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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.

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31 Responses to Don't Go Down In Fame: 5 Warnings Signs You're Too Ambitious

    • On
    • August 12, 2010 at 6:21 pm
    • Heather
    • Said...

    I got a lot out of your fabulous post! Thank you.

  1. Hey Jen,

    Thanks for the link.

    I think there are arguments for why being “the best” has advantages over simply being good. Economically, rewards go disproportionately to the 1st person than the 2nd. Personally, being the best also begets better reputation, inspiration, leaving a legacy, etc. So I wouldn’t argue that there is *no* reason to want to be the best.

    My point was simply that the naive wisdom to “try harder” in response to this challenge is foolhardy. Instead it’s better to do one of two things:

    1. Pick a smaller pond. –Simple, but many people don’t want to downgrade their dreams.
    2. Redefine the pond so there aren’t as many swimmers. I think this is the biggest point, since if you can attack the problem from a unique angle you can go far further for every unit of effort, and could potentially dominate a bigger pond without needing the huge sacrifice and low odds of success.

    In any case, great conversation and thanks for continuing the thread. You’ve given me lots to think about.

    • Hey Scott,

      Thanks for stopping by to clarify your points. Of course I completely agree there are lots of enticing rewards that come with being the best. If being the best didn’t exact such terrible sacrifice, or if I stumbled upon being the best at something (as some do), I certainly wouldn’t begrudge the reputation, inspiration, and legacy! But I also know that once those things are achieved, they rarely provide the happiness we imagine they will–sort of like the curse of the lottery winner. Since I’m a runner, I often think in those analogies: it’s a little like working your way to the head of the pack. Ironically, you don’t enjoy the view in front of you, but spend all the time watching your back, trying to prevent someone from passing you. It can, and for many I think is, a terrible way to live, despite the benefits you mention.

      I thought your point about the foolhardy “try harder” advice was spot on. We don’t think about that enough.

      I don’t see ditching “the best” ideal as downsizing the dream as much as refocusing it. It’s important to remember that personal growth is more important and valuable, in life terms, than the rank/position/title. That may not be what society holds up as the ideal, but then, much of society isn’t particularly satisified with their life either. As you point out, the majority doesn’t try very hard. I want to be very good at is living a meaningful, fulfilling life. And I know from your blog you feel the same. I think part of what’s necessary to stop listening to the people who clearly aren’t very effective at it and forge your own path.

      Thanks for the great discussion, Scott. As I mentioned, I find your blog particularly inspiring.

      • Thanks again Jen. My feeling is that the cost, or rather, the difficulty, in achieving the best, means that we should pay careful attention to where we focus that pursuit, and perhaps also to be content with good or great, but not world class in many other areas of life.

        Considering my audience is full of ambitious go-getters, I think it’s better to refocus that energy rather than try to pump people up.

        Thanks for the discussion.

        • Scott,
          You make a good point. For some people, refocusing that energy is really the only feasible option. In fact, there are days I think I’m still one of those people! My transformation is relatively recent, but so far I’ve been quite content with the idea of trying to be a very good writer/speaker/consultant (plus wife/mother of course) and leave it at that. The one big thing I’m still working on is planning time just to have fun and do things that aren’t related to my professional goals. Haven’t mastered that yet.

          And many thanks to you for sparking the discussion. It’s been great!

    • On
    • August 12, 2010 at 7:57 pm
    • Robin Dickinson
    • Said...

    Thank you, Jen. This is a rich post indeed.

    Competition and ambition only really makes sense to me in a commercial context – competing for customers; competing for market share etc. That’s just a healthy marketplace norm that fuels innovation and economic growth.

    In terms of a ‘life’ context, ambition and competition don’t make much sense to me. We are. I am. I unfold and grow on *my* pathway. Leaning into life. Responding to life. Transforming through the precious moments. Spreading my wings and soaring forwards. Taking my place in the rich tapestry of humanity.

    There is only one me. So how can I be ambitious or compete to be good – great – even the best, when I’m already me? Personal growth that starts from a position of revelation and acceptance of one’s self – truly receiving one’s miracle self, rather than self being something that needs improvement and is somehow arrived at after much work is done, is rich indeed.

