Several years ago, I worked in England in a public dental health care setting. I worked in Community Dentistry, treating children, patients with special needs and dental phobics for the most part. One day a patient said to me that I was pretty good, and when would I make the big step and go into private practice, perhaps even have my own practice. I told him that I had actually worked in private practice before, and that owning a practice wasn’t on my to-do list. He asked me what was wrong with me – didn’t I have any ambition? I have thought about that question many times since then.
To those who have read this and thought that particular patient was a bit rude in what he said to me – he was. But people are rude to me every day – I have largely learned to ignore it. For me what it showed me was something more interesting – it showed me how people viewed ambition. And as the years have gone on, and I have had many conversations with people who strive to do all sorts of things, I have thought more and more about ambition. Now that I have reached this age (the age where people mostly believe they should have achieved their ambitions or be well on their way to reaching them) I learned some valuable lessons about it as well.
Contrary to that patient’s opinion, I thought I was hugely ambitious at the time. While owning a practice was never on my to-do list, there were lots of things I was ambitious about, and some of those things are still on my list – being fluent in another language and publishing my book to name a few. But for the most part, when people talk about ambition, it is mostly a perception of what they think of as climbing the ladder, depending on what field or position you are in. And one of the things I learned about this was that it is easy to get swept up in climbing the ladder without asking yourself if it is truly perched up against the correct wall, or without knowing what lies at the top.
I have been guilty of this over the years. It is easy to feel like you should keep taking steps up the ladder once you are on it. I have done this in both work and in voluntary organizations. When I was in voluntary organizations, I honestly thought that the higher I went the more I would be able to help and serve. When I have done it with work related organizations, I did it without even thinking sometimes – you just take the next step, and then the next. Sometimes it is ambition that drives this – a desire to reach a particular place in the organization for prestige or for financial reasons. Sometimes it is fear – because you don’t want to be left behind or be perceived not to be growing within the organization. Sometimes you don’t even notice you are doing it until you are almost all the way up the ladder and you look around wondering where you are, how you got there, and whether you want to be there at all!! One example for me that I noticed when I found myself President of my Optimist club was that it was managing of people and processes and I felt really far away from the reasons that I had joined the organization in the first place. While I did it and I think I did a reasonable job, I realized in that instant that I wasn’t enjoying it, and that just because I could do something didn’t mean that I should.
For me the biggest part of this lesson I learned was that my ambitions needed to be in line with my values, and to think about those things before I went barreling up any more ladders, in work or in life. It was ok if my ambition was to work less and travel more as opposed to opening a practice. It was ok if my ambition is to rent a tiny house, or become more minimalist, as opposed to buying or building something big. And as I looked around, I noticed that for some people, it was ok to take a pay cut or a position that may be perceived below where they currently were – to spend more time with their children. It is ok to end a project to give yourself space to begin another one. It is ok to walk away from one career to pursue another. I learned that ambition can go in any direction you want it to. I have a few friends who have been criticized for becoming entrepreneurs because family and friends thought a “stable job” was a better ambition. And equally – in my example that I gave earlier, I was criticized for doing the “stable job” and not going out on my own. Consider that it may be just as ambitious to climb up the ladder as it is to climb down, and perhaps move it to another wall so that you can end up somewhere you actually want to be, depending on what is important to you. As for me, I am sticking with my ambitions – and I am being ok with not being seen to aim for the sky. I would love to hear about your experiences with this! Comment below!!
And until next time, I send you big love from a small island!
PS the photo above - me living out one of my ambitions - watching the sun set over the grand canyon...