Category: Happiness

Ambition: When you don’t want what they’ve got

[This was originally written back in 2019, as a guest article that I recently discovered is no longer available online. Here it is, republished. The article may ostensibly have been written for women, but there is a message for everyone in there. If you’ve ever felt an unravelling of the path you’d hitherto been following, and realised how vital it was for you to re-evaluate what matters to you in your life and career, then have a read – and let me know what you think.]

Ambition

I vividly remember my very first work appraisal back in 2005. I was 24, full of ambition, a perfectionist and ultra-high achiever, and I’d spent the first 6 months in my new job doing whatever it took to impress senior management and not let myself down.

Driven by that ambition, I was regularly in the office well after hours and on the weekends. I’d missed my best friend’s wedding because I couldn’t afford to fly 6,000 miles only to be able to stay for the weekend, let alone get the time off for the plane journey in the first place.  At the appraisal, my boss told me something I’ve never forgotten: “You’re the best administrative officer I have ever had”, she declared, before we discussed my tendency to be ruthlessly harsh in my own self-assessment. Then she said, “You could be a Registrar* in years to come.” A pause. “If you want it.”

I’ve recalled this conversation many times in the intervening years. It came back to me in my early thirties, during a coaching training session when I was in the role of client. The exact content of our conversation escapes me now, but the turning point was when my coach looked me in the eye and said “Why are you in such a hurry?” 

The memory of this conversation resurfaced again when I returned to my employer in 2018 after a year’s career break. During my sabbatical I’d set up my coaching business, and, as part of a new portfolio career, had also negotiated a new part-time contract that was far more aligned with the career direction in which I wanted to go. 

This decision meant that I was consciously to take myself out of what had previously been a potential trajectory to the top. I’d gone in with my eyes open. Yet, a couple of months into the job, I found myself blindsided when my contemporaries started getting Director-level jobs. I knew I didn’t want their jobs and everything that came with the territory. But a part of me really wanted to know I’d have been well in the running. 

Moving Through Change and Doubt 

As a coach and mentor, I’ve worked with numerous women over the years who’ve found themselves unexpectedly wrong-footed by the question of ambition. Many had risen through the ranks as single, career-focused individuals, their drive focused squarely on performance and promotion. At some point in their careers, however, something had begun to change.

For some, this had come about as a result of motherhood and the re-evaluation of purpose that often accompanies this kind of major life shift and extended time away from the workplace. A second group, burnt out from the chase or having otherwise reached a tipping point, had been forced to step away to recover and reassess. For others, it was nothing quite as dramatic – over time, however, a nagging feeling of discontent and unhappiness had emerged and persisted.

With all of them, there was a feeling of guilt. Overcome with thoughts like: I’m not performing well enough anywhere. I’m not a good mum, not a good partner, not a good employee. Then doubt, moving between the polarities of wanting it all and wanting something completely different: I should want that. Why don’t I want that? What do I actually want? Worry, too: I thought I’d be much further along by now. Why is it that she can do it, and I can’t?

Asking some Important Questions 

What characterises ambition? You’ll find two main definitions in dictionaries: (a) a strong wish for fame, power, wealth or status; and (b) the desire to achieve a particular end. The first is fairly self-explanatory. The second bears somewhat more scrutiny. 

We’re conditioned to compete. The scourge of that competition is that while it can lead us to excel, comparison with others can often find us seduced by what others have and inevitably feeling like we come up short. Leaving the arena, then, and setting out on the lesser-trodden path, can be hugely freeing. Of course, it can also be scary and destabilising, but this is the thing about fear: being scared of something is all the more reason to face it.

So, where to start? You can’t go far wrong with asking yourself some important questions, and taking the time to give yourself some very honest answers.

Who am I? (And who do I want to be?) 

Your identity develops over the course of a lifetime. It’s rich and multifaceted; a community of selves. And because you’re always learning and growing, you will almost certainly reach various turning points throughout your life that will make you ask: Is this life an honest reflection of the person I am? And if not, am I prepared to live it anyway, or will I take the plunge and connect with who I am really meant to be?

What’s important to me? 

Now is the time to take a step back and think: what is your driving purpose and what values do you want to see reflected in your life and work? Some people want to make a difference through the execution of their vision for a better world – social change, environmental work, political activism. Perhaps your driver is focused on touching people’s hearts and building them up at an individual level. Or perhaps your fundamental values are all about freedom and independence, yet somehow that wild spirit has ended up on the predictable rhythm of a treadmill. 

What am I good at?

If you’re searching for work that will give your life more meaning and fulfilment, then you need not only to understand your values and what you identify with, but also your motivated skills and strengths – the things you’re not only good at, but also like doing. Are you good with people? Or are you more comfortable with data? Perhaps you’re great with your hands, or when working with concepts and ideas. How well do your top strengths and skills align with your current work? 

What dream am I chasing? (And whose dream is it?)