    Sure, we learn, change, evolve, adapt and transform. We change attitudes and behaviours. Our values shift. But we are always us, and that’s a wonderful thing.

    Best, Robin :)

    • Robin,

      It’s true that all profitable companies must compete for market share, and thus that competition makes sense. But just as with the more personal examples, the drive to be the industry leader can and does lead to some very destructive behaviors that impinge on family, friends, and health. So I think the warnings here are just as applicable, if not more so, to business folks, since the competition to be the best is more accepted in the marketplace. The danger of being overly ambitious is quite real. That said, I couldn’t agree more that “personal growth starts from a position of revelation and acceptance of one’s self.” I want to stretch and grow and learn, but because I already value who I am, not the other way around.

      Thanks, Robin!

    • On
    • August 13, 2010 at 12:40 am
    • Brigid
    • Said...

    This reminds me of an interview I heard with Jennifer Michael Hecht. She speaks about how Alexander the Great, who built a massive empire, really admired Diogenes, who was committed to doing nothing (literally. He laid around in the sun all day). As Hecht says, “these are two men who both had a tremendous amount of ambition, and one dealt with it by going out and conquering the world and the other by conquering his own ambition. “

    • Brigid,
      I don’t know if you know it, but I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s work, both as a historian and poet. So yeah, cool quote! Thanks for your great contributions here.

  2. Thank you for posting this. It reminds me of the quote, and forgive me, I can’t remember who said it, “The question is not that you are busy. The question is what are you busy about?” Reading this took me to perhaps the next question, the matter of motivation, being clear about why one wants whatever it is one wants for their work. How clear are they about priorities, and what are the criteria for how they’ve set those priorities? Then, how does being, say, “best” at something fit in with all of that? Again, thank you, peace.


    • Diane,
      Absolutely. You have to be clear in purpose, and this usually requires some introspection time that many of us don’t have or make anymore. I like to conserve water, but my shower time is vitally important!

  3. Nunzio,
    It’s a constant struggle, isn’t it? I wish I could say that the light bulb went off and I never had to worry about it again, but those over achiever tendencies don’t just disappear! Hopefully this blog will provide a kind of safe haven where we can discuss and encourage each other. That’s my intent anyway!

  4. You do your readers a great service by raising these issues. Your commenters affirm that viewpoints about ambition, its place, and configuration abound.

    I wish more people would stop and ask,”Who exactly am I competing with, for what, and why?” Businesses ask the question, well, the successful ones do. But individuals don’t…at least not often enough!

    Too often we’re competing with aspirations that others impose on us, expect of us, or assume for us. Sadly, many people, probably because this is a conditioned response, simply go along, fearing that we won’t be liked, admired, or even loved if we take our own course.

    We’re the only ones who live our lives. I suspect that we’d be a lot happier if we directed our ambition toward the achievements that make us happy, whetehr big or small, good or great. Thanks, Jen, for another wonderful, thoughtful post!

    • Thanks, Dawn. You’re absolutely right. We not only need to ask ourselves those questions, we need to do it frequently. The answers change with time. I remember when I sobbed in bed to my husband that I was afraid I wasn’t going to win the big teaching award. I worked hard at my job, as I do at every job, but being a teacher wasn’t my end goal, it was just part of my journey. The award really wasn’t meaningful, I just wanted to be the “best.” I think a lot of us fall into that trap. A far better measure of success would have been my own understanding of the material I presented as well as student feedback.

      And I completely agree that too often we let others impose expectations on us, sometimes even at the societal level. That’s where my worry about fame comes from. Seems like every time I turn around, someone else is trying to convince me I should be an A-lister or making a certain salary. I’d like to be one of the voices that says less is sometimes more.

    • On
    • August 14, 2010 at 8:14 am
    • Vincent
    • Said...

