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Ambition, Self-Love And The Need To Strike A Balance

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What are your dreams?” Most of us are asked at least one of these questions pretty much as soon as we are able to talk.

Of course, at the age of five perhaps the answers to these questions are slightly less to do with genuine aspirations (I believe my first response reflected my desire to become Leonardo, the Ninja Turtle). Yet we’re still expected to be thinking vaguely about what the future holds for us when we’re barely able to zip up our jackets independently; even as doddering little pre-schoolers, we begin to develop ambition. From then on, our childhood, and indeed our lives, are essentially centred around our ambition to achieve the aims to which we give the most importance.

I personally think that ambition is a fantastic personality trait to have. It’s such a wonderful thing when you see someone so passionate and ambitious about a particular thing, that you watch them so willingly dedicate themselves to achieving that goal. Ambition shapes both our lives, and our personalities; it’s like the light at the end of the tunnel, or the little sparkle in a person’s eye that helps us lift ourselves out of bed, even on the most horrendous of days. It gets us thinking to ourselves, it’ll all be worth it eventually. Quite touching, isn’t it?

Only there is an issue with this sentiment, highlighted particularly in the word ‘eventually’. I ask whoever is reading this to think, has there been a time in the last several years when there hasn’t been, at least in the back of your mind, a nagging feeling for you to achieve your next ambition. Me either. I opened my exam results envelope at the age of sixteen and had about twenty-four hours of having no cares in the world. Only when I woke up the next morning I was faced with an email from my Sixth Form, listing the textbooks I required for the next year and emphasising how the exams we just sat – which at the time were the most important exams in the world – were obsolete compared to those I faced over the next two years. Brilliant.

Then there was the dream of attending university, an ambition which made me work my fingers to the bone over my Sixth Form years. Now, amazingly, I’m here at Durham University, a second-year student, having entirely fulfilled the academic ambitions which my seventeen-year-old self was utterly consumed with. Except now there’s more exams, and job applications, and new ambitions which come with adulthood. Yay. Sometimes, and I know that I’m not unique here, I think it would be lovely if we could just hit pause for a little while. So we can take a moment to really appreciate just what we’ve accomplished, without our achievement being stomped out by that ambitious little voice in all of our brains which will always want more.

The fact is however that some of our ambitions, no matter how important they are to us, are simply unachievable. This is where ambition can become really destructive on our mental health; whilst the road towards achieving our goals may be tough, I believe it is infinitely harder to abandon an ambition and admit defeat, particularly if you have already invested so much time and hard work towards it. Ambition can sometimes have a blinding effect on a person, making them oblivious to the detriment they are causing to themselves by being so wrapped up in determination to achieve a goal.

I learned this first hand at a young age. Blinded by my ambition to look a certain way, at the same time as achieving top marks in my exams and pursue numerous extra-curricular activities, I ignored all of the signs that my body was giving me, screaming at me to stop what I was doing. Ultimately, my body and mind shut down, and I wound up being forced to accept defeat on many of my ambitions whilst I underwent two years of treatment for a serious eating disorder – the product of an unhealthy level of ambition and blatant refusal to accept that I just physically couldn’t achieve everything I set out to do all at once. I needed to slow down.

This is an extreme example obviously, but more and more frequently we see young people in mental health services, battling devastating anxieties and disorders which are sadly often the consequences of an overwhelming desire to better themselves. Ambition is a wonderful thing, and can push us to achieve things which we never thought we could. But I believe that we can exhaust ourselves by setting our goals, as well as our own personal standards, way too high. Yes, of course it is healthy to set ourselves challenges and aspire to improve ourselves. However, a much better balance needs to be met between self-improvement, and self-preservation; learning to be content with who we are, here and now.

If I have learned anything from my experiences, it is that no ambition, no matter how inspirational or desirable, is worth making myself miserable, and even unwell for. Life is short, and I certainly don’t want to spend the entirety of mine consumed by a crippling desire to achieve goal after goal after goal, because ultimately, I am never going to achieve every single goal that my heart desires. Sometimes we need to realise that who we are in this moment is good enough. The only target which I believe is truly worth dedicating my life to is reaching a level of emotional self-awareness, by learning to accept and love myself for who I really am, regardless of how many goals in life I may never achieve. 

Life is tough, even for the luckiest of us, and there will be times where we feel as though we have failed, and struggle to pick ourselves up again. But everybody fails at some point in their life, and that’s okay! We all just need to realise that success and failure are not mutually exclusive. Every time we fail, we learn something new about ourselves, and this is a really positive thing. If we can learn to accept ourselves for these failures, it will be so much easier to pick ourselves back up and try again, and that, I believe, is ambition in its truest form.




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