Ambition is Overrated. I’m Choosing to Be Content Instead.

Why I’m abandoning my ambitious attitude this year to focus on cultivating contentment.

I have always been an ambitious person — it feels like an intrinsic part of my personality. I don’t start something unless I’m planning to become very good at it. I hate being bad at things.

At eight years old, I decided I was going to become a bestselling author. I haven’t quit that dream since. As a young adult, I dedicated myself to improving my writing, to learning and practicing, and building a platform as an author.

But ambition also takes its toll. The price of aiming for perfection is a deep dissatisfaction with everything you create or do. This sense of dissatisfaction, of striving for society’s definition of success, leaves me unhappy with myself whenever I don’t reach a goal.

The problem is, when things aren’t going well I am prone to quitting. I know this is a bad habit. In an effort to combat it, I recently read Seth Godin’s little book The Dip, an instruction manual on quitting. In his book, Seth talks out how to quit things more strategically based on the titular concept, the dip.

Basically, the dip happens when things get hard. You launched a business or started writing a book, and now your sales numbers are stagnant or you’re puttering around the middle of what’s beginning to feel like a very boring novel.

But according to Seth, this is not the time to quit. The time to quit was before you even started. Because if you quit now, all the time and energy and money you put toward this endeavor is wasted. Gone. If you quit, you have to start from scratch on your next project.

It turns out that people who habitually jump projects are expending energy and time on things they shouldn’t.

If they were to stick it out and make it through the dip, they’d come out on the other side with far less competition. The dip weeds out those who aren’t serious or committed or deeply want their goal. You can put yourself at the top of the pack by making it through the dip, Seth argues. The trick is to not commit to a project that will dead end, and then to see it through after you start.

I’m not an entrepreneur, but Seth’s little manual on quitting really resonated with me. I picked it up because I’m something of a serial job-quitter. Since I don’t have an undergraduate degree yet, I’m forced to hop around minimum-wage jobs with frustrating schedules and little to no benefits. This has been a frustrating problem for me over the past few years — finding a job worth sticking around.

I thought maybe Seth’s book would help me sort out my goals and stick with something. Instead I realized I was thinking about quitting the wrong things. What I really need to do is quit the stuff preventing me from focusing on my biggest goals, like writing and publishing books.

I waste time on social media. I waste time at low-paying jobs. I waste energy mucking around when I could be writing. What Seth’s book helped me realize is that I need to be more strategic about what I decide to commit to, and I need to stick it out when I do commit.

Is this starting to sound familiar? Many of us find ourselves in a situation where we’re dissatisfied and so we quit and start over. Maybe the trick is learning to be content. If you’re satisfied with your progress, as slow as it may be, doesn’t that mean you’re more likely to see your goals through?

That’s why my theme for 2021 is “contentment.”

Every January, I choose a word to focus on throughout the year instead of making a New Year’s Resolution. You can break or fail at a resolution, but a word or theme is simply something to meditate on throughout the year. It can’t go wrong (unless you forget it, of course.)

I’m choosing the word content — a feeling of satisfaction, a sense of enough. I selected it because it contrasts with my usual attempts to be more ambitious. It’s not that I’m settling or giving up, it’s that I want to quit the wrong things so I can focus on the right stuff. The right stuff — the job I like, my goals and healthy habits — makes me feel fulfilled.

Feeling fulfilled is more important than achieving one thing after another like an accomplishment to-do list. After a while, that mindset makes accomplishments feel more like chores.

I can’t relax until I write another viral article. I can’t slow down until I’ve produced enough content, secured another client, sold more product. Whatever it is we’re focused on accomplishing, it sucks us in so deep we forget what it means to just be okay with what we already have.

I know, I know — suggesting we accomplish less probably doesn’t fit in well with the entrepreneurial status quo of overworking ourselves and obsessing over our ambitions. But I’ve been an ambitious person my whole life. I’m ready for a little break. I want to remember why I’m doing what I do in the first place.

I love to write, and this year I’m refocusing on feeling content with my writing. I know I will write more if my perfectionism doesn’t get in the way.

If ambition is the enemy of satisfaction, and satisfaction is the key to happiness, what does that say about ambitious people?

We are a terribly unhappy bunch. Nothing meets our expectations because we’ve set our sights so high. We have to in order to stand out from the crowd.

But here’s the thing. I’m disenchanted with hustle culture. I care more about feeling satisfied — and therefore, happy — than I do about winning at whatever my current goal is. I’m in this life for the long run, not the short-term payoffs. That means I need to trust the process.

The process can take a long time. Bestselling authors aren’t made overnight, even though to the public it often seems like they are. No, those authors spent years working on their writing, planning and plotting and crafting their book, and overnight success after hitting the New York Times’ Bestseller List is only the tip of the iceberg. You know, the part the rest of us can see from far away.

If I’m content with the progress I’m making, I can enjoy the long process. Good things take time, and I am working on being content with that. If I feel satisfied, it’s more likely I’ll feel happy. And that’s what I’m really chasing after anyway.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store