kind to myself at all. In fact, I was engaged in something akin to self-abuse.
All this took place years ago. Because I take much better care of myself now and try to live a healthier, more balanced life, I have learned to control my anxiousness.
I am still ambitious but I’ve also learned how to pay attention to my body and listen to the messages it’s sending me. (In most cases, our bodies know how to heal themselves, but we need to develop the skill to pay attention to what the deep, all-knowing part is telling us to do to get better.) We also need to learn to heed this advice when it comes. (Too many of us receive such a warning sign but then ignore it.)
I now give myself permission to be “lazy” and unproductive. I sometimes even “waste time.” In the past, I would have chided myself for not getting things done, but when I feel a strong urge to spend part of the day daydreaming or being a couch potato, I understand that I’m being told, by that all-knowing part of me, that I NEED downtime.
Admittedly, I still have to battle against the tendency to beat myself up for letting good time go to waste. This is the battle that all overly ambitious people have to fight. Today, though, I fight it less often, and for that, I am grateful.
I may not literally get quite as many things done as I used to when I abused myself, but I think I’ve traded quantity for quality, which is a win as far as I’m concerned. I also feel more balanced, more intuitive, and certainly happier.
Anybody else have any thoughts on ambition, living a balanced life, or any related subject?