What’s the Difference Between Anxiety and Ambition?

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Source Imagery: New York Public Library

Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.

All I want in life is for someone to tell me when I’ve done enough. Crucially, this is not the same thing as being told what to do, which I don’t want at all. As someone who wants to write as many books and stories as possible in my time here on Earth, and as someone who is also pretty anxious — about my mortality, my work ethic, my productivity, my creative output — it can be hard for me to tell when my work is motivated by drive, or fear. Or is it both? Is there a difference between the two?

Here’s an example: My routine, when I’m working on a book, is to write 500 words a day, every weekday (and weekends if possible). I think this is a practical, good habit to have — it’s manageable, and can usually be done in under an hour, leaving me plenty of time to do other things I need and want to do that day. Historically, when I’ve set this goal for myself, I’ve been really good at sticking to it. Too good, perhaps. So good that recently, when I missed a few days in a row, I felt sick over it. I’m supposed to be working on my next book, and though there is no official deadline in place, my ambition dictates that I start now, and not stop until it’s done. Or is that my anxiety?

Sheri L. Johnson is a professor of psychology at the University of California– Berkeley who has studied the intersection between ambition and mental illness, and says it’s common for one to exacerbate the other. “Setting high expectations for yourself is an important predictor of success … but it’s a real double-edged sword,” she says. When one’s goals are too high, the risk of failure increases, as does the risk of giving up too much in service of meeting that singular high goal. The question, then, is: How high is too high?

Johnson divides ambition into two camps: intrinsic and extrinsic. The former group might include personal, interior, value-oriented goals like being a better partner, or finding meaning in one’s work, or believing in oneself. Extrinsic goals, meanwhile, have more to do with tangible, material results. “Extrinsic goals are about being recognized by other people: being visible, being noticed, being admired,” says Johnson. “They’re much more likely to deal with fame, and wealth, and power.”

It’s not that intrinsic goals are inherently good and extrinsic ones bad: Johnson says most people will have some of both. With extrinsic goals, though, one needs to be more cautious of the potential fallout in both achieving and failing to meet them. “People who set extrinsic goals tend to be more unhappy and dissatisfied over time,” she says. “And people who are more self-critical about not making the goal are the ones that are more likely to feel depressed or anxious as setbacks happen.” Even when high goals are met, it’s hard for many people to sustain that satisfaction — particularly if the goal is about external validation rather than internal.

Ever since reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I have reminded myself of Lamott’s direction to draw enjoyment from the writing itself — not the book deal, or publication day, or counting sales (a generally depressing exercise), but everything that comes before it, when the book is only mine. This isn’t always easy to do, especially if you’re partially reliant on book advances to earn a living. But Johnson confirms that this part — the work — is the most reliably rewarding. “Our reward system in our brain, that dopamine kicks in when we’re in pursuit of a goal or a reward,” she says. “People think the most satisfying time in life is after you’ve made that goal, but the truth is you also get an energy boost after going after the goal, and being absorbed by it.”

Still, I sometimes have trouble distinguishing between enjoying the work and feeling obligated to it. Here, John Kammeyer-Mueller, a professor of industrial relations at Carlson Business School at the University of Minnesota, draws a distinction between ambition and passion. The two might overlap, but if you’re finding yourself camped entirely in the ambition part of the graph, he says, it might be time to take a step back. “Whenever someone feels really engaged in a project or a goal, it’s crucial to critically assess what that engagement feels like, and pull back if the positive aspects of the engagement are being overloaded by the negative aspects,” he says. Like long-distance runners who learn endless running does not, in fact, result in optimal progress, says Kammeyer-Mueller, people with ambitious goals need to remember to pace themselves, and take breaks.

Even then it gets tricky, I think, because if you consider your rest and relaxation as duties done in service of your ambition, do they really count as rest and relaxation? If you take a day off and feel guilty about it, even as you know days off are a good and necessary thing, do you get the full benefits of that day off? (How does one think of things not solely in terms of the potential benefits?) I still don’t really know, which is how I know that anxiety, at least for me, remains inextricable from my ambition. I thank it for the work it helps me get done, and I hate it, too. I’d still welcome a goals arbiter, if anyone knows where to find one.

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What’s the Difference Between Anxiety and Ambition?