Category: Journey

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.

And through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you

 

I’ve felt several times over the past eight months like life was unravelling. Things falling apart; questioning maxims I’d thought I lived by; reevaluating lots of things about me and my relationships with various people. When I’ve lost ground in the past my faith has always been there for me but lately I’ve felt distanced from that too. It’s been an interesting time.

This week I visited Salisbury Cathedral and was struck by the beautiful font in the nave and the reflections in the water.

This life has got to be about something beyond yourself. Something bigger than you. Not necessarily God, if that isn’t part of your belief system. But as humans we naturally seek meaning, purpose and connection. What am I doing this for? For whom am I doing this? Who’s got my back?

Finisterre

AA6DC17F-A11C-47AA-A25C-28EE67EE8039

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.

What is to give light must endure burning

What is to give light must endure burningYou will gain strength from the things that have broken you, and be filled with light from the things that have burned you.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Choices

6385A0F1-1B76-432B-BEAC-6A43247B5F39

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

Suit of armour

suitofarmourWhen we protect ourselves so that we don’t get hurt, that protection can become like armour. It keeps out the potential damage, but it can also shield us from the things that we need to be touched by. I think in order to love we have to be willing to accept the possibility of pain. I want to live life wide open, welcoming in the kindness and the tenderness of this world alongside its sorrow. I want to let my guard down and leave the armour behind; it only imprisons the heart.

So allow people to get to know the real and authentic you, and see where it takes you. Try wearing your heart on your sleeve. Take a chance, take a leap of faith, place your trust in people. Not everyone will like you, but that’s ok. Plunge in and find someone who will love you as fiercely as you them.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Phoenix from the flames

Copy of Forgiveness

Those wounds let the light in. Find your purpose within them and let it lead you.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Blooming, like a rose

rose bloomingElizabeth Appell wrote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

It’s sometimes said that hitting rock bottom can truly be the making of you. Unlike in the velvety rut of your comfort zone, you are galvanised into action, because the perceived risk of change pales in comparison to the pain of staying where you are. So you change, and you learn, and you grow, and look at that – that rose – is that you? Why, yes, yes it is; finally unfurling. That’s the beauty of you, in you all along.

Come with me, take my hand, and let’s step onto the path to this adventure together.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Procrastination and perfectionism

Earlier this week I read an article on BBC News, which reported on a recent study that had provided physiological evidence of how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation (such as when you’re trying to keep on task), and how procrastination is a problem much more to do with managing emotions than it is to do with managing time. (Lots more information on this is available at procrastination.ca.)

I’m no scientist, but here’s a highly-simplified representation of your brain, so if you’re also a non-scientist you can visualise what I (hope I know I) am talking about.

three-brainsOne thing I found particularly interesting about the article was that the study showed that the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and deals with motivation and emotion, was larger in procrastinators. It also showed that in these individuals, the connections between the amygdala and another part of the brain, the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), weren’t as good as in the non-procrastinators. (The ACC, which sits in between the ’emotional’ limbic system and the ‘cognitive’ prefrontal cortex (part of the neocortex), takes information from the amygdala and uses this to decide what action the body will take as a result. It helps keep us on task and on track by enabling us to filter out emotions and distractions.)

So what does this all mean? If your amygdala’s more active, and your brain isn’t filtering that information out effectively, your decision-making and task-management ability can suffer. In sum, how our brains are wired can determine whether we’re more likely to get on with a task or continually put it off.

All this made me start reflecting on the work I’ve done with clients who have wanted help with time management. Inevitably, the core issue has not in fact been to do with time management. Instead, the difficulty of completing tasks has been interwoven with feelings of overwhelm and not being good enough; avoidance of tasks that trigger feelings of anxiety; and a deep-seated fear of what the client views as failure. A lot of this often has its roots in patterns learnt in childhood – enter the loud inner critic and the continual need to prove oneself through doing everything well.

In job interviews, when asked to talk about one’s weaknesses, one answer that often gets used is “I’m a real perfectionist and have high standards, and this can mean I spend more time than necessary getting things just right.” The idea, of course, is to present a weakness that you don’t actually see as a weakness. The trouble with this (apart from the cliched answer – which I don’t recommend, by the way) is that I don’t think perfectionism really has anything to do with standards and with getting things right. Rather, it’s an inability to be happy with what you have achieved because there is always room for more improvement: “Good, better, best; never let it rest. Till your good is better, and your better best.” It’s not a pursuit of excellence, it’s an endless cycle of nothing you do ever being adequate. It’s the constant, unhappy refrain of “if I don’t do a stellar job then I am not good enough”. Perfectionism and low self-esteem are a great double-act, and have been shown to be associated with anxiety and depression. 

For the perfectionist, working drafts are often anathema – you want things to be just right straightaway. You dislike being a beginner; if you’re going to do something you want to be good at it from the get-go. You get bogged down in the details, crafting and re-crafting something to try and get it just-so. Instead of relaxing into and enjoying the process of learning and growth, you are constantly assessing your performance. You think you’ve failed if you haven’t driven yourself to deliver anything less than perfect.

The constant need to live up to what are actually quite unrealistic and unfair expectations of yourself can be an exhausting struggle. Far easier to avoid doing something, because then you also avoid the negative emotions associated with it. And that is precisely what happens: you put off doing things because they trigger your anxiety about inadequacy in some way. I can’t face that right now. There’s too much to think about. I need to have time to do it properly. Over time, this can lead to complete overwhelm.

How do you break this cycle? Let’s first be clear – like anything else that takes a lifetime to build up, these negative patterns will take time to fix. But the important thing is to recognise that they can be changed. I believe that that change starts with learning self-compassion. In self-compassion, acceptance is key: accepting what is, what was, who you are and how you think and feel, without judgment. I think an important aspect of self-compassion is also self-forgiveness – learning to let go of not just the past and its regrets, but also all the future possible somebodies or somebody elses you may feel you need to become, in order to allow yourself to come fully into the present.

I’ve written several previous posts about mindfulness and meditation and thoroughly recommend this as a valuable partner in the journey towards being kind to yourself. Briefly back to the science – research has shown that mindfulness meditation is related to shrinkage of the amygdala and expansion of the prefrontal cortex. Learning to love yourself, in other words, literally changes your brain.

If this article has struck a chord with you, and you’re looking for support in your journey, coaching can help. Do get in touch. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some short-term practical assistance: there are tools out there that can help you get to grips with tasks when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I often use this action-priority matrix with clients:

Copy of Action-priority matrix-2

You may well have seen something similar – a common one is the ‘urgent vs. important’ matrix – but this particular rendition is a PICK chart (Plan-Implement-Consider-Kick Out) and the idea is that you categorise your tasks in terms of their relative impact vs. effort. So:

  • Low effort, high impact: Quick wins, go do them now. A complementary exercise I often use with clients is what I call “What One Thing (are you going to do today)?”   
  • Low effort, low impact: These are ‘time-fillers’ – consider doing them if you want to, but they shouldn’t be your go-to pile all the time.
  • High effort, low impact: (Don’t. Unless you have an actual obligation to do so.)
  • High effort, high impact: This is often where the procrastination comes in and, together with the Implement quadrant, is where clients typically need to focus. These are tasks that you need to do but can’t be done in one sitting. They require planning, and benefit from task breakdowns and micro-resolutions (small, achievable goals).

I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, why not subscribe to my mailing list so you don’t miss future updates?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd