I’ve always embraced my ambition. It was encouraged in me as a kid as much as respecting authority and never ever smoking weed. I was ambitious about everything: grades, college applications, making money, sports.
In high school I was a particularly ambitious athlete. I wanted to qualify for state in track and spent all of my energy tailoring my life to meet this goal. I went to camps in the summer (#dedicated). I put myself on a rigid no-sugar diet (#sweetenough). I carried 4 bottles of water to school every day (#hydrated). I once scolded a teammate for smoking weed and wasting their talent (#lol).
Yeah, I was intense.
At the last track meet of the season, the goal I’d worked toward for years was slipping away and I panicked. I choked, both metaphorically and physically. I had two chances. During the first race, each runner that passed made my throat tighten a bit more until only tiny sips of air could get through. I came in second to last. There were inhalers and emergency trips to an allergy specialist and rounds of breathing treatments. In the second race, my last chance, the same thing happened. I didn’t make it to state. I spent months trying to understand why, after all that ambition and sacrifice, I wasn’t able to execute.
In my framework of achievement above all else, I didn’t have a word for that closed-throated feeling. But putting the pieces together as an adult with a little more self-compassion, I realized that it wasn’t the first time I’d felt that way. My ambition was often a mask for my anxiety.
I wanted desperately to be good, to be great at something. But I couldn’t tell when that ambitious energy went from cooking with gas to a whole damn kitchen fire.
Anxiety and ambition are two sides of the same fire-forged coin, and in our cult of productivity, anxiety can easily be written off as ambition.
Is that burning-gut feeling motivation or rumination? Is my energy to stay up all night and make changes to that draft determined confidence or uncontrolled panic? Is my refusal to work without a legal pad with white pages a credit to my eye for detail or an obsession with expectations?
I made a chart to help me when I can’t tell the difference.
Ambition feels like confidence, is open to best case scenarios, encourages worthwhile sacrifice, and can see the big picture. Anxiety feels like panic, has a hard-on for worst case scenarios, encourages martyrdom, and can only see unmet expectations.
A little bit of both is the sweet spot for collaboration, making and crossing things off to-do lists, and those pesky nervous poos.
Both ambition and anxiety play a role in manifesting your best life, but they demand very different responses.
Feeling ambitious? Dream big, ride the wave, do the thing.
Feeling anxious? Focus on reality, disrupt the current, take a break.
So next time you’re wondering whether you should light a J and take a bath or brew a pot of coffee and power through ask: is this ambition or is it anxiety?