    Thanks Jen (and indirectly Scott) for an interesting post. I’ve read From Good to Great too. He wrote a companion to the book call From Good to Great in the Social Sectors because he recognized the criteria for great differed between the corporate sector and the social sector (non-profits, education, etc.) And I think there lies the fault in the argument between great and good – What’s the criteria?

    Have you ever been disappointed by a book or movie that a friend said was great but when you read it, it was barely mediocre? It’s the same thing in my opinion.

    With regard with striving towards greatness and modes of competition, I differentiate between “winning” and being the “best.” Anyone can “win” under the right circumstances but to strive to be the best at something requires patience, introspection, and perseverance.

    • Vincent,

      Yes, we should definitely thank Scott, who did a fantastic job serving as muse for this piece. If I didn’t make it clear, I really admire his blog and the clarity he brings to these kinds of questions. I wish I had been half as mature as he appears to be at that age!

      I’ve read the companion to Good to Great as well, and like you, felt disappointed. I’ve worked in the government for 16 years. It so desperately wants to be better, but it’s hard. My boss kept telling me if I could write a book about how to make real change in the government (that worked), it would be a best seller. Still in the back of my mind.

      And I agree–winning by any means is different than being the best. This is often the criticism of Tim Ferriss with regards to his fighting title. I don’t judge his motivations for doing it, but I don’t see how it enriched his life either.

  5. Hey Jen,

    I think this is a really important post and something I wish I’d read before business school. I’ve done almost every one of these things and even compromised ethically at one point. The result cost me some friends and made portions of bschool a living hell. Much of what you talk to comes down to your ego. When your ego drives any part of your career growth efforts, it starts be a slippery slope. Great ideas and really important for anybody’s career.

    • You know, I hadn’t put together that ego was the driving force here, though that seems obvious. I, too, have suffered from most of these symptoms, but ironically, I’m not terribly driven by status, at least in many respects. That’s a really interesting observation I’m going to have to think more about.

      Glad this resonated with your experiences as well. It’s never too late!

    • On
    • August 16, 2010 at 4:11 pm
    • Michael Felberbaum
    • Said...

    I really enjoyed your blog post. I gather that what you are arguing is that being good enough is more conducive to happiness than striving for greatness. Is that so?

    To me, happiness is a temporary state of mind due to celebration of something we view as valuable or desirable. I don’t use the word to refer to a state of continuous fortitude, love, joy and well-being. I use other words to describe more long-lasting and enduring emotional experiences.

    So, from my perspective, our accomplishments and achievements have a lot to do with our happiness. To some extent, we are only happy when we’re winning in some way — at least by my definition of happiness. I think the competitive drive is important to honor, especially as it relates to happiness.

    What creates problems, I think, is the winning (or happiness) at all costs mentality. What also creates problems is that it’s notoriously difficult for us to deal with losing or falling behind. It’s incredibly challenging for us to balance our competitive drives with our ability to create joy in our lives.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and interesting post. I appreciate the well-thought out points, and the Bertrand Russell reference!
    All best,

    • Michael,
      I’m arguing that being good enough is conducive to a happy life, not happiness. I provide a more thorough distinction of the two in my About section, but suffice it to say that yes, happiness alone can be at odds with achieving fulfillment. I’m definitely not suggesting we should be without ambition (that would be boring beyond belief), but to keep it in moderation in order to live the life we want. For a select few, that life will be centered around winning. For the rest, I’ll argue you need a healthy dose of companionship to have a happy life. You’re right though–not enough attention is paid to how to lose. Look for another post!

      Thanks for the great insights. You’re definitely a luminary! (What I call my intelligent, engaged readers)

  6. This is a wonderful article. As a National Champion of Sporting Clays and one that has competed on the world class level, I would add that being the ‘best’ cannot be the goal, because it is a symptom and not a root cause.

    Instead, making the perfect move and employing a healthy process of continuous improvement on your journey can beget the symptom known as ‘success.’

    Going about it with a healthy frame of mine, operating with ethics/integrity, growing your conscious, subconscious and self esteem equally as you progress will insure other healthy symptoms that will allow you to enjoy that success once you get there…well being, peace of mind, good physical health, healthy outlook and disposition.

