Growing up, I had a fraught relationship with ambition. My deepest fear was not fulfilling my potential. To paraphrase Paul Graham in his Cities & Ambitions, I was one of those ambitious kids who possessed ambition that seemed to precede anything specific to be ambitious about. I just knew I wanted to do something great. I was singularly focused on working hard, being the best I could be, and maximizing my impact in any way I could.

For an immigrant in 21st century America, there are traditional standards of impact to strive towards: become a doctor, lawyer, engineer or go into business. I began my undergraduate career studying economics on the pre-law track. When it became clear to me that economics was largely theoretical and that many of my most ambitious peers were pursuing finance, I swiftly transferred to the business school.

When companies began recruiting on campus, I gravitated towards the highest “impact” jobs (read: highest status and highest paying). I pursued roles at investment banks and investment funds. When I landed my first full-time job at an investment fund, I poured my energy into proving my value as a new graduate. I developed a strong work ethic, prioritizing work over everything else to lay the groundwork for making partner at the firm one day.

When my interests and ambitions no longer aligned with my career trajectory in finance, I tried my hand at working in venture capital and then in early stage tech. With each pivot, I convinced myself that this new job and company was it — where I would unleash my full ambition and where it would finally flourish.

I would become infatuated with my new role and responsibilities, dreaming of how my future would unfold at the company. Naturally, I’d benchmark my self-worth against the progress I was making towards that reality, measured in the form of expanded responsibilities, promotions, and salary raises. This is what I believed ambition to be: being achievement-driven and outcomes-orientated with a commitment to relentless hustle.

In this paradigm, my ego drove my ambition which was fueled by a lack of worthiness. I thought to be worthy, I must prove that I was extraordinary by societal standards. If I changed the world then I’d be baseline worthy.

When we’re motivated by deep insecurity, we strive towards collecting accomplishments that are deemed impressive by others, but rarely does that lead us towards a life that we would have otherwise chosen for ourself. The sentiment of “I can do more, I can be more” is buoyed by the notion that you should do more regardless of what you want to do. No amount of success will quench our desire to be enough. We keep the hedonic treadmill running, fueled by a bottomless pit of proving ourself to others.

Ironically, in my attempt to quell the fear of not fulfilling my potential, I inadvertently stifled my ambition by constraining my focus to pursuits that were deemed ambitious by other people. The insidious nature of fueling our ambition from a place of lack is that rather than setting us free, our achievements only amp up the speed on the societal treadmill.

When we channel our ambition towards fulfilling society’s shoulds over our own intuition, we’re actualizing a life that wasn’t meant for us. We feel it in the drain on our life force, the persistent silencing of the things that call to us, the whispers of is this all? Self-actualization doesn’t happen if we’re actualizing for others and not our self.

ambitious to what end?

When we begin to deconstruct why we do the things we do and seek to understand our underlying motivations, it may be surprising to find that the depth of our ambition is quite shallow.

We’re conditioned to believe that to be ambitious is a good thing, but what are we all seeking through our ambition? When it comes down to it: why we’re ambitious and how we apply our ambition matters.

I'd always considered ambition a good thing, but I realize now that was because I'd always implicitly understood it to mean ambition in the areas I cared about. When you list everything ambitious people are ambitious about, it's not so pretty.

— Paul Graham, Cities & Ambitions

Ambition comes in many forms and flavors — each unique to us. When we’re young, we’re taught to see the pursuit of ambition through the lens of what was valued in our family system whether that be starting and owning a business, climbing up the corporate ladder, starting a family, or pursuing the worthy path.

The reality is that there are infinite flavors of ambition and paths to walk. When we begin to see the constraints we’ve boxed ourselves into, we can make conscious the games we’re playing. Make sure that the ambitions you’ve opted into are the ones you want to pursue for the long haul. If they’re not, it’s in your power to release yourself from those that no longer serve you and redirect your attention to playing a new set of games.

The beauty of ambition and self-expression is that it’s distinct to each of us. If we have the courage, tuning into our flavor of ambition has the power to free us. Increasingly, we’re seeing more examples of people who are doing the internal work and creating new reference points for how we can realize our greatest aspirations. The leaders who build companies to change the trajectory of humanity and lead their teams with high integrity, lifting up those around them along the way. The creators and writers who commit their energy to carving new unconventional paths, trading the stability of a 9-5 job for pouring their life force into the work that calls to them and bringing others along for the journey.

When we give ourselves the permission to blaze our own path in service of our purest ambition, not only are we tapping into new levels of meaning in our own life, we’re giving others the permission to focus their energy to make their maybe someday dreams a reality before it’s too late.

the transition to clean fuel

When I started my inner work journey, I feared too much introspection would make me soft and dull my edge. What if being introspective drained me of my ambition? What if I became complacent?

In actuality, putting a witness on my insecurities, triggers, and shadows has given me the power to empathize with my unintegrated parts: the inner critic who pushes me beyond my limits, the night owl who self-sabotages my early bedtime to do just a little bit more work, the impact-obsessed yes woman who takes on too much in an effort to prove herself.

As I integrate these parts, I’m undergoing a purification process: an act of aligning my ego with my will and my soul. My ego is no longer the sole driver of my ambition — instead, its guided by the wisdom of my will and soul.

As I trade my reliance on other people’s barometer for ambition for my own, it feels like a homecoming: a return to my roots, a grounding in my truth, and a transition of fuel source from dirty to clean.

I no longer outsource my ambition to be dictated by everyone else. And as a result, I’m far more ambitious than ever before. My ambition is fueled by my will to redefine what human flourishing means in this century, my soul’s desire to create new reference points of possibility and permission for those around me that pursuing our purest ambition is possible in this lifetime, and my ego’s confidence that it’s time to bet on myself.

The transition to clean fuel has expanded my horizon of possibility. It’s unveiled that there are far more ways to walk the path towards fulfilling my ambition than the narrow path I was marching down. And I trust that my ambition will guide me to places that I can’t even begin to imagine.

By turning towards the unconscious and making it conscious, I’ve gotten underneath my greatest fear. When I ask myself what would I do if I was unafraid of my greatest fear?, a new response has emerged. It turns out my greatest fear is actually pursuing my purest ambitions — trusting that I can rely on my intuition, resourcefulness, and drive to achieve the reality that only I can self express and breathe life into.

In my essay introducing my vision for human flourishing, I shared that:

I want to empower ambitious people to fuel their greatest aspirations from a foundation of wholeness and security.

When we operate from a place of baseline worthiness and enoughness, we have the capacity to tap into our most genuine desires and soften into building a life where we thrive, being bold enough to bet on ourselves and our greatest ambitions.

There are a million ways to honor your ambition. The key is owning it like your life depends on it. No one, no leader, no organization will think about the highest and best way for you to apply your purest ambition. It’s up to each of us to unleash our flavor of ambition in its fullest expression and build a meaningful life along the way.

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The title made me expect a different essay which talked about the resources consumed by ambition to let it blaze high. 

Also, could you expand on this paragraph by giving more concrete detail? 

In actuality, putting a witness on my insecurities, triggers, and shadows has given me the power to empathize with my unintegrated parts: the inner critic who pushes me beyond my limits, the night owl who self-sabotages my early bedtime to do just a little bit more work, the impact-obsessed yes woman who takes on too much in an effort to prove herself.

How did you convince these parts? How long did it take? How easy was it to identify them (sounds not too hard if they map 1-1 to behaviours)? Have you stopped these self-sabotaging behaviours?