Life Health & Wellbeing

Saturday 21 September 2019

Katie Byrne: The ambition trap: why we need to check our priorities and redefine success


Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Have you ever felt strangely unmoved after achieving something that you thought you wanted?

Maybe it was a job offer or a salary raise. Maybe it was the purchase of a house, a car or an obscenely expensive handbag. Whatever it was, you thought you would feel complete when you finally achieved it but, actually, you didn't really feel anything at all.

I used to put this post-achievement emptiness down to drive, or the lack thereof. We all need goals to work towards, I reasoned, so maybe I was just feeling the empty space formerly occupied by burning ambition.

Now, with a little more life experience on my side, I've started to look at it differently. Maybe I felt empty after achieving certain goals because the goals were fundamentally empty.

This isn't to say that the acquisition of status, money and possessions is inherently futile, rather that we often expect these goals to bring about a sense of meaning and completion that never really arrives.

It's different when the goal is centred around learning, growth or development. Think of the feeling of pride when you finally mastered an instrument, got a grip on a language or passed the finish line in a marathon. Think of the feeling of purpose when you helped a loved one overcome a hurdle. Without fail, these goals bring about a real and lasting sense of fulfilment that far outweighs the ephemeral pleasure of material achievement.

The problem is that we live in a world that measures success based on what writer Johann Hari calls "junk values", which of course means we're less likely to derive fulfilment from the values that truly matter.

This is the argument Arianna Huffington makes in her book Thrive. "It is very telling what we don't hear in eulogies," she writes. "We almost never hear things like: 'The crowning achievement of his life was when he made senior vice president.' Or: 'He increased market share for his company multiple times during his tenure.' Or: 'She never stopped working. She ate lunch at her desk. Every day.'...

"Our eulogies are always about the other stuff: what we gave, how we connected, how much we meant to our family and friends, small kindnesses, lifelong passions, and the things that made us laugh."

It's a profound observation, especially when you consider the context. Huffington used to be the type of person who ate lunch at her desk every day. Nowadays she's on a mission to raise awareness around work-related burnout after she collapsed at her desk from exhaustion.

People like Huffington have unfettered ambition, but they could all do with considering the end game from time to time. Are the sacrifices that you're making now - family, fun, self-care - worth it in the long-run? More to the point, do you have goals that generate a true sense of fulfilment and purpose, or are you trying to derive it from status signalling and conspicuous consumption?

It's also worth looking at your ambitions from an objective standpoint. Are they really your own? This is the point philosopher Alain de Botton makes in his TED Talk, 'A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success'.

"The thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own," he says. "They're sucked in from other people; chiefly, if you're a man, your father, and if you're a woman, your mother...

"And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc," he continues. "These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. When we're told that banking is a very respectable profession, a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion."

De Botton encourages people to become "the authors of their own ambitions" and not pursue goals just to please their parents, impress their friends or keep up with the Joneses. It's just as important to balance ambition with contentment. After all, there's no point pursuing success for success's sake.

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