In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins encouraged us to not just be better, but to be great.  He told us exactly what we needed to do to leap ahead of our competition, although simply delineating the process into steps doesn’t mean it’s easy to accomplish.  Good is the enemy of great, he counseled.  Now Scott Young has sounded another kind of warning: great may be the enemy of a good life.

I absolutely recommend you read both of Scott’s posts on the subject (here and here), but to briefly summarize his argument:

  1. It really doesn’t take a lot to become good or “better than average” at something because most of your competition won’t try very hard.
  2. However, if you want to be great or “world-class,” you have to do two things: practice enormous discipline and sacrifice.  In fact, one begets the other.
  3. At the world-class level, you’re competing against a group of already very disciplined individuals.  Young says, “When your aim is not to be good, but the best, the logic of ‘try harder’ doesn’t work, because the people you need to try harder than are also following the same approach. Discipline switches from being the key to success, to a mere precondition assumed before you start.”
  4. Unfortunately, the same is true for sacrifice.  Enormous discipline usually requires sacrifices in other areas of your life be made (such as family or health), but those sacrifices also cannot assure you world-class status.

Young doesn’t focus on what will get you world-class status in a competitive environment, but rather advises to pick a small enough pond you can dominate without a lot of sacrifice in the other areas of your life.

But this just begs the question: What’s so important about being “the best?” Sure, I might be able to define my pond narrowly enough to claim I’m the best scientific poet under 40 east of the Mississippi, but does that really get me any closer to a happier, more meaningful life?  When ambition and mastery become the goal instead of a pleasant by-product, you’re on the fast track to burn-out and disappointment.

I’m not suggesting one should journey through life without ambition.  I think it’s imortant to shoot high, but not impossibly high.  In other words, good really can be good enough.  In the search for a more meaningful life, I’m personally trying to put aside my desire for fame and focus instead on stretching my mind and relationships, whether that be in one field or many.  A competitive spirit can be healthy, but unbridled ambition has the potential to overtake your life.

Here are five warning signs your ambition may be out of control, and what to do about it.

1. You often feel overwhelmed.  Even if ambition isn’t a big facet of your personality, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.  This is often a result of placing undue importance on the activities that demand our time.   Bertrand Russell indicates this kind of thinking on a prolonged basis leads to anxiety, which is incompatible with the zest necessary for a happy life.  He advises, “when you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, ‘Well, after all, that would not matter so very much’, you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent.”

2. You’re constantly comparing yourself to others.  There’s good reason envy makes the list of of 7 deadly sins.  Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky shows that comparing our achievements with our peers can be damaging to our happiness and self-esteem.  One way around this is to take a cue from the running world and instead focus on achieving your personal best. This puts the focus where it ought to be: making progress on something you care about.

3. You don’t have time for a vacation.  As Young identifies, those vying for a spot at the top are competing against the uber-disciplined.  It’s hard to convince yourself that taking time off can actually help you succeed.  Most people fear taking time off will be viewed negatively by their boss and co-workers, or they’re stuck in problem area number two, putting undue importance on ordinary tasks.  But if you listen to guys like Tim Ferriss or Seth Godin, you’ll understand that taking a couple of weeks off to recharge the batteries won’t diminish kick-butt performance the rest of the year.  Use that discipline for good: schedule time to relax and then do it.

4. You feel entitled to rewards for your efforts. This is something I’ve seen personally and it’s always really sad.  Some people forget that reaching for the top is a risk, not a right, no matter how many hours you put in at the office or spend training.  If the only thing that matters is getting that promotion or award, it’s easy to feel all the effort you put into the process was a waste, possibly leading to depression.  The key is to make sure every sacrifice you make is worth it, even if you don’t achieve your goal.

5. You’re starting to make moral compromises.  You think this could never happen to you, but likely Mark McGwire and Lehman Brothers never set out to be corrupt either.  There’s a reason Macbeth is a classic (other than the fact Shakespeare wrote it).  The only way to avoid this kind of issue is to be as clear as possible what your goals really are and what you are and aren’t willing to do to achieve them.  Write them down.  If you leave these unstated, it’s easier to manipulate the truth in the heat of competition.

Society puts a lot of value on celebrity, but for me, an aspiring polymath, seeing the personal growth I’ve made and being satisified with it is remarkable enough.