    • Lily,
      Wonderful to get the perspective of someone performing at the world-class level, but who does not make being the best the central goal. Frankly, I’m impressed. Continuous personal improvement is definitely what it’s all about, at least from my perspective, and I love that you see this as a path to success. Thanks!!

  7. Stanley,
    I’m not sure if it’s a neglect of self-interest or too much focus on self-interest. As Scott points out, for those “ambitious go-getters,” their self-interest is achievement. The question is whether or not that’s good/healthy, and I guess I’ll argue only the inidividual can determine that. As I said over at Brazen Careerist, this isn’t a speed limit analogy. It’s not like you can pick a number of hours per week that’s okay and say anything over that is too ambitious. I think of it more like sustenance. We all need to eat, but some can and enjoy eating more than others. And that’s okay. The real point is to watch for warning signs that alert you you’ve crossed your own line.

  8. I discovered your blog today, I believe, through BrazenCareerist.
    It’s so on time with what I’m experiencing lately in my life. I feel so overwhelmed sometimes about all the possibilities that lie before me. How do you know which way to go when there are endless possibilities before you?

    • Know that you aren’t alone! The whole reason I started this blog was to try to capture a lot of the anguish (and ultimately, the solutions) I discovered when I decided to change my life. It is overwhelming, but you CAN DO IT.

      First, I’d recommend reading my career design series of posts, which gives you a foundation of the career design principles. The first post is here, and the other two can be found under the Career Advice category on the right hand sidebar.

      There are some great books you can read as well: Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity or the more comprehensive (and sometimes intimidating) The Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore.

      And of course, you’re welcome to contact me with any specific questions you have. I really do understand what you’re going through, but I promise there’s a path ahead of you that you just can’t see yet. Believe that it’s there–it’s just finding it. Good luck!

  9. Sounds like you’re pursuing a very interesting life! What exactly is stressing you out? This blog is all about community and I think you’ll find the other readers as generous and helpful as I am. Welcome and don’t hesitate to reach out when you need it.

    • On
    • October 11, 2010 at 10:02 am
    • Rajesh
    • Said...

    So very true..enjoyed the blog very much.

    • Thanks, Rajesh. That really means a lot to me. I know you’re crazy busy, but come back whenever you have a chance. I think you could add a lot of wisdom here.

    • On
    • December 20, 2010 at 1:17 am
    • melanie lewis
    • Said...

    I agree. OK, that was sarcastic- Your right on………

    • Glad you liked it, Melanie. And hope it helps! I go back and re-read this myself from time to time…

    • On
    • September 19, 2015 at 10:54 pm
    • Jaz Rod
    • Said...

    I like the thing about
    Alexander the Great and Diogenes.

    I’m 24, and today I asked my self if I’m too ambitious.
    It’s a curse and a blessing to have a mind with such capacity.
    To be able to imagine other world’s and all impossibilities but not be able to achieve them.
    Why is it that we can imagine something that is not real?

    I ruthlessly pursue my own path, only to find out that no one can advise me on my journey. For they cannot know my steps. Not truly ever knowing if im actually going where i mind to be.
    I think of the time when i reach it, and wonder will i be satisfied. By mind forever turning, chasing the next pursuit.
    Knowing life will not end when i achieve it, i am always ready, hungry for the next vision my mind conjures up to believe is the real destination where my dreams lay. So I can finally sleep and be a walking bliss among restless eyes.

    My previous ambitions have driven me here and have gotten me what i now have. Maybe this is my dream, and I have yet to realize it.
    Imagining a state where i am completely fulfilled and happy. Perhaps the focus is to concentrated in the outcome rather than the game.

    Perhaps, ambition is a focus of outcomes.
    Happiness a focus of actions.

    Underneath it all. What we truly want. What we truly seek.. if for my mind and your mind, to dance in our infinite pool of thought.

    It is because we care about each other more than were willing to admit. It is because without you, there is no me. For what is one mind without another to recognize what you are.

    It is not the touch of the hand that we feel. It is Love.