Photo by Paula May on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, my mom sent me a video of my 18-month-old nephew that struck a weird chord in me. Mom keeps him while my sister and her husband work, so it’s not uncommon for me to get surprised with adorable pictures and videos throughout the day, but something about this particular video gave me pause. One look would tell you he was just playing– moving rocks back and forth, doing baby things that babies do. A closer look, however, would reveal that he was hard at work, seemingly knowing exactly what he was doing. Which was essentially nothing… but don’t tell him that.

One of my favorite things about my nephew and children in general is that I get to observe the way they navigate the world and compare it to the way I attempt to navigate my own. Sometimes it’s vastly different, given my (mostly?) fully formed brain, mastery of language, and general life experience. Other times, it’s strangely similar. And some other times still, it’s not similar at all but I wish it were.

I watched my nephew hustling, running around in circles, and I saw myself. His passion and focus were inspiring, but what was he actually accomplishing? My nephew is a baby, so his imaginary, nonsensical playtime is perfectly normal, but it made me examine my own life and begin to wonder, in what ways am I nonsensically striving? How often does it appear that I’m hard at work, when in reality, I don’t even know what I’m doing or why I’m doing it? And what good is Ambition without direction?

I’ve long considered myself to be a girl who knows what she wants. I got my brown eyes from my mama and my curly hair from my daddy, but I inherited a whopping serving of Ambition from both sides. Ambition is good, but its not-so-distant cousins, Competitiveness and Perfectionism, have a tendency to show up when that girl who thought she knew what she wanted forgets what she wants… which happens more often than she’d like.

I am not the originator of the word and therefore its definition is probably not up to me, but I’ve decided that Ambition requires direction or else it’s not Ambition. Ambition is about who you are, what you [uniquely] can do for the world, and where you will go to do it. On the other hand, Competitiveness and Perfectionism are about who you think you’re supposed to be, regardless of what you’re doing or where you’re going. If Ambition is a well-laid path, Competitiveness and Perfectionism are, at best, stumbling blocks, and at worst, malfunctioning GPS systems that lead you nowhere, or perhaps to a place you don’t even want to be.

Occasionally, as I’m strutting down my path of Ambition, I catch a glimpse of something I could do. Or I stumble upon an opportunity that somewhat interests me. And for some reason, my ego lights up at a chance to prove herself, even if it means delaying or straying from my truest and most honorable desires.

Ambition doesn’t latch on to every nearby opportunity. Ambition doesn’t have to climb every corporate ladder. Ambition doesn’t need to be in charge to be effective. Ambition requires direction. Even if you’re not totally sure where it will take you. Ambition requires context– it is attached to a meaningful pursuit.

Mistaking Competitiveness and Perfectionism as Ambition makes for a life of unfulfilling accomplishment. It is why many successful people are still not satisfied. Achieving via means of Competitiveness or Perfectionism may equal success, but achieving via means of Ambition equals joy.

This shift in thinking has helped me to distinguish between the energy I exert on fruitless pursuits of the ego and the energy I put toward my long-term goals. It’s helped me to consider the bigger picture when I find myself leading just to lead, or achieving just to achieve. It’s helped me to recognize Competitiveness and Perfectionism for what they really are: fear.

Ambition is a virtue. It’s an honor to have. And it’s a big, fat finger in the face of fear. So when you find a moment to take a break from your hustle, consider where you are on your own path of Ambition– if you’ve taken a detour, or gotten caught at a stumbling block. Perhaps you’re navigating it well, or chilling at a rest stop, or maybe you haven’t even left the house yet (even though you just told your friend you were on the way). In any case, thanks for hanging as I work through these ideas. I’m excited to be writing again as I’m hopping back on my path after a prolonged stint at a rest stop. I hope you find my introspection to be thoughtful, helpful, or at the very least, charming.

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