The small print on ambition

sunset-summer-golden-hour-paul-filitchkin (2)We’re often encouraged to dream big, aim high and shoot for the stars. There’s nothing wrong in having ambition, passion or drive; they can be what gets us out of bed in the morning and keep us challenging ourselves to improve. However, when we define our success only as a single moment or the pinnacle of our journey, we should be mindful of the small print because there are likely to be things outside of our control that may frustrate our plans and take that final moment from our grasp.

My son is quite interested in cooking and baking, and when I wandered into the living-room the other day, he was watching the Great British Menu on iPlayer with top chefs competing for the honour of catering for guests at a banquet. As the drama unfolded, it reminded me about how important it is to think carefully about how we set our measures of success.

I was personally amazed by the skill of the competitors; they were undoubtedly brilliant and their dishes were meticulously created works of culinary art. However, as their fellow chefs and the official judges critiqued their efforts, opinions varied wildly. For one person, the flavouring was spot on, for another it was almost tasteless, for one the addition of a mousse worked and for another it added nothing.

I have no idea how the chefs had set their own measures, but if they had decided that success and happiness depended on winning then most were destined to define the experience as a failure and feel pretty miserable. There were lots of competitors and very few winning spots, and they did not have ultimate control over the outcome of the competition because it relied on the subjective opinions of the judges.

In the same way, if you’re working towards a promotion at work, there are things that are outside your control: there might be a freeze on promotions this year, a project that would have given you a chance to prove your skills might be cancelled, or someone else aiming for the same post might just have the edge over you. If you’re heading into an exam, you don’t control what questions are on the paper or where the cut off for the top grade is set. If you set up your own business, you don’t control the ebb and flow of economics, or whether a valued contact in a company now operates to a restricted supplier list and can no longer use your services.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I was studying for my degree. Although I never voiced it, my only real measure of success was a first class honours, and I studied incredibly hard for three years, sacrificing the majority of the usual trappings of student life, to secure my success. Just after our final set of exams, the list of students called for a viva was published, and my name was on it. It was widely believed that a viva was used to assess students on the cusp between one degree class and another, and so I assumed that I had dropped below the cut off for a first. The idea that all that work and sacrifice had failed to secure my only measure of success was almost intolerable. I had never seen the journey as anything more than a means to an end, and so in that moment, I was utterly devastated. Thankfully, I had some very good friends around who helped me reframe and pull myself together for one more challenge.

There are plenty of things that are in our control. The chefs, for example, might have decided that success meant delivering the dish that they wanted to deliver to the standard they know they are capable of. Even then, they might have to take outside circumstances into account, e.g. if the temperature in the kitchen meant that an element of the dish took longer to set than they had planned for, they might need to shift the parameters, e.g. did I do my best in the circumstances I found myself in? In my own example above, I could have decided that success was learning as much as I could in the time that I had, and walked away happy regardless of the final result.

So, does this mean we should never set our sights on an aspirational goal and do our very best to get there? Not necessarily, but it helps if we see goals of that kind as a focus for our efforts and energy rather than our only source of happiness and satisfaction. We can then set measures of success along the way as things that we do have control over. This will be more likely to leave us feeling successful and resilient in the face of setbacks. Whether we achieve that aspirational goal or not, we can still see ourselves as valuable, worthwhile and successful, and there’s plenty of happiness and learning to be had on the journey.

Why not take time out for a proper coffee break today (you know, the sort where you actually stop working) and reflect on your own measures of success. Are you assuming that there’s only one way to feel successful; only one moment that defines or validates you? Have you told yourself, maybe without realising it, “I’ll be happy when…”? How have you set your measures of success, and are they completely within your control? If not, what is under your control; what measures of success could you set that would be challenging, but achievable?

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