An Effective Guide to Being More Ambitious
When you’re jaded and complacent here’s how to raise the bar.
We all have big dreams. As children, we aim for the stars. Spaceman, train driver, professional singer, and chef were a few jobs I had contemplated by 10 years old.
But we’re hardwired to hate risks and uncertainty. As time goes on, we realize these goals are quite far-fetched. Our childhood dreams start to fade, we settle down and get caught in a repetitive cycle.
We get accustomed to the life we live, avoid risks and let our ambitions fade.
With the clock ticking and time running out, we settle for less than we once hoped. Our dream job slips through the net, we stop searching for our ideal home or chasing that perfect relationship.
That’s not to say we don’t have goals. Most of us apply small aims to our daily lives. We exercise twice a week, save 20 percent of our paychecks, and eat healthily.
The benefits of goal-setting are undeniable. They help us focus our attention, trigger new behaviors and adjust our habits. But why are we neglecting our big dreams? How do we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, and set ambitious goals?
Be Goal Inconsistent
Ambition is all about mindset. If you’re: not willing to take a risk; not prepared for the work involved; convinced your goals will always be beyond reach, then it’s no surprise you limit yourself. Why would you chase something you believe is unattainable? Telling ourselves a task is impossible causes performance anxiety and encourages us to give up.
Professor Mirjam Tuk recognized the importance of mindset, but was convinced we could use it to our advantage. She performed a study to determine how best to encourage others to set ambitious goals.
According to her, how you frame a goal influences your motivation to see it through. She analyzed two different ways of perceiving our actions:
- Goal-consistent decisions. Thinking about how many goal-orientated activities we must engage in to successfully achieve our aim. For example, “I will work out 4 days this week.”
- Goal-inconsistent decisions. Thinking of how many goal-orientated activities we avoid, while still achieving our aim. For example, “I will have 3 days off this week.”
Tuk found those who focus on goal-inconsistent decisions were more ambitious. Why? Because making a decision inconsistent with your goals can trigger negative emotions of guilt; which will motivate you to work harder and set higher goals.
In our example, someone focused on goal inconsistencies will regret taking 3 days off. So might raise the bar and work for 5 or more.
By contrast, those making goal-consistent decisions were less likely to feel negative emotions. To paraphrase: “neither the situation nor positive words of encouragement affected the level of goals set.”
The takeaway? If you want to set higher goals, stop focusing on your hard work, and start analyzing those actions inconsistent with your goals. There’s always room for improvement. Rather than settling, doing so highlights these areas for growth. It guilts you into making a change.
Surround Yourself With Ambitious People
“We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.”
We are greatly influenced by those closest to us. Research tells us those around us dictate our thinking, self-esteem, and decisions. Our schema (cognitive framework) of what “normal” comes from our friends:
- If they are lazy, we normalize that behavior, and the bar is set low. Anything you do will seem impressive compared to them.
- If we surround ourselves with driven people, our conception of success is drastically shifted. With the bar set much higher and our friends proving anything is possible, we will be motivated to work harder.
Surrounding yourself with ambitious people is also an opportunity to learn and observe their habits and thought processes. Having been on a similar journey, they can cheer you on and provide support when things get tough.
A few years back, I decided to switch friendship groups. I surrounded myself with those better aligned with my values. Ever since I’ve felt more comfortable in myself. With the standards of the group focused on similar goals, it’s much easier to stay authentic and driven.
Find Your Critics
Receiving positive, supportive feedback is always a confidence booster. But the ambitious don’t want to be surrounded by yes-people.
According to a 2012 study by S.R. Finkelstein, novices and beginners prefer positive feedback. But experts who want to grow prefer hearing the negative. Rather than focusing on their success, they learn about their downfalls, which offer an opportunity to improve.
Just as importantly, doing so will help build mental toughness. To paraphrase Glenn Llopis (Forbes): the more ambitious and successful you become, the more criticism you will face.
To ensure criticism doesn’t dishearten you, you need to learn to cope as soon as possible. What better way to do that than to practice with the people who care about you?
Stop Waiting Until You “Feel Like It”
In his 2013 book, Oliver Burkeman argues when we give up on our dreams and say something like:
“I can’t get myself to wake up before 9am”
…we really mean we can’t convince ourselves to feel like doing it. Physically, nothing is stopping us from working on our goals: we just don’t want to start.
We want to feel like doing it — to achieve our goals — but we can’t make ourselves feel like it. We can’t always control our emotions, they just are the way they are.
According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., the problem is we think that to work effectively, we need to feel like it. We tell ourselves that to succeed, we need to be eager and raring to go — and any moment we’re not, we should not bother trying.
That’s utter nonsense. In Halvorson’s words:
“Yes, on some level you need to be committed to what you are doing… But [to succeed] you don’t need to feel like doing it.”
As Burkemen points out in his book, most prolific artists and innovators became so in part because of their willingness to work when they don't feel like it; which is to go above and beyond.
Most of them achieved this by sticking to a rigid work routine that forced them to work for their goals, even when they don’t feel like it. In the words of Chuck Close (as referenced by Burkemen):
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
The takeaway? Stop limiting your ambition to the times you “feel like it.” Stop putting off your dreams because you’re not eager and raring to go. Remember you don’t need to feel like it. Nothing is stopping you. To achieve your goals, you just need to show up.
As children, we aim for stars. With our big dreams and aspirations, we think anything is possible.
But we’re hardwired to hate risk and uncertainty. As time goes on, we realize our dreams were far-fetched. With the clock running down, we give up on them and settle for less than we once hoped.
If you want to push yourself to achieve the goals you once dreamed of, become more ambitious by:
- Reflecting on your goal inconsistencies. Rather than focusing on all your hard work, consider the times you neglected your goals. Doing so will shine a light on your weakness, and encourage you to raise the bar.
- Surround yourself with ambitious people. Being the smartest person in a room is never a good thing. If you want to keep growing, find people who encourage you to keep growing.
- Stop waiting until you “feel like it.” There’s never a right time to chase your goals. To achieve them, you just have to show up.
Don’t give up on your dreams. They’re not as far-fetched as you once thought. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt:
“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.