We all have ambition. Our ambition might involve a healthy balance of hunger and humility, perseverance and perspective. Or our ambition might have soured—we might be grasping for our dreams at the expense of our own and others’ well-being. We might be drifting further and further into full-scale ambition addiction.
How do we determine whether our ambition is helpful or harmful? How can we detect ambition addiction?
As someone who has personally struggled with ambition addiction and who has helped numerous people navigate this confounding terrain, I have identified seven signs and symptoms of ambition addiction:
1. Grandiose Dreams
As ambition addicts, we imagine detailed fantasies of the wondrous, happy endings toward which we strive—and we picture ourselves enjoying life free from insecurity, vulnerability, heartache and fear.
2. Contempt for the Present and Reverence for the Future
Present reality, colored by shades of gray, can never and will never measure up to the fixed, fantastical future depicted in our dreams. As such, we ambition addicts view the present moment as a waiting room to endure. We’re frequently looking down the pike, fixing our eyes on what’s to come.
3. Manic Pace
In a choice between “easy does it” or “fast and furious,” ambition addicts will always choose fast and furious. We’re forever in a rush, impatient with others, resentful of distractions and very, very busy.
4. Anxiety and Depression
Ambition addicts yearn to free ourselves from insecurity and vulnerability. When life presents us with loose ends, confusion, frailties and fallibility, we ambition addicts become neurotic and panicked. Ambition addicts also tackle each day with seriousness and severity. Although the occasional victory might elevate our mood, we all too soon descend into disappointment, disillusionment, doom and gloom.
5. Entitlement and Jealousy
We ambition addicts boldly assert our agendas and expect others to kowtow. When competitors rise high, we can be consumed by jealousy, viewing our own lives with contempt and disparaging whatever gains we’ve previously made.
6. Difficulty Relaxing and Enjoying Simple Pleasures
We ambition addicts have a hard time relaxing. Unscheduled hours make us nervous. Open-ended days fill us with dread. We find it challenging to enjoy simple pleasures. If we must unwind, we prefer to do so through competitive activities or quantifiable hobbies.
7. Categorical and Calculating Opinions of Others
To actualize our dreams, we ambition addicts assiduously ascertain who, among our family, friends, community members and colleagues can help us achieve our goals. We prioritize interactions with these individuals over interactions with those we deem peripheral to our progress.
After reading this list, some of us might have the uncanny sensation that our inner existence has been laid bare before us. Like it or not, ambition addiction fits.
If we ignore this diagnosis and continue with business as usual, we risk inflicting damage upon others and ourselves. Ambition addiction can bruise our bodies; the perpetual stress, the invariable fight-or-flight, thickens our arteries, frays our nerves and dramatically increases our risk of a heart attack or stroke.
The more savage our drive to succeed, the more willingly we abandon those who dare disturb our dreams.
Ambition addiction can also strain our most cherished relationships. The more savage our drive to succeed, the more willingly we abandon those who dare disturb our dreams. Colleagues become competitors. Family and friends, dead weight. For the sake of our dreams, we deafen our ears and burn bridges.
As with any addiction, though, recovery is possible.
Step one: Slow down.
Identify opportunities, each day, to decelerate. Take a few deep breaths in between emails, calls and meetings. With a less frantic, more measured tempo, we can still tackle our to-do lists. We just do so with room to breathe.
Step two: Enjoy.
Dive into simple pleasures. For the hell of it, treat yourself to an ice cream cone. Take a stroll outside. Allow your mind to relax and your body to unwind. This will rejuvenate and renew, and might even improve your productivity when you return to more ambitious activity.
Step three: Give thanks.
Spend time each day reflecting not on what you hope to gain, but on the gifts you currently enjoy. If you feel comfortable doing so, offer a small prayer of thanks. Articulating gratitude for the gifts in our lives reminds us that, in the midst of struggle and striving, we already enjoy a wealth of blessings.
Step four: Donate time.
Identify individuals, from family members to friends to the family dog, who would appreciate your love and attention. Even if it feels inconvenient, donate time to these individuals. Prove to them, and to yourself, that these relationships matter.
Step five: Dream anew.
We ambition addicts dream all-or-nothing dreams. Take these goals and, perhaps ever so slightly, scale them down. Create goals that enable you to progress and achieve without requiring you to sacrifice body, heart and soul.
As dreamers, as achievers, we have been given an incredible gift. Our ambition propels us to heights others only gaze upon from afar. With great aspiration, however, comes great responsibility. If we allow the fire of our ambition to blaze beyond control, we risk hurting others. We risk harming ourselves. By learning to slow down, enjoy, give thanks, donate time and dream anew, we make space for breath and balance, patience and perspective. We continue to reach for the stars, but we do so with firm ground beneath our feet.
Benjamin Shalva is the author of Ambition Addiction (coming November 2016, Grand Harbor Press) and Spiritual Cross-Training (Grand Harbor Press) and has been published in the Washington Post, Elephant Journal and Spirituality & Health magazine. A rabbi, writer, meditation teacher and yoga instructor, Shalva leads spiritual seminars and workshops around the world. He is a member of the Jewish Book Council, and received his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and his yoga-teacher certification from the Yogic Physical Culture Academy in Los Cabos, Mexico. Shalva serves on the faculty at the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington and the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., and leads musical prayer services for Adas Israel Congregation and Bet Mishpachah in Washington, D.C. A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Shalva lives in Reston, Virginia, with his wife and children.