Is it the one that you think you should want, the one that the you of yesteryear did want, or the one that you actually do want? If you think you might be heading in the wrong direction, ask yourself: If all jobs paid the same, what would I want to be doing for a living? What would excite me and help me grow?

When we stop looking outward to external standards of achievement and ambition, we become free to focus on what is infinitely more valid: our own measure of what constitutes success. That may look very different for everyone else, and that’s ok. Are you being true to yourself, and if not, what choices are you going to make about that? 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd 

(*Registrar: The head of the central administrative service in a UK university.)

To Follow Your Heart

I posted the image above on my social media accounts a while ago and was amazed to find how much it resonated with people. Maybe you’re not tired, maybe you’re just doing too little of what makes you come alive. It’s a theme that has kept cropping up in my coaching sessions and in random conversations with people over these last couple of months, as well as something that has been particularly close to my heart this past year.  

I don’t know about you, but my energy typically comes in bursts – often in moments of palpable connection and chemistry when I find a kindred spirit, when I’m talking about things I care about a great deal, or when I’m completely absorbed in making a project that matters to me happen. It’s also a running joke in my family about my ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, and for rudely long periods. There are days when I’ve simply had no energy for anything at all, yet also others when I’ve been on fire. 

You have, most likely, experienced what it feels like to just get by in a job, your work environment or just life in general – your energy levels dip, motivation wanes and productivity suffers. I hope, however, that you will also have had moments of alchemy when everything seemed to be working out – when you believed yourself to be happy, you were surrounded by the hope of possibility, and your energy levels and motivation were correspondingly high. 

There’s a complex relationship between energy, motivation, productivity and happiness. I’ve written before about motivation and how we’re all driven to achieve three things: autonomy (the ability to behave with a sense of volition, endorsement, willingness and choice), competence (mastery of our environment), and relatedness through purpose (the ability to care about and connect to others and to a bigger cause). When those three conditions of autonomy, competence and purpose are in place, there’s a much higher chance that you’ll be able to find yourself in the zone of what positive psychologists call ‘flow’: the mental state of being completely immersed in what you’re doing, where your skill is equal to the challenge and you are enveloped in the focus of the present moment – a space for you to be more productive, creative, and yes, happy. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (credited with having popularised the concept of Flow) has described it thus:

(Flow is) being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (Wired interview, 1996)

You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

You’ll see from the images above that Flow has a number of key characteristics, but I like a bit of simplification, so where all these concepts come together for me is in recognition of this one thing: tapping into what, for you, is the meaning that makes life worth living. 

Meaning, I think, is the ultimate intrinsic motivator.  We catalyse our own happiness when we have meaningful goals that challenge us, yet are within our grasp, and when we’re able to direct and control our own actions in pursuit of those goals. 

In coaching I sometimes find that people feel happiness to be quite elusive, mainly because they’re looking for it anywhere but right here, right now. The thing about the energy of happiness, however, is that – unlike many of the events and things around us – harnessing this energy is very much within our control.1 Rather than expending energy on places, people and things that drain us, we can choose to direct our energy and presence into the optimal experience and ease of pursuing mastery of an area we care deeply about.

So where do you start? When working with my coaching clients we often look at the question of values pretty early on. ‘Values’, in straightforward terms, are the things that we stand for and how we want to behave as we move through life – they’re not something to be achieved, but rather what we want our lives to be about. Your set of values is individual to you, and when you connect with and set goals based on those values, you become able to take your life in meaningful directions even when the going gets tough. 

It’s helpful to think of them as a compass, giving you direction and keeping you on track as you go through life, setting and achieving goals along the way. Or perhaps like a lighthouse, guiding you on your way – your goal never being to obtain the lighthouse itself. Valuing is about the process and the journey, rather than the destination. 

There are plenty of tools and techniques to help people identify and clarify values. With my clients I like working with values card sort exercises (e.g. Carriochi and Bailey’s (2008) Survey of Life Principles) and questionnaires like Crace and Brown’s (2002) Life Values Inventory, but you can also do this old-school with a pen and paper, thinking about what matters to you in your life – you can split your life into as many areas as you like, or you may want to keep it simple with just a few key domains: work and education, love and relationships, health and wellbeing, and leisure and recreation. The values you identify might be obvious to others, or deeply personal to you, and there are no right or wrong answers. Perhaps your list might contain connecting with nature or having a life filled with adventure, or being self-sufficient, working with your hands, and making a lasting contribution to this earth. And then, perhaps the trickiest part: once you’ve clarified your values, it’s time to take a good close look at them and think about whether the life you’re leading is one that aligns with what you care about. 

What really matters to me, deep down?
What kind of person do I want to be?
What personal strengths or qualities do I want to develop?
What legacy would I like to leave?
And what am I going to do with these answers?

