doing the most

Have I Run Out of 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.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been haunted by the fear that I’m running out of ambition. It’s a broad and existential threat, but the more pressing issue is that I’m having trouble self-motivating to start my next book. Procrastination isn’t uncommon, especially among writers, but historically I’ve overcome it through sheer force of guilt, anxiety, and ambition. This past year, though, something’s changed. I still feel bad about my lack of productivity, but I feel less bad than I did before. Only the ghost of guilt remains, and the animating energy it used to give me has begun to dissipate somehow.

On the one hand, this could be a good thing. I know it’s not healthy to worry about work all the time. Experts on the topic dictate that happiness must be sought outside work; that no level of professional success or fame precludes dissatisfaction. There is — or should be — so much else that can fill one’s life, outside professional ambition. But still, I worry: What if mine is gone, and doesn’t come back?

Reassuringly, Jacques Forest, a psychologist and professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, tells me that ambition is a self-sustaining resource (or it can be, at least). The question is not how much ambition I need, but what kind. “There are four different reasons why you want to work or do any activity: fun, meaning, ego, and reward,” he says. When ambition is motivated by a desire for fun or meaning, our performance and well-being increase. But when we’re primarily driven by ego and/or reward, our work suffers, and so do we. And when our work suffers, and fails to live up to the external, material expectations we set for it, it’s pretty hard to want to keep doing it. We can’t grow out of our ambition — Forest says he’s found no real link between ambition and age or career — but we can make ourselves miserable in service of it, which may lead to its demise.

We can also just get tired. Some studies on willpower have suggested that after so many minutes/hours/days spent resisting whatever temptation we’re trying to avoid (any of the seven deadly sins will do), we will grow fatigued and give in. Other studies have argued that we only run out of willpower if we buy the idea that willpower can run out. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between: Ambition can be depleted, but not permanently — unless you’re chasing the wrong thing.

Most people are motivated by all four forms of ambition, to varying degrees, Forest says. If I were to honestly examine the motivation behind every book I write, I know I’d find the desire for fame, for credibility, for recognition, for money. There is also the love of the actual writing, the feeling I get when a good sentence is finished. And above all, there is the desire to connect, to tell stories I wish I’d had access to when I was growing up. When I started writing, that dream of connection was all there was. The more success I’ve found — and it’s been pretty moderate — the harder it’s gotten to prioritize connection above all else. Money and fame haven’t exactly taken its place, but my objectives are now muddier, more complex.

According to Forest, it’s probably good that I haven’t produced a huge hit yet — for my psyche, at least. “There is very good research showing that if you attain extrinsic goals, like financial success, fame, or popularity, it’s actually like doing drugs: you need a bigger and bigger dose to get high,” he says. “Attaining those ambitious goals ruins your well-being.” Put in non-academic terms: it pays not to sell out.

But still, I’m struggling to motivate — so what do I do? According to self-determination theory, of which Forest is a proponent, all people have three innate needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When we feel ourselves losing steam, it usually means that one or more of them aren’t being met. Forest even calls those three innate needs “vitamins,” which I find helpful as a way to think about them regularly.

Ultimately, these needs aren’t surprising: We are more motivated to work when we feel basically good at our jobs, when we feel that we have a say in what we do, and when we feel connected to other people around us. Of course, accomplishing these things in a work setting is easier said than done. And in the world we inhabit, it’s impossible to ever really forget about money. Forest laughs when I ask him how we can reorient our ambitions to be less capitalistic.

“Among my young students, their dream is, by 30, to get their Tesla car in the parking lot with a nice home and three trips per year,” he says. “I make them write down goals which are needs-satisfying, [so they’ll think about] what they’ll do on a daily basis to satisfy their psychological needs.” At the risk of sounding like a mindfulness guru, much of Forest’s advice amounts to practicing self-awareness and introspection: thinking about what really matters to you, and how to obtain it.

It’s easier, for me at least, to think about my work and ambition in day-by-day metrics — in words written, in money earned. But with my more extrinsic ambition in hibernation, I’m forced to revisit the bigger, fuzzier picture: what I need, and what I’m doing about it. To be clear, I’m still not sure how to go about this. I’m just doing my best not to give myself a deadline, for once.

Have I Run Out of Ambition?