Sunday, July 18, 2010

A quick note about ambition and time

Eight years ago, I was a graduate student, pursuing my Masters in History. I was 24, looking at 25. I was convinced, for some reason, that 25 was the age at which someone officially becomes "grown up." Thirty, of course, is the marker for when you have to have everything figured out. Added to that self-inflicted pressure (and needless pressure) was the fact that I was working on my thesis.

Let me pause here and say that I have always been an ambitious person. When I was a little kid watching Live Aid, I decided that I would try to save all of those starving children. My plan was to make those woven loop  potholders and sell them. Lots of them. When I was in seventh grade, I decided that getting straight As in school every semester would be the only thing I would find acceptable. In high school, I wanted to make the top ten at graduation.

For some people, the wackiness that results from gratuitous ambition and immaturity results in mad amounts of success. You've seen those stories. And there are more and more of those stories, it seems. Accidental mammoth success like JK Rowling experienced. Stories of people who sit down at the piano, decide they are going to compose a masterpiece, and then do so, as if everyone can do that.

Needless to say, my pot holder plan did not pan out.

When I started work on my thesis, I was passionate, excited, and of course, ambitious. I wanted to have the entire thing outlined before my fourth semester of graduate work commenced. I'd have it done early. And it would achieve every academic goal I had set out.

I thumbed through my thesis for the first time in a couple of years today. I revisit it every now and again. And I laughed at the me of 7-8 years ago. Each chapter in the thesis would have been a good thesis in and of itself. Each chapter, therefore, needed a lot more detail, a lot more research. As it was, my thesis ended up being 169 pages. If I had really done every chapter the way it should have been done, well, I might have had the first multi-volume Master's Thesis ever. Not surprisingly, I burned myself out. Between the pace I was trying to set for myself, the sheer girth of what I was trying to do, and the fact that I also had many other things on the burner, this was not a surprising conclusion. Finishing became the reward, but I was not, and am not, pleased with the final result.

A lot of motivational speakers will tell you not to look back but only to look forward. I see what they mean, but I have to say that if approached in a healthy way, the past can teach you a lot. From thumbing through my work of a few months ago or a few years ago, I can benchmark where I am going and where I have been. I also can learn really important lessons. For example, unchecked ambition doesn't really get you anywhere unless you are completely lucky.

I think the successful ambitious person of today reaches success because they are slow and steady. They are willing to be patient. They are willing to hear the adage that success is preparation meeting opportunity, so they are always preparing. They don't put arbitrary, meaningless goals on their shoulders as an added burden. They also don't look around to see where other people are.

Nowadays, I think of ambition as if it were a campfire. If you try to build a huge, raging fire right away, you might succeed, but pretty soon all of your tinder and kindling will burn away, and you'll have a tough time getting that nice big fire to come back. However, if you feed the fire slowly, if you let it catch first on the firestarters, then on the kindling, and then finally on a nice dry log, your fire will burn intensely and for a long time. It might not reach the heights that you initially hoped for, but it will carry you through a lot of s'mores.

I see a lot of people around trying to skip to the end where their ambition meets a happy ending. I see people trying out on shows like American Idol or America's Got Talent. I see stories of book deals being made based on people posting books to blog sites. The Fast Company Influence Project is kind of a sign that this ambition is running wild. But I would caution people to meter that ambition. Time doesn't really matter when you are building something really good, but quality does matter. Getting to the finish line first is great, but getting to the finish line and being able to still stand up is awesome. Pace yourself.

And by the way, if someone looks at you crazy when you say that you have a great idea regarding how to take over the world in 30 seconds, don't chastise them for holding you down. Thank them for keeping you from burning out.

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