Plenty of people think of success in terms of goal achievement. If you do, I invite you now to consider an alternative to this, and see how it changes your thinking: success is living by your values. No matter how far your goals reach into the future (and no matter whether you ever achieve them), just like how happiness can be right here for you in this moment, so too can you have success right now – all that is required of you is that you choose to commit to your values, and start to work in the service of what really matters to you.2

This isn’t always going to be easy. You may have heard the adage that ‘fear and desire are two sides of the same coin’. If something really matters to you, when there’s a lot riding on something, the more it also matters if you don’t get what you want: what you desire is also what you fear to lose. 

British theologian John Henry Newman said, “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.” So ask yourself this question: Are you willing to face whatever comes when you’re heading in the direction you desire? Self-doubt, distress and anxiety are common when we’re seeking meaning. Willingness takes strength, but if you summon the strength to say ‘yes’ to overcome your fears, there is a whole world beyond what you think you already know, filled with possibility.   

And finally, that image I posted at the top of the article? This was the accompanying caption.

Life is fleeting. One day you may look back and see how you let time march on inexorably, passing you by. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Happiness doesn’t only come about through grand gestures; it is in the moment of unguarded laughter, finally learning to be who you are, the willingness to be vulnerable, the seeing of joy in the mundane, the purpose in the pain, and living out what really matters to you. Go big or small, as long as you go. 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

References

Carriochi, J. & Bailey, A. (2008). A CBT practitioner’s guide to ACT: How to bridge the gap between cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Crace, R. K., & Brown, D. (2002). Life Values Inventory. Williamsburg, VA: Applied Psychology Resources. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

How long is forever

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“How long is forever?” asked Alice. “Sometimes, just one second.” replied the White Rabbit.

There are dreams lasting but a moment in which everything is suspended in eternity.

Get more of those moments. Don’t be afraid to dive deep with someone. Love intensely. Make that connection, take that leap, embrace the now. It’s all we have – the past is gone, and the future is promised to no one.

Finisterre

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I took this photo yesterday on the beach and it made me think of ‘Finisterre’ by David Whyte: https://onbeing.org/poetry/finisterre/

“but because now, you would find a different way to tread, / and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on, / no matter how, over the waves.”

If you’re looking for something to read that makes you say yes! that’s exactly it, you just put into words exactly how I felt – have a look at Whyte’s poetry.

One of my other favourites is ‘Sweet Darkness’.

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you”.

Your world is so big and blue and beautiful. Go explore.

Come, let us go and try it – why…

Fyodor Dostoevsky quote

As we look ahead to Monday, and as you take on whatever challenges and journeys this week brings, I want you to remember this. Don’t be someone who looks back at the end of their life, wistful that they never took a chance and never followed their dreams, and is filled with regret for wasted potential and opportunity.

You want it, go and get it. Make it a priority. Support is vital – you don’t have to do it on your own. But you have to do it.

Come, let us go and try it – why dream about it?

Life, measured not in coffee spoons

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Are you making space for things in your life that truly excite you? (We’re not talking thrill-seeking, although I do like this photo from the Storm at this year’s Kenilworth Carnival.) Or, as T.S. Eliot’s Alfred J. Prufrock so memorably said, are you measuring out your life out in coffee spoons?

My life is better than your holiday

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(I’m not talking about my life vs. your holiday. That would be unbearably smug.)

I’ve had so many conversations in the past couple of weeks about people who are unhappy, whether that’s due to their work (or work culture and environment), their life situation, or because they’re drifting through the world without direction or purpose. Then they go on holiday and for one moment the world is great, the sun is shining and they’ve got a fabulous tan.

And then they come home and it’s back to normal programming, counting down to the next time they can get away.

Life shouldn’t be something you mostly try to escape from. If this is you, a better life could be just one decision away. Don’t settle. Make changes – small steps that are going to lead you towards a far more fulfilling existence.

What one thing are you going to do today to get you closer to the way you’d like to live?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

International Happiness Day 2019

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It’s International Happiness Day today and I was searching for a good quote to post. I rather like this one from Eric Hoffer, who was an American moral and social philosopher. I like it because I think happiness can be yours right here, right now, regardless of your life situation. I believe happiness is a choice. If you’re constantly searching for it, then you’ll be blind to the fact that perhaps you had it all along. It was just waiting to be discovered.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Choices

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Beauty as well as bread. The things that many of us often pursue – the well-paid career, the lifestyle, the things – don’t necessarily make us happy. I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn yesterday – an utterly beautiful story of strength and the will to keep going against some pretty awful odds. I love this quote from the book. What choices do we make in life? How much do we really need? Can you find perfect happiness in this spot of sun, this space of calm amidst the chaos, this tender pause? (Yes. And life is a collection of these moments.)

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Other people’s opinions about you are none of your…

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I love the texture of this concrete. I also think that this is a good reminder before we plunge into the next working week. Honestly, stop worrying about what other people are thinking. Do what you think should be done. Take the risk. Follow your dreams. Wear the bikini. You’ll look back on this day and realise that this was the day you took hold of your power and stopped letting other people (and yourself!) get in the way of your living this one precious life.