Months before he retired as the most-decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps described a peculiar feeling: “It’s like we dreamed the biggest dream we could possibly dream and we got there,” he said. “What do we do now?”
I’ve been turning over this quote in my head for weeks on the precipice of releasing my debut book. As a naturally ambitious person, I want the book to have an impact, which means I want lots of people to read it. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also crave the recognition and accolades that might, however unlikely, come my way.
But at the same time, the book’s core argument is that we should separate our self-worth from our achievement. Although comparing myself to Michael Phelps is like comparing a house cat to a tiger, many of us are struggling with a similar affliction: How do we square ambition with the acknowledgment that realizing it rarely leads to lasting fulfillment?
From the outside, it’s easy to wonder how a man at the peak of his career could suffer from such existential angst. But after interviewing more than a hundred workers in the past two years for the book, I can safely say Phelps is not alone. Ambitious professionals often discover that the view from the top of the career ladder is not what they expected.
Many people realized this during the pandemic, especially knowledge workers—many of whom claimed to have lost their ambition. From “quiet quitting” to the “Great Resignation,” ambition—or at least flaunting one’s ambition—seems to have fallen out of fashion. Perhaps this comes as a natural pushback to the era of hustle culture and girlbosses. But I can’t help but wonder where a large-scale shedding of ambition leaves us.
The data tells one story. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is at its lowest rate in nearly a decade, according to Gallup. Another study found that more than half of workers are questioning what role work should play in their life. But in all this discussion of whether ambition is good or bad, I believe we’re asking the wrong question. Ambition, after all, is the motor that powers excellence. We should ask where to direct our ambitions, not whether to be ambitious at all.
Ambition “is a dominant force in most civilizations, driving their greatest achievements and most horrific abuses,” Deborah L Rhode writes in her book Ambition: For What. Especially in the United States—a country whose core mythology centers on the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps—to be ambitious is to be patriotic.
Certainly, our culture of ambition has contributed to America becoming one of the richest and most innovative countries in the world. But as Rainesford Stauffer argues in her forthcoming book, All The Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive, that same ambition is “driving the burnout epidemic by funneling our worth into productivity, limiting our imaginations, and pushing us further apart.”
Earlier this month, US surgeon general Vivek Murthy declared loneliness a public health epidemic, citing our culture of overwork as one of its primary drivers. Deloitte estimates that over three-quarters of US workers have experienced burnout in their jobs. And after a few years during which we were all forced to confront the finitude of life, for many, the idea of grinding out a few more hours at the office lost its sheen.
The pandemic forced us to see that channeling all of our ambition into one aspect of our lives is to balance on a narrow platform, vulnerable to a strong gust of wind. And yet, a life without ambition should not be desired either. There’s even a medical term—avolition—for patients who lack any ambition whatsoever.
To reconcile the dangers of either extreme, I advocate for diversifying the sources of our ambition. As Stauffer claims in her book, you can be an ambitious friend, an ambitious plant parent, and an ambitious citizen. Much as an investor benefits from diversifying their investments, we too benefit from diversifying our aspirations.
I’m reminded of one ambitious overachiever I interviewed for the book named Liz Allen. Liz competed as a D-1 athlete in college, worked 70-hour weeks as a middle school science teacher, and eventually went back to school to become a lawyer. But as she ascended in her career, she also had to manage a chronic illness that limited her ability to be productive, which forced her to reckon with her identity beyond her work.
“When you start losing ‘I am’ statements at the rate that I’ve lost ‘I am’ statements, it gets scarier to keep going,” she told me. But Liz persisted. She found a community of other people online who refused to let their chronic illnesses define them. She learned how to create new “I am” statements that weren’t based on her output. “I am generous with my time, I am full of love, I am a good listener,” she told herself. She started to define herself by her enduring characteristics rather than by what she was able to produce.
Like Liz, we can choose to be ambitious about the realms of our life beyond our careers. We can be ambitious, for example, about tending to our health, building community, and showing up for the people we care about. We can be ambitious about when we rest, what we eat, and how we love. We can dream the biggest dream we can possibly dream, so long as the targets of our ambition are as multifaceted as we are.
Simone Stolzoff is the author of The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work, published this week by Penguin